Patna: The BJP agreed to support the Bihar assembly’s resolution against the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) and to go back to UPA-era National Population Register (NPR) after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar insisted on it in a meeting with BJP president J.P. Nadda in Patna last Saturday, ThePrint has learnt.
Bihar is the first NDA-ruled state to pass a resolution against the NRC and for the 2010 form of NPR, opening a window for the Centre to make a retreat on these issues, if and when needed in future.
Deputy CM and senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi, however, saw “no contradiction” between the Centre’s stand and that of the JD(U)-BJP government in Bihar.
“There is no contradiction. The CM has supported the Citizenship Amendment Act. The Prime Minister has already denied any move on the NRC and states are entitled to make suggestions on the NPR,” Modi told ThePrint.
JD(U) sources said Nitish Kumar is disinclined to allow any divisive issues, such as the NRC and the NPR, to dominate the electoral discourse in Bihar that is slated to go to polls in October-November this year.
But it wasn’t just the concern for the Muslim vote bank that prompted Kumar-led NDA government to secure an assembly resolution against NRC, and for the implementation of the NPR in its 2010 form.
A panic over birth certificates, especially in other weaker sections of the society, the Opposition’s criticism and settling equations with alliance partner BJP were the other factors that played a role in Nitish Kumar’s decision, according to leaders in the state.
During the assembly session, Kumar pitched for a new NPR 2020 format — by doing away with the birthday and birth certificates columns. While NPR’s 2020 form has 21 proposed questions, including these two, the 2010 format had 15.
The Narendra Modi government hasn’t yet cleared a notification for the final format of the form.
Speaking in the state assembly, Kumar said, “In rural areas people still take the name of a season or incident like Munger earthquake to identify the period of their birthday. I myself will not be able to say the birth date of my parents.”
Kumar isn’t the only politician who holds little faith in birth certificates. RJD chief Lalu Prasad also doesn’t have much regard for them, as told to this reporter years ago. He had said that his actual birthday is unknown and he celebrates it on 11 June as his brother assigned the date.
Now, as the contentious NPR gets set to begin data collection from April onwards, along with the Census 2021, state governments are looking to respond to a sense of fear among not just the Muslim population — as evidenced in the countrywide protests — but also in other weaker sections of the society.
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EBCs and Dalits in ‘panic’
Since the issues around NRC and NPR came to light after the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed, Bihar has seen a rush for birth, residency and land certificates from government offices and agencies, senior leaders said.
“I have heard from my supporters in Buxar that Mukhiyas (panchayat heads) are charging Rs 5,000 per person for issuing residency and birth certificates,” said RJD leader Shivanand Tiwari, stressing that the panic was not confined to Muslim population.
“The problem prevails among the downtrodden classes also — the Dalits and EBCs (economically backward classes). There has been no tradition of keeping birth and residency certificates in rural areas,” he said.
The EBCs and Dalits form a large chunk of CM Nitish Kumar’s vote bank. In the last two years, his government has faced criticism for targeting primarily the EBCs and Dalits via two major decisions — banning illegal sand mining that brought construction to a virtual standstill, and enforcing total prohibition.
Kumar’s JD(U) also supported the CAA in the Parliament while his government issued a notification for NPR data collection. This led to a conflict in the party, paving the way for the expulsion of two senior leaders — Prashant Kishor and Pavan Verma.
“Yet Nitish Kumar knows that NPR’s 2020 format would give the opposition a stick to go after him for creating problems for the downtrodden classes,” said a JD(U) minister who didn’t wish to be named.
Parliamentary affairs minister Shrawan Kumar said, “(RJD’s) Tejashwi Yadav may claim that the resolution against NRC and doing NPR in the 2010 format in the assembly was a victory but actually Nitish Kumar has exposed the Opposition and their attempt to malign the government on the issue.”
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The Muslim factor
The talks over a new format for NPR began on 21 February when Nitish Kumar attended a meeting in Darbhanga organised by former Union minister and JD(U) leader M.A.A. Fatimi.
The meeting came as Muslim leaders in JD(U) showed uneasiness over the party’s decision to support the CAA and notify the NPR.
It was at this meeting that Kumar announced his decision to go with the 2010 NPR format. It was seen as a step towards easing off hostility towards JD(U).
However, Kumar is aware that Muslims are unlikely to vote for him in the assembly polls. Even during the Lok Dabha polls, surveys indicate that the Grand Alliance got 77 per cent of the Muslim votes while NDA got just 6 per cent of the votes.
“Nitish ji does not want to rile the Muslim population to vote aggressively against him. That is why he has resisted every effort of the BJP to communally charge the political atmosphere of the state,” said a JD(U) minister, recalling the iron hand with which the government dealt with the communal flare-up during Ram Navami in 2018.
Putting BJP in its place
Not just the Opposition and different social groups, the Nitish Kumar government is also eyeing to settle its equation with alliance partner BJP.
On Tuesday, the BJP succumbed to Kumar’s pressure as deputy CM and BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi — the man who had announced the 2020 format of NPR in the state — declared that there should be no controversy about the 2010 NPR format.
“The beauty of the whole show was BJP MLAs voted for the resolution,” said the JD(U) leader quoted above.
During his speech in the assembly, Kumar said his government has sent a letter to the Centre asking for a 2010 NPR format. It was sent by land and revenue department, which is headed by BJP’s Ram Narayan Mandal.
“The resolution was not discussed in the NDA MLAs meeting. But I suppose state governments have the right to send resolutions to the Centre,” Agriculture Minister Prem Kumar told ThePrint.
The CM’s decision to dictate the terms to BJP came even after the latter went all out to woo him in the aftermath of the Jharkhand assembly polls loss by giving the JD(U) two seats in Delhi polls.
Also read: How BJP’s Delhi defeat gives ally Nitish Kumar an upper hand in Bihar