How did Shantanu Thakur's recent claim regarding the CAA 2019 push the BJP back to the dilemma it has been trying to evade for long?

CAA 2019: Shantanu Thakur’s “slip of the tongue” exposed the dilemma for the BJP

BJP revived the controversy around CAA 2019. Shantanu Thakur, Union Minister of State, initially claimed to enforce the law within a week but later retracted his statement calling it a "slip of the tongue". This raises questions about any underlying agenda.

Union Minister of State for Shipping Shantanu Thakur has reignited the citizenship debate once again. He is a member of the Parliament (MP) from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindutva-driven ultra-nationalist party that rules India at the federal level. He is also the president of the Matua Mahasangha, a socio-religious organisation of the Namasudras, a group of Bengali Dalits who have faced ostracism and oppression in their homeland. For four years, he has been promising them citizenship under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA 2019), a controversial law championed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Yet, with each periodic proclamation of hope, the flame of aspiration flickers, leaving behind a trail of disillusionment and dashed dreams.

In late January, Thakur made another bold claim. He said that the CAA 2019 would be implemented “within seven days”, apparently to woo his dwindling vote bank—the Matuas—in West Bengal. But his claim soon turned out to be a “slip of the tongue”, as he later admitted. He had no authority or evidence to back his statement. He was merely playing to the gallery, hoping to boost his party’s prospects in the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal, a state where the Namasudras have a significant presence and influence, and where the BJP won its record tally of 18 out of 42 seats in the 2019 general elections.

But his statement isn’t merely a “slip of the tongue”, but indicates a different, obnoxious plot hatched by the BJP to reinvigorate its Matua vote bank. The reason behind this suspicion originates from recent media reports claiming that the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) may table the Rules of the CAA 2019 during the ongoing Budget Session of the Parliament. This would help in implementing the law, or at least show that things are moving towards that direction, for the Matuas who have been waiting for decades to have their legal rights as citizens of India.

However, the truth is that the CAA 2019 is a sham. It is a law that pretends to offer citizenship to the Namasudras and other non-Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, who entered India before December 31st 2014. But it does not. It only creates more hurdles and hardships for them. It does not grant them citizenship automatically, but only if they meet certain conditions—including records of “religious persecution” in their home countries and proof of entering India before the cut-off date. 

Moreover, to avail the benefits of this Act, they must have registered themselves at India’s Foreigners Regional Registration Offices (FRROs) as victims of religious persecution in their home countries and obtain long-term visas (LTVs). Only then do they get—like the 31,313 refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan who are supposed to benefit from this law according to the Intelligence Bureau’s (IB) affidavit to the Joint Parliamentary Committee—exemption from the 2015 and 2016 amendments to India’s Foreigners Rule 1948, and the Passport (Entry into India) Rules 1950 and be considered as asylum seekers.

As millions of Namasudra refugees, who flocked to India after the country’s partition over macabre communal carnage, didn’t have valid travel documents while fleeing their homeland, and they didn’t register themselves as asylum-seekers at the FRROs, they qualify as “illegal migrants” under the draconian CAA 2003, passed by BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government in December 2003. 

Lest we forget, the rules of the CAA 2003 introduced the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC/NRC), preceded by the preparation of the National Population Register (NPR). The NRC is an exercise to disenfranchise the marginalised people, especially the Bengali Namasudras, to turn them into a cheap labour cesspool for big corporates and infrastructure projects to eventually bring down the labour cost.

The Namasudra refugees have been living in India for decades, without any legal status or protection, and can’t even leave the country. They are the most vulnerable section that can get identified as “illegal migrants” in the NPR and then disenfranchised through the NRC. They have been hoping for a dignified and secure life. But the CAA 2019 does not give them that. Ironically, it only excludes them from the law that claims to include them. 

The right to citizenship under the CAA 2019 remains reserved only for the 31,313 people, mostly Gujarati, Marwari, Punjabi and Sindhi refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan who have entered India using valid passports and visas and got LTVs. Very few Bengali refugees find their place there, although the MHA and the IB refused to divulge the numbers to the author.

