As 40 lakh people in Assam found their names excluded from the “complete draft” of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a political firestorm erupted Monday with West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee slamming the Centre for turning “Indian citizens into refugees”. She said her government will consider providing shelter on humanitarian grounds to people who enter West Bengal from Assam.
The Congress, meanwhile, demanded that the central government urgently convene an all-party meeting to discuss the issue.
Before leaving for New Delhi where she plans to take up the NRC matter with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Banerjee told a news conference in Kolkata that she will visit Assam if the situation permits. She said a team of her party MPs will be visiting Assam to “assure” people.
She maintained that the exclusion of 40 lakh names from the NRC draft was “forceful eviction” to suit the “political interests of the ruling party at the Centre” ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
“This is very unfortunate… Indian citizens who have been living in this country for over a hundred years have turned into refugees in a matter of seconds. The central government is playing divide-and-rule, and making plans for forceful eviction. Political isolation is going on, keeping in mind the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Bengalis, including Hindus and Muslims, and Biharis have not been included in the draft list of NRC. This is a very serious issue and we are worried. We will stand by these people who have not been included in the list,” Banerjee said.
“We have got reports that people who possess government documents such as Aadhaar cards and passports have been left out of the draft list. We do not know what is the situation there, how to contact these people since Internet connection has been suspended in Assam. We have also got reports that 15 companies of CRPF have been sent to Assam. What for?… Today, they became refugees because of the central government and its policies. We have already raised the issue in Parliament today and I will personally meet Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and raise this issue,” she said.
“I will send a team of my party MPs to Assam to assure them we are with them. If the situation permits, then I am going to visit the state. These people are very much Indian, and I am fighting for all,” she said.
To a query if her government will provide shelter to anyone who flees Assam, Banerjee said: “If the problem comes to us, we cannot act like the central government and push them back. There is a United Nations resolution that one has to give refugee status to people seeking shelter. We are concerned because we share a border with Assam. These people are not Rohingya, but very much Indian. If they come here, then we have to give them shelter as per the resolution of United Nations. Why will they be evicted in the first place? This is very unfortunate.”
“Why was the central government silent on this? Why did the government not bring a Bill in Parliament to give protection to such people? We have been protesting against such a move from the beginning. To engage in election politics… they are playing with fire,” Banerjee said.
In Rajya Sabha, TMC member Derek O’Brien pressed for a discussion on the exclusions from the NRC draft, calling it a “humanitarian issue, a human rights issue”.
The Congress demanded that the central government urgently convene an all-party meeting to discuss the issue. Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma said the issue is not confined to Assam alone, but impacts states like West Bengal and Tripura.
“We have been told that indigenous people have been affected, the tea plantation labour has been affected… in large numbers. The government had given a list of 16 documents for identity purposes and any of the 16, one or the other, could establish the citizenship of the applicant or otherwise. It has been informed that the overwhelming majority of the people who have been excluded had more than one identity document,” Sharma said.
“Since the issue has inter-state dimensions, repercussions, a humanitarian crisis aspect and relations with our neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh… this is not an issue on which politics should be played. That is what we would advise and request the ruling party which is in government in that state and also in the state of Tripura. The government must call a meeting of the leaders of all political parties and inform them of the situation, the steps that it proposes to take,” he said.
The Congress said “until disposal of all matters, people should not be separated, or a family should not be separated nor people taken to any camp… (any such plan) should be kept in abeyance,” he said.
(With inputs from Santanu Chowdhury)