As Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi meet in New Delhi on October 5 for their second inter-face in about a week, the issue of National Register of Citizens is, by most accounts, expected to figure in their discussions. Hasina had flagged the issue during her previous meeting with Modi in New York on September 27 on the margin of the UN General Assembly session where the Indian PM, according to Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, assured his Bangladeshi counterpart that Dhaka has nothing to be worried about in case of the NRC. Curiously, the read-out issued by the Indian External Affairs Ministry on September 27 does not mention the NRC nor Modi’s assurance. Going by Momen’s briefing to the media, the assurance from Modi should assuage concerns in Bangladesh over the NRC because it has come from the highest quarter of India.
The epicentre of the National Register of Citizens may have been Assam, but its after-shocks are being felt in West Bengal. The slugfest between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress has given rise to anxiety and apprehensions in West Bengal and a scramble among the people to acquire documents that would help prove their Indian citizenship. Hundreds of people are queuing up before government and municipal offices across West Bengal, including Kolkata, to collect their birth certificates and property documents to be in readiness if National Register of Citizens is implemented in the state despite assurances by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that it would not be allowed as long as she is in power.
The omission of a large number of Bangla-speaking Hindus and Muslims from the final NRC list in BJP-ruled Assam seems to have set off panic among the people in West Bengal. According to Mamata Banerjee, six people have died in the state so far due to tension over procuring necessary documents to prove their citizenship. Indian media reports have it that people committed suicide after allegedly failing to procure old documents or after falling ill while standing in queues at different government offices to get their documents. Mamata has repeatedly appealed to the people not to panic at all and said there will be no NRC in Bengal, and the West Bengal government has put out ads featuring her on TV channels with the same message. But her appeals do not seem to be having the desired effect.
What appears to have contributed to the anxiety over NRC in West Bengal are: i) the Election Commission’s drive to verify voters list (fresh legislative assembly elections are due in West Bengal in 2021); and ii) the state government’s issuing and updating digital ration cards to those who do not draw subsidised food grains from fair price shops to use them as identity proof. These two factors have combined to set off a perception that they are linked to the proposed NRC in West Bengal. On the other hand, the BJP Bengal leadership has blamed Mamata and her party Trinamool Congress of creating panic over NRC in the state to instil fear among the Hindus. At the same time, BJP national General Secretary Kailash Vijaybharigya insisted that the NRC would happen in Bengal.
The exclusion of Hindus in Assam NRC has given rise to fear among a section of Hindus in Bengal. It is this anxiety that Mamata is trying to tap into, in order to win back a sizable slice of Hindu voters who had backed the BJP in this year’s national polls leading to a remarkable saffron surge in the state. There appears to be two key aspects of Mamata’s strategy for pushing back hard on the issue of NRC: one, it could trigger a bigger consolidation among 30 percent of Muslim voters in Bengal, the highest in India, for her. And second, it has the potential to cause a split among Hindu electorate in the light of the Assam experience. There seems to be recognition in the BJP that Mamata using the Assam NRC in Bengal could queer the pitch for its Hindutva plank. Trinamool Congress Secretary General Partha Chatterjee has asked the BJP to explain the exclusion of Hindus from the NRC in Assam before projecting itself as the saviour of Hindus.
Aware of this, the Sangh Parivar outfits—the BJP, the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—have mounted a coordinated offensive to counter her. Taking a lesson from Assam, the saffron outfits are now telling the people in Bengal that the NRC in the state will be preceded by parliamentary passage of the Citizen Amendment Bill (CAB) that seeks to give citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains and Sikhs and some others who migrated to India from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Trinamool Congress’s increasingly sharp attack on the BJP over the NRC issue is also forcing the saffron party to adopt a more and more stridently polarised stance by arguing that Hindus excluded from the NRC would be given the protective cover of the CAB. The BJP is conscious that if Mamata’s campaign on the NRC whips up a perception and if Hindus are disenchanted with the exercise, it may lose the ground gained during the Lok Sabha polls campaign, when the saffron party’s charge against Mamata government of minority appeasement had gained traction, and cloud its prospects of defeating the Trinamool Congress in the next assembly polls.
Two important points that often tend to get drowned in the war of words over the NRC are: i) the agitation in Assam—and for that matter in the entire north east—against “foreigners” since 1980s till today is religion-neutral but; ii) the CAB in the context of the NRC is religion-specific. The question is: how do you reconcile the two?
Four days after the Hasina-Modi meeting in New York, the NRC issue once again was in media spotlight when the Indian PM’s close aide Amit Shah, the Home Minister, spoke on it at a seminar in Kolkata. The only new point emanating from Shah’s speech at the seminar was that the CAB will precede extending NRC across the country. Modi’s assurance to Hasina in New York notwithstanding, it has been suggested by some in India that Bangladesh and India can look at arriving at an agreement to tread carefully on a sensitive issue, including a joint verification procedure to identify the undocumented nationals so that the present status of bilateral ties remains insulated from possible turbulence.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.