Assam and the rest of northeast India is on the boil over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, but it is in West Bengal that the proposed legislation will play a critical part if the BJP-led central government goes ahead with a nation-wide National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify illegal immigrants.
With West Bengal going to polls in 2021, the BJP fielded as many as five MPs from the state to speak on the Bill in the Lok Sabha Monday — state chief Dilip Ghosh, Mahila Morcha chief Locket Chatterjee, Darjeeling MP Raju Bishta, Shantanu Thakur whose Matua community moved from Bangladesh fearing religious persecution, and Soumitra Khan who switched from Trinamool before the Lok Sabha polls. It was the most number of MPs who spoke from any state for the party. In contrast, it fielded just three MPs from Assam.
In West Bengal, the bone of contention among political rivals for years has been the influx of nearly 1 crore people in 1971 from then East Pakistan — few returned. Earlier, the Congress and Trinamool accused the erstwhile Left Front government of facilitating their settlement for votes. The tables have turned now, with the BJP levelling a similar charge at the Trinamool.
On Monday, introducing the CAB in the Lok Sabha, Union Home Minister Amit Shah sought to allay concerns and told MPs from the state that “many people who are watching this debate are in the hope that you will support their citizenship.”
Incidentally, on October 1, Shah chose Kolkata’s Netaji Indoor Stadium to first highlight that the CAB protected non-Muslims left out of the NRC. This was primarily to assuage fears within his party’s Bengal unit triggered by reports from Assam that the NRC ended up leaving out more Hindus than Muslims.
In the Lok Sabha, Shah emphasised that the CAB protected even those who got jobs after coming to India as refugees. “This message should reach those refugees in Bengal and the northeast loud and clear that the date when you came to India is the date from which you will be granted citizenship,” he said.
Trinamool Rajya Sabha chief whip Sukhendu Sekhar Roy told The Indian Express that the influx from East Pakistan had been an issue for long. “Here’s the problem: Bangladesh happened on linguistic grounds. These Bengali-speaking people came here not due to religious persecution but for fear of linguistic persecution in the hands of Urdu speakers there,” he said.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sounded the bugle early, declaring that she would not allow CAB to be implemented in the state. At the heart of the citizenship debate is her party’s stance that NRC cannot be de-hyphenated from CAB because the latter aims to paper over glitches arising out of NRC.
In May, the BJP won an unprecedented 18 of 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state, promising to crack down on illegal infiltrators — an euphemism for Muslims from across the border, which has traditionally been a Trinamool votebank.
But in November, when the BJP lost all three Assembly bypolls, including in seats never won by Trinamool, both the parties attributed the outcome to the nation-wide NRC proposed by Shah.
Apart from states in the northeast, it was only in West Bengal that the NRC resonated the most during the Lok Sabha elections. In Raiganj, Shah described infiltrators as “termites”. In Malda, he promised to “protect Bengal and the entire nation from the infiltrators”.
And, at the Netaji Indoor Stadium, he said: “Mamata Banerjee is saying that lakhs of Hindu refugees will be thrown out of the country. I have come here to assure all my refugee brothers… I want to assure all Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees that you will not be forced to leave India. Before NRC, we will bring the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which will ensure these people get Indian citizenship. They will enjoy all the rights of an Indian citizen.”
On Monday, replying to the debate in the Lok Sabha, Shah was emphatic that a nation-wide NRC was in the anvil. Barely a year ago, on December 18, 2018, his own Ministry — then under Rajnath Singh — had told the Lok Sabha: “At present, there is no proposal to extend the National register of Citizens to states other than Assam.”
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