Kolkata: As it pushes ahead with the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has decided to tone down its pitch for a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in West Bengal.
The bill, which seeks to give citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from India’s Muslim-majority neighbours Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and NRC, meant to expel illegal immigrants, are both seen as complementary initiatives of the BJP that seek to target one community.
However, two reasons have convinced the BJP that an aggressive push for NRC in West Bengal may backfire, ThePrint has learnt.
For one, the ruling Trinamool Congress, led by Mamata Banerjee, has succeeded in making the exclusion of Hindus from the Assam NRC a talking point, thus fuelling fears within the larger immigrant and refugee community.
Secondly, sources in the BJP said, the party’s local leadership, including district- and block-level leaders, are yet to understand the difference between the citizenship bill and the NRC, which is making the fear worse.
Since party leaders themselves have not understood it, the sources added, the right message has not reached the public at the grassroots level.
“The issues are complicated and it is about someone’s existence in the country,” said a senior leader of the BJP.
“Some of our leaders are not aware of the difference between the NRC and the citizenship bill. Some do not even know the details,” the leader added.
“They keep saying things that intimidate people more. Some Hindu Bengalis are feeling threatened as many of them do not have the documents [to establish the length of their residence]. We are failing to take the idea to grassroots,” the leader said. “So, we chose to stop using the word NRC as it creates panic.”
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha Monday and is slated for presentation in the Rajya Sabha Wednesday.
It has emerged as one of the most controversial pieces of legislation and is seen by many as counterintuitive to India’s secular credentials.
The Muslim immigrants who have been living in the state for decades are expected to be on shaky ground after the bill’s implementation. Meanwhile, a large number of non-Muslim immigrants are said to be looking forward to the bill, hoping their long-pending demand for citizenship will be honoured.
With such a clear divide, the bill has the potential to polarise the electorate ahead of the 2021 assembly elections in Bengal.
The BJP, which has been making giant inroads in West Bengal, sees the bill as the only way to counter Muslim consolidation in the state.
As Muslims comprise 30 per cent of Bengal’s total population, they form a solid voter bloc, which is known to back Banerjee.
The BJP is hoping to ride the bill to identify Muslim immigrants, and make a further dent in Banerjee’s votebank by grasping the non-Muslim refugee votes.
The non-Muslim refugees, including Hindus, Gorkhas and Buddhists, are estimated to comprise 15-20 per cent of the population.
Needless to say, the issue is sensitive in Bengal as the state borders Bangladesh and has a mixed population of Hindu and non-Hindu immigrants. The non-Hindu immigrants are mostly Muslims, settled in the seven districts bordering Bangladesh.
A senior BJP leader said the party was confident of consolidating its non-Muslim refugee voter support base in Bengal with the bill.
“The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill will get us unflinching support of lakhs of non-Muslim immigrant votes. They have been waiting to become citizens of this country for ages,” he said.
“This is the first time when they can see that happening in real life. We are sure of getting these chunk of votes. This will be a win-win situation for us.”
NRC script goes wrong for BJP
The NRC, meanwhile, has gained negative connotations with the way it turned out in Assam. Where the exercise was expected to identify illegal Muslim immigrants in Assam, another state that borders Bangladesh, it reportedly left out scores of Hindus, queering the pitch for the BJP.
The party is deeply unhappy with the exercise and has been calling for a fresh pan-India NRC.
Banerjee attributed her three bypoll wins last month to the fear triggered by the BJP’s NRC push, and political analyst professor Biswanath Chakraborty also told ThePrint that the term “NRC” had been “thoroughly rejected” by people.
In fact, following the Assam NRC, some pro-Hindutva groups also turned against the BJP.
“There was not much appreciation or acknowledgement when we were saying from May 2018 that Assam NRC was arbitrary and the outcome of a chauvinist mentality,” said Prasun Moitra, a Hindutva proponent and political observer.
With the exclusion of Hindus seemingly handing a weapon to opponents like Banerjee, the BJP is pinning its hopes on the citizenship bill.
However, while the BJP says the citizenship amendment bill will make NRC a “non-issue”, Banerjee sees them as two sides of the same coin.
She has time and again asserted that the NRC will not be implemented in West Bengal while also labelling the citizenship bill a divisive legislation.
In this, she is supported by rivals Congress and the CPM, both of whom have opposed implementing a bill that has religion as a criterion for citizenship.
“There will be no NRC in Bengal” has been her constant refrain since the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and a dogged Banerjee has been using the NRC as her single-point agenda to rally support for her party and loosen the BJP’s foothold in the state.
“Pehle toh roti do, kapda do (First provide food and clothes). Why are you (BJP) only working on dividing people?” Banerjee asked at a rally in Kharagpur Monday before alluding to her government’s decision to hand out new ration cards, which the chief minister has said are new identity cards.
In the Lok Sabha, her nephew and Trinamool MP Abhishek Banerjee voiced the party’s stance.
“Swami Vivekananda would be shell-shocked if he was here seeing this bill as it is against his idea of India,” he said. “BJP’s idea of India is divisive. It will be disastrous if we ignore words of Mahatma Gandhi and not heed advice of Sardar Patel.”
Confidence of its citizenship push, the BJP is nevertheless wary of what it describes as the ruling party’s “lies” about the bill.
“We know that the ruling party spreads lies about the NRC and the citizenship amendment bill but we will fulfil our promise,” the party’s national general secretary and West Bengal in-charge Kailash Vijayvargiya told ThePrint.
“There will be no going back on the bill. Once it is through, the NRC becomes irrelevant. Only the infiltrators will be scared about the NRC then,” he added.
“We need to work hard to counter such a misleading campaign by the Trinamool,” said one of the BJP leaders quoted above. “This is the reason we spoke of the citizenship bill first… they will have nothing to fear.”