New Delhi: From being non-existent three decades ago, the BJP in 2016 scripted its biggest victory in Assam. Before the assembly elections, the ruling party had carefully co-opted the Assam movement, an anti-infiltration agitation, and positioned Sarbananda Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate.
Sonowal, considered a jatiya nayak (hero of the race), rode on the promise that the BJP, unlike the Congress, would throw ‘foreigners’ out of the state. The election campaign that year was all about outsiders and history — Sonowal had compared the polls to the Battle of Saraighat, the 17th century face-off in which invading Mughals were defeated by the Ahoms, steered by their commander Lachit Borphukan.
But three years and six months later, the BJP was left disappointed when the final National Register of Citizens (NRC), a ledger which aims to detect and deport ‘illegal immigrants’ from Assam, was published in August 2019. Just over 19 lakh people were identified by the exercise as ‘foreigners’ — less than 50 per cent of the BJP’s stated number of 40 lakh.
Now, Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has demanded a new NRC. He said Wednesday the present NRC should be scrapped and a fresh exercise conducted in the state. The same day, Home Minister Amit Shah told the Rajya Sabha that NRC would be implemented across the country, with a repetition in Assam.
So, why the BJP, which had enthusiastically pushed for updation and publication of the NRC, is unhappy with its final result.
A tripartite agreement and vote bank
Illegal infiltration has been a burning issue in Assam since Independence.
In 1979, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) launched the Assam Movement, demanding identification and deportation of illegal migrants from the state.
The six-year-long agitation later culminated into the Assam Accord — a tripartite agreement, signed on 15 August 1985, between the central government, the state government and the AASU — which set the cut-off date of 24 March 1971 to grant citizenship to people who had come from Bangladesh after the war of independence there.
But neither the Asom Gana Parishad, the regional party, nor successive Congress governments made any attempt to implement the Accord as it would have “impacted” their Muslim vote bank.
NRC exercise led by Supreme Court
Acting on a petition filed by NGO Assam Public Works, which pleaded that names of those migrants who have not been documented should be removed from the voters’ list, the Supreme Court had in 2013 directed that the process of NRC updation should start. The top court set a deadline for 31 December 2015 to publish the first draft.
But the actual process began only in February 2015 and since then it has been monitored by the SC.
The BJP came to power the next year and the first draft was published on 31 December 2017. By 30 July 2018, the second NRC draft was released in which over 40 lakh were excluded.
Reiterating the large exclusion, the party also made a clear distinction between the Bengali-speaking Muslims as “infiltrators” and the Hindu immigrants as “refugees” who are deserving of citizenship.
However, the final list, released on 31 August, rejected only 19.07 lakh people as illegal infiltrators. It also excluded many Hindus, several of them said to be Bengalis who are considered the BJP’s voter-base.
No wonder then that Sarma had asked a gathering of BJP workers, a month after the list’s publication, if “2-3 lakh” Hindus seeking shelter in India due to persecution should be considered enemies. “Bengalis Hindus are concerned and sad about their future,” he said.
The Union home ministry likewise said non-inclusion of a person’s name in the final list didn’t by itself amount to her or him being declared a foreigner.
Final list a blow to BJP’s Hindutva leanings
As much it had to do with the BJP losing its Bengali Hindu voter base, the party’s rejection of the final list is also seen as a reiteration of its Hindutva leanings. Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot explained how the ruling party had adjusted its Hindu nationalist discourse to a local variant in Assam.
BJP’s foray into Assam began by promoting Sankardev, the 15th-16th century Hindu saint and scholar of Assam who had settled down in the Ahom kingdom in 1516-1517. While campaigning for the assembly elections in 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made sure he attended the 85th conference of the Srimanta Sankaradeva Sangha at Sibsagar, the erstwhile capital of the Ahom Kingdom, writes Jaffrelot.
The party also associated itself with the Assamese Hindu by claiming that Sankardev’s legacy was under attack by “illegal immigrants”, the author explained.
This is also the discourse that is being propagated by the RSS, BJP’s ideological mentor, in Assam. A member of an RSS affiliate in Assam has been quoted as saying: “Illegal migrants are using Assam as a transit point to get citizenship papers and move on to other states.”
Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, a journalist and author of Assam, The Accord, The Discord, believed that while the fight for an NRC is based on people’s linguistic identity, the BJP is trying to make it a communal narrative.
With a large number of Bengali Hindus thought to have been left out of the final list, the ruling party has now called for a repetition of the exercise, one that might exclude fewer Hindus and include more Muslim immigrants.