The standoff over a controversial list of Indian citizens in Assam is escalating into a full-blown political crisis by the day and has become a national issue. The key players in the faceoff—the Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress and Trinamool Congress—have toughened their stands and both Houses of parliament have witnessed uproar each day ever since the publication of the National Register of Citizens that left out over four million people, setting out the battle lines.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee scaled up the rhetoric on the NRC issue in Assam by warning a civil war and bloodbath. The BJP responded by upping the ante with party president Amit Shah linking the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh to national security. Shah's senior colleague Arun Jaitley ratcheted up the attack on the Congress and the Trinamool Congress by accusing them of compromising the sovereignty of India on the NRC issue. Jaitley further sought to corner the Congress saying in his blog that Congress, despite being a mainstream party, has increasingly started taking “fringe” positions in contrast to stands taken by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Mamata also sought to give an external dimension to the subject when she said that it has the potential to hit ties with friendly neighbour Bangladesh.
The political temperature went up further due to the high drama over how a delegation of Trinamool Congress leaders and lawmakers was not allowed by Assam police to enter Silchar town, an area dominated by Bangla-speaking Hindus from Bangladesh. The heat is expected to soar when Amit Shah addresses a public meeting in Kolkata on August 11. There are indications from the BJP that the party will take the battle over the NRC issue to Mamata-ruled state. Shah had dared the Mamata government to arrest him if the Kolkata police did not allow the meeting on August 11. However, the police did give the permission, averting what could have been another showdown.
The Congress party called a meeting of its highest decision-making forum—the Congress Working Committee—to discuss the Assam citizenship issue on August 4 and firm up its strategy to deal with it both in and outside the parliament.
What tended to get drowned in the heat of the political rhetoric over the citizenship issue were efforts by Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal to bring down fears among those excluded from the list by reiterating that they would get full opportunity to seek redress. The Supreme Court-appointed coordinator of the NRC, Prateek Hajela, also chipped in by saying that it would be premature to term those excluded from the draft NRC as "infiltrators" and that such a divisive issue could get a finality only from the judiciary which is a long haul.
Political firestorm notwithstanding, the BJP, the Congress and the Trinamool Congress face challenges; they need to go through some introspection as they grapple with the issue. There are already rumblings in Assam units of the Congress and the Trinamool Congress whose state chief and two other leaders have quit protesting the party's stand on the NRC.
The BJP, which has accused the Congress of playing vote-bank politics, needs to strike a balance in its opposition to illegal migrants without being seen as against migrant Hindus. It has sought to draw a distinction between religious minority Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan and illegal migrants propelled by economic factors. A senior BJP leader said the party wants the return of the names of Hindus gone missing from the NRC. That is easier said than done, as such a development is frowned upon by its ally Asom Gana Parishad in Assam. The BJP is apprehensive that the exclusion of Hindus from the NRC might have an adverse impact in West Bengal, where the party is eyeing larger electoral footprints, and will give its rivals a handle to attack it by claiming that the saffron party cares little for Hindus.
The Congress party, which has charged the BJP with indulging in communal politics, is of the view that it faces the task of countering the BJP's campaign that the NRC, perceived to be directed at Muslim migrants, was a baby of the Congress and that one of the signatories to the 1985 Assam Accord stipulating the NRC was the Congress government at the Centre. It remains to be seen how effectively the Congress can play up at the national level that the final draft list of citizens has left out both Hindus and Muslims who have been the traditional support base of the party. But the party also has an Assam-specific worry. It had ruled the state for 15 years at a stretch before being voted out of power by the BJP in 2016 elections. The Assam unit of the Congress wants the party's national leadership not to send any signal that it is against the NRC, not only because it was initiated by a Congress government in the state and the Centre in 2005 but also because it runs the risk of antagonising the Ahom voters.
The Trinamool Congress is also faced with the arduous task of explaining its own U-turn on the NRC issue. In 2005, when the party was in the opposition in West Bengal and pitted against the then ruling Left Front, it used to cry hoarse over the presence of “infiltrators” in the state's voters' list. Most of the Muslim votes in West Bengal used to go in favour of the Left as long as it was in power but that scenario has changed since the May 2011 assembly elections which brought Trinamool Congress to power in the state.
It is unfortunate that the political fight over the citizenship has contributed to sharpening of the religious, ethnic and linguistic divides in Assam even as the NRC's objective was to address them.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent to The Daily Star.