The Modi government knows this very well. That is why it has not framed the rules for the implementation of the CAA 2019 for four long years. The rules are the bureaucratic guidelines that specify how the law will be applied, who will do what and for whom. The rules are usually made before or soon after a law is enacted, and they are approved by the parliament or the assembly. This was the case with the CAA of 2003. Before the Vajpayee government tabled the law as a bill, its rules were framed.

But the CAA of 2019 is different. The government has delayed framing the rules because that would have exposed the hollowness of its promise to the Namasudras and other refugees. The BJP has been using the law as bait to lure them, by creating a false sense of urgency and expectation. The BJP has been trying to win their votes, by staging a drama in the name of granting citizenship before the elections.

But the drama is not working. A section of the Namasudras, who are aware of the loopholes in the law, are not buying the BJP’s rhetoric. They are disillusioned with the party and its leaders, especially Thakur, who is one of the heirs of the Thakurbari, the ancestral home of the founders of the Matua sect. Thakur, who was earlier close to the Union Home Minister Amit Shah, had allegedly fallen out with him over the CAA issue in 2020. Sources indicate that he had even announced his exit from the party to his close circle, but Shah managed to rein him in using a ministerial berth in 2021.

Now the BJP is in a dilemma. If it does not frame the rules of the CAA before the elections, it will lose the trust and support of the Namasudras and other refugees, who may shift their allegiance to other parties, such as the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the ruling party in West Bengal, or the Congress, the main opposition party at the national level. If it does frame the rules, it will face two possible consequences. First, if the BJP tables the rules transparently then it will make the Namasudras and other refugees realise that they will not get citizenship under the law, and they will feel betrayed and angry. Second, if the rules can create legal lacunae deliberately to lure the Opposition to exploit it by challenging the rules in the Supreme Court, where the law is already facing several petitions, then the BJP can pin the blame on the Opposition and polarise the Namasudra votes by calling its opponents “anti-Hindu” and “anti-refugees”.

In the meantime, a movement for unconditional citizenship has emerged in West Bengal, highlighting the flaws of the CAAs, from 1987 to 2019. On Monday, February 5th, several refugee organisations, such as the Central United Refugee Council (UCRC), Save Constitution Forum, West Bengal Justice Forum, along with the Congress party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], held a press conference at the Calcutta Press Club. They demanded unconditional citizenship for all refugees, regardless of their religion, or origin, using December 31st, 2014, as a cut-off date. They also criticised Modi’s citizenship bait and Chief Minister Mamata Bandopadhyay’s claim that all residents of the state are Indian citizens. 

While Congress leader and former MP Pradip Bhattacharya accused both the BJP and the TMC of playing politics with the lives and rights of the refugees, the CPI(M) Central Committee member Sujan Chakraborty trained his guns at an alleged nexus between the TMC and the BJP. Chakraborty reminded that Bandopadhyay, who was a part of the Vajpayee government when the latter enacted the CAA of 2003, was a vocal critic of West Bengal’s erstwhile Left Front government and accused it of abetting “illegal infiltration”. Chakraborty alleged that Bandopadhyay and her TMC advocated for the identification and deportation of Bengali refugees by labelling them as “illegal immigrants”.

The CAA 2019 is a law that has divided the nation and the refugees. It has created confusion, fear, and resentment among the people who have been living in India for decades, hoping for a dignified and secure life. It has also exposed the hypocrisy and opportunism of the political parties, who have used the law as a tool to manipulate and mobilise the minority Muslims by spreading the rumour that the law will hasten an alleged disenfranchisement of the community, without sustainable claim. 

The opposition of the Muslims to the law was used by the BJP to present the CAA 2019 as a “pro-Hindu” law, which is a lie, as the law is against the Hindu community itself, as the majority of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan and present-day Bangladesh are Hindus. The CAA 2019 has not solved the problem of citizenship but has only complicated it further. The refugees deserve better. They deserve unconditional citizenship, but the government doesn’t have a desire to embrace them. The question is how long will the BJP be able to hide the truth from the refugees? How long will they be able to sweep the core issue under the rug?

An avid reader and a merciless political analyst. When not writing then either reading something, debating something or sipping espresso with a dash of cream. Street photographer. Tweets as @la_muckraker

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