In pursuit of just seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi, BJP chief Amit Shah has spoken of crores of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, who are apparently eating at the vitals of the nation, and must be turfed out by the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is in progress in Assam. It is a staggering figure, since the NRC reported only about 40 lakh with insufficient documentation, far lower than Shah’s figure. The reference to vermin follows on from Shah’s statement in August in Rajasthan, where he had promised to single out every illegal immigrant (chun chun kar). There, the imagery invoked lice, which are traditionally eliminated one by one. Now, termites have entered the picture, and they are generally destroyed en masse.
Unfortunate nations have heard such rhetoric before, from regimes which present a minority as the foe within, which must be eliminated. Politically, the challenge is to neutralise the most powerful taboo, against the taking of human life, by constructing the minority as less than human. Conveniently, vermin do not have human rights. A consensus for their elimination can be developed with an easy conscience. The literature on this process is immense. National Socialism propaganda in Germany branded Jews as Untermenschen, subhumans who were eating at the vitals of the nation. Posters in occupied Poland depicted them as typhus-bearing lice. More recently, the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, which took eight lakh lives, was triggered by an inflammatory speech by Leon Mugesera of the ruling MRND party, in which he urged the elimination of “scum” and “cockroaches”.
Such dangerous precedents should urge the president of the ruling party to temper his speech. Besides, the NRC, monitored by the Supreme Court, is scarcely over. The 40 lakh people identified are in appeal, and many of them should be able to prove their citizenship. Calling them names at this point is scarcely good politics. Besides, it could have disturbed relations with the only neighbour with whom this government has succeeded diplomatically. Fortunately, Bangladesh has declined to be ruffled, and dismissed Shah’s outburst as the statement of a party functionary, rather than a government communication. It is hoped that the ruling party will show similar maturity, even if after the event, and discourage its leadership’s appetite for such classical exercises in dehumanisation.