One of the major reasons behind Mamata Bandopadhyay’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) winning 213 out of 292 seats—highest as a single party—in the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections is the perennial fear of disenfranchisement through the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise that drove millions to vote against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A large section of Muslims, Bengali-speaking Dalit sects like Matuas, Namasudras, etc, voted against the BJP to safeguard themselves from the NRC in West Bengal. But can the TMC’s victory and the BJP’s defeat save them from the NRC in West Bengal?
The TMC’s victory and the BJP’s poll drubbing can’t prevent the NRC in West Bengal as it’s linked with citizenship, a Union subject. Only the Union government has exclusive control over the issue and any refusal by the state government to budge may pave the way to reprimanding, including a president’s rule in the state.
It’s observed that the BJP is keen to impose a president’s rule in the state using the pretext of either a “constitutional crisis” or by amplifying the bogey of “law and order” breakdown. The BJP has been doing this purposefully since the last few weeks, not merely to harass the TMC or to divert the people’s attention from Modi’s colossal failure in curbing the COVID-19 crisis as well as his nonchalant attitude towards the rising deaths, but also because the National Population Register (NPR) project is ongoing with an allocation of Rs 39.41 bn for the current financial year (FY) in the Union Budget 2021-22.
Though the government has seeded the NPR information with the Aadhaar data, there will be some hiccups in linking both at present, as per a parliamentary committee report, cited by The Economic Times. The report said: “Aadhaar database may not be made available to this office (Census) due to legal provisions in the Aadhaar Act, 2016. During the next update of NPR, Aadhaar is being collected voluntarily. The presence of Aadhaar in the NPR database will facilitate its integration with other databases”.
The Aadhaar-based verification of the NPR will still need physical verification, which will mean there will be strong resistance at different pockets. A president’s rule in West Bengal will help the BJP under Modi and his deputy Amit Shah to control any mass discontent against the Digital Census 2021 and the NPR exercises, by using brute force. Modi and Shah may terrorise the Matua, Namasudra and other Dalit sects, should they rise to resist the NPR and a president’s rule will allow New Delhi to deploy central paramilitary forces.
The NPR is the prelude to the NRC, which is provisioned by the Section 14(A) of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 (CAA 2003), which was passed by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in December 2003 and was enacted by the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in December 2004. Ironically, the TMC was part of the NDA in December 2003 and the Congress party, supported by the parliamentary left bloc was instrumental in drafting the law and enacting it.
The CAA 2003 has indiscriminately labelled millions of Indian people as “illegal migrants” who don’t have documents to show they or their ancestors lived in the present Indian territory before July 19th 1948, or they were born in India between January 26th 1950 and July 1st 1987 through birth certificates, or they have registered themselves as a citizen. Unless they can prove their citizenship, these people will be deprived of constitutional rights and rendered stateless. Also, the successors of an “illegal migrant” can’t apply for Indian citizenship ever. The NRC in West Bengal, as well as in all over India, will single out those from the NPR who qualify for citizenship vis-à-vis those who don’t.
NRC in West Bengal is a major issue as the state houses numerous Bengali-speaking refugees especially ostracised Dalits from erstwhile East Pakistan—modern Bangladesh—who migrated to India due to religious persecution and economic distress. Millions of Matuas and Namasudras are at the risk of being rendered stateless. The indigenous tribes will also face a problem as they never had documents to prove their legacy. So far, the BJP has used the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA 2019) to hoodwink these non-Muslim refugees, with a promise of citizenship.
But the CAA 2019 is a hollow law, with no scope for citizenship for anyone but registered refugees who are exempted under the 2015 and 2016 amendments to the Foreigners Rule, 1948, and the Passport (Entry into India) Rules, 1950. As per the testimony of the Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) representative to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) reviewing the bill, the total number of beneficiaries of the CAA 2019 is 31,313.
According to the MHA representative, only those Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Jain or Parsi refugees can apply for citizenship who registered themselves at their nearest Foreigners Regional Registration Offices (FRROs) as victims of religious persecution with evidence—media clips, either electronic or print, validated by India’s external security agency Research & Analytical Wing—upon their arrival to India within December 31sr 2014. Millions of Bengali-speaking non-Muslim refugees didn’t do this when they came to India. This makes them unsuitable to seek exemption from “illegal migrant” status under the CAA 2019.
To score political brownie, the BJP and its parental body Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have portrayed the NRC exercise as one to weed out Muslims. They have been peddling a theory that the NRC in West Bengal, as well as other states, will only target the Muslims and the majority Hindu community and other non-Muslims are safe as they have the CAA 2019. However, that’s not the case.
While the NRC under the CAA 2003 has no religious discrimination, the CAA 2019 is only for 31,313 refugees, which means millions of Matua, Namasudra, and other non-Muslim refugees will be rendered stateless if the NRC in West Bengal isn’t resisted. The BJP is trying hard to pulverise all resistance to the NRC that comes from the non-Muslim communities and continues to portray the anti-NRC movement as a “Muslim affair” to stoke Islamophobia and wean away the refugees.
There is no provision of religion-wise filtering in the NRC. The Assam NRC, which took place under the Supreme Court’s observation, didn’t capture the religion of applicants in the form. This means, the NRC, as provisioned by the CAA 2003, will impact everyone and disenfranchise anyone who can’t show documents to prove their legacy. This means, under the NRC, millions of refugees who came to West Bengal from Bangladesh, will become stateless slave labourers, despite having voter cards, ration cards and even biometric-based Aadhaar, as the Citizenship Rules 2003 states that only the NRC will be considered as the proof of citizenship.
Rather than exposing the hollowness of the CAA 2019 and directing the attack of the masses against the NRC provisioned by the CAA 2003, a section of the Opposition, including the TMC, the parliamentary left and the Congress party, also played in the hands of the BJP and projected the CAA 2019 as a “communal” law and the principal enemy. They peddled a narrative that the CAA 2019 will disenfranchise the Muslims and coupled it with the NRC exercise. These parties peddled the BJP’s propaganda that only the Muslims will suffer due to the NRC, which made the refugees stay aloof from the citizenship movement for a long time.
At this point, election results in the refugee-dominated constituencies show a high tide in favour of the BJP, despite the party’s obnoxious agenda of turning them into stateless people. The Hindutva polarisation by the RSS has played a key role in these places and many of the BJP voters consider themselves safe from the NRC’s purview. Though the TMC has weaned away a large section of Matua and other refugee voters from the BJP with an increase in its vote share vis-à-vis the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the saffron camp still holds sway.
In Matua-dominated Bangaon Dakshin and Bangaon Uttar constituencies, the BJP gained 47.65% votes and 47.07% votes respectively. In North 24 Paraganas’ other prominent refugee-dominated constituencies like Ashoknagar and Habra, the BJP lost to the TMC but retained 42.46% and 32.32% votes respectively. In the southern forests of Sundarban, the BJP, despite losing to the TMC, managed to get a 41.88% vote share in both Canning Pashchim and Gosaba constituencies. This pattern is prevalent in the refugee-dominated constituencies of north Bengal too. Moreover, nowhere did the BJP fail to get a double-digit vote share, which shows that the party remains an imminent threat to the state.
It’s imperative now to resist the NRC in West Bengal and the BJP’s attempt to impose president’s rule to pulverise the resistance movements that are rising against the draconian exercise. The TMC follows an opportunist stance regarding the NRC and won’t do much. The parliamentary left won’t fight either. Thus, the progressive and anti-fascist forces must play the vanguard role to resist and defeat the NRC juggernaut.