New Delhi: BJP president Amit Shah’s vow to bring a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in West Bengal has left party members in the state, currently led by the Trinamool Congress, worried.
The BJP registered considerable gains in West Bengal in the 2016 assembly elections and this year’s Lok Sabha polls, and now has its sights set on unseating two-term Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee from the state in 2021.
But the Assam experience, where the NRC left out several Hindus, has local party leaders apprehensive that Shah’s strident pitch for a similar drive in Bengal may backfire, and push both Hindus and Muslims towards the Trinamool Congress.
A BJP MP from West Bengal told ThePrint that this overdose of NRC in their political campaign might hamper the BJP’s chances in the coming election.
“Law and order, political violence, unemployment in Bengal are larger issues and we should not overdo our campaign,” the MP said.
“It will polarise the Matua community and Bengali Muslims, who have an impact on more than 150 assembly constituencies.”
The Matuas are an important Scheduled Caste community that comprises natives of the erstwhile East Bengal who moved to India after Partition as well as the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh.
Of the 295 assembly seats in Bengal, 87 are minority-dominated and around 40 are said to boast of a Matua majority. Only 35 constituencies are such where the minority population is below 15 per cent.
‘Bengal is not Bihar, UP’
BJP MP for Jhargram Kunar Hembram said the NRC may get the party a good result from the Jungle Mahal area, but will set it back in the assembly segments under Diamond Harbour, Jadavpur and Murshidabad Lok Sabha constituencies.
“West Bengal is not like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, here you can’t come and implement the NRC,” added BJP MP for Bishnupur Saumitra Khan.
“We have to first assure Hindu Bengalis that they don’t have reason to fear — no Hindu will be targeted, unlike Assam,” he said. “For this, we first have to pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill.”
The bill is a proposed Modi government legislation that seeks to grant citizenship to all religious minorities that have illegally immigrated from India’s Muslim-dominated neighbours Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Shah had said at his rally Tuesday that the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre will bring the Citizenship Amendment Bill before it introduces the NRC in Bengal, a suggestion that the exercise will only aim to identify Muslim illegal immigrants.
Shah’s statement was meant to assuage the concerns of Bengali Hindus, as, over the last two weeks, Trinamool Congress leaders have pushed the BJP leadership on the backfoot by highlighting discrepancies in the Assam NRC.
“Mamatadi is saying the NRC will make lakhs of Hindu settlers leave Bengal. There cannot be bigger lies than this. I want to assure all Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christian settlers, especially Hindus, they will not be forced to leave,” Shah said. “Before the NRC, the government will bring the Citizenship Amendment Bill.”
According to sources in the BJP, it was after the local party unit raised concerns about the NRC with Shah that the home minister dropped in. His visit Tuesday was his first to West Bengal since he assumed charge as home minister.
‘Mamata spreading fear’
In the recent Lok Sabha elections, the BJP got a lead in 126 assembly segments. The Trinamool Congress had won 211 assembly constituencies in 2016, while the BJP wrested three of 291.
The BJP’s rhetoric about an NRC for West Bengal, first raised earlier this year, has stoked fear in local residents, with reports suggesting that as many as 11 people may have killed themselves over worries about the exercise.
Long queues have been reported from the border districts of Bengal with people flocking to get their documents in order.
“Mamata is spreading fear among both Hindus and Muslim to consolidate her position,” said Khan. “Last week, Mamata took out a procession to send out the message that she will not implement the NRC in Bengal at any cost.”
To quell the prevailing concerns, Shah has instructed party workers to visit every Hindu immigrant and tell them the “truth about the NRC”.
A senior party leader overseeing Bengal said they would visit voters and highlight that one should not mix the NRC in Assam with the Centre’s plans for the rest of India.
“The process conducted in Assam was based on the Assam Accord (which lays out that all illegal immigrants who entered the state after March 1971 will be identified as foreigners and deported), while in other parts of India, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis who came here from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh before 31 December 2014 will be first granted citizenship under the CItizenship Amendment Bill and only then will NRC be implemented,” the leader added. “We have not communicated (with voters) properly on this issue and we need to be more vocal to allay their fears.”