NRC list: Sentiments running high in West Bengal

As the Modi government has very little to show on the socio-economic front, it is looking to consolidate its core Hindutva vote bank and its hold on the northeastern states

Tathagata Bhattacharya

I happened to be in Kolkata as the second draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published on July 30, with names of 4.07 million residents of Assam not finding a place in the document, fuelling fear of social unrest in the northeastern state. But that it could have far-reaching consequences for the social stability and law and order situation of the entire eastern region including West Bengal was apparent to me. While the BJP has tried to justify the exercise as an unbiased implementation of the

Supreme Court’s order to implement the Assam Accord and has even gone to the extent of campaigning for a similar exercise in West Bengal, Dilip Ghosh, the party’s state unit president, came out with an announcement that the BJP, if voted to power in the state, would carry out a similar exercise to weed out “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” from the state. But while this echoes with the BJP’s core support section, which has seen a surge following the Modi government assuming power at the Centre, the truth is that it still pales in comparison to the army of workers and supporters of Mamata Banerjee and other residents of the state.

The mercurial Bengal Chief Minister’s unbridled opposition to excluding Bengalispeaking people who have made Assam their home for decades clearly has far greater resonance on the streets of Kolkata and the rest of Bengal. While the authorities have not spelt out the linguistic or ethnic break-ups of those excluded, reports are doing rounds on social media that most are Bengali-speaking people; labourers in Assam’s tea gardens who came from all across the tribal heartland of central and eastern India; Nepalese settlers and even local tribal people. And who does not know that in today’s age, social media posts often achieve the status of gospels in no time.

And rumours of the NRC mandate being extended to other northeastern states and MP and Chhattisgarh have also played their part in fuelling Bengali chauvinistic pride. There is a clear feeling on the streets of Kolkata that Bengalis are being singled out and victimised. Reports of a Rs-46-crore detention centre being built in Goalpara in Assam are being shared on the social media as “Modi’s Auschwitz”. Never mind that Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Deb ruled out implementing NRC in Tripura. As a funny aside, BJP’s posterboy in the northeast, who has been branded as the slayer of communists after the defeat of the CPI(M) in the recent Tripura elections, himself stands to lose citizenship if the Assam NRC rules are applied in his state. His parents came from Bangladesh and Deb was born on November 25, 1971, as per official records with the Election Commission.

When forty lakh people are waking up every morning with the fear of losing their livelihoods and bearings and when linguistic chauvinism is gaining strength in both Assam and Bengal, the Supreme Court has given a prudent order to the Centre and Assam to not resort to any coercive means

The exclusion of prominent Bengalis from the NRC list in Assam are adding to the anger. Santanu Basu, a Bengali footballer from Assam who has thrice been the coach of the Assam state team for Santosh Trophy and has served in Assam Rifles for 25 years, finds himself, his wife and son excluded from the register. He has submitted his father’s matriculation certificate dating back to 1942 and the old man’s Aadhar Card as well. But still the NRC authorities do not consider him or his family members as citizens.

Incidents like these abound. Matua Hindus who have a substantial presence in Bengal and Assam claim that they have come to know through their kinship sources that a large number of them have been left out as well. They are resorting to rail rokos across the state. While the BJP is trying to project this as an anti-illegal migrant (read anti-Muslim) drive, the overwhelming feeling in Bengal is that Bengali speaking people are being singled out. Incidents like the exclusion of the names of direct family members of India’s fifth President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed and those of a retired Indian Army officer including himself are also not inspiring any confidence in the process.

Dhubri MP Badaruddin Ajmal, former Assam minister Dr Ardhendu Dey, AIUDF MLA from South Abhayapuri Ananta Kumar Malo, Dhing MLA Aminul Islam, Rupahihat MLA Nurul Huda’s names did not figure in the draft NRC. However, ULFA-I leader Paresh Baruah’s name finds its place in the list as does the name of ULFA pro-talk leader Anup Chetia. These are being extensively reported in the Bengali vernacular press and people by and large are sceptical of the process. Sample these words of my Ola cab driver on my way to the Kolkata Airport: “BJP is singling us out, Bengalis. They are going after Muslims too. Didn’t you hear they even left out the family members of a former Indian President?” The older residents of Kolkata and the state have not had any closure about the 1983 Nellie Massacre as well. More than 2000 Bengalis were killed in six hours of violence on that February morning. Till date, the Tiwari Commission report has not been made public.

Those who were killed in Nellie had either migrated or were descendants of those who migrated to Assam before Independence. They were no illegal immigrants. This is a singe that has never been redressed. But the Assam Accord was hastily signed in 1985. In Bengal, there is a feeling that not only the perpetrators were not brought to justice but rather were awarded with the Accord. The sentiments are strong and the BJP leadership in Assam as well as the Centre know very well that they are playing a risky game. And that may precisely be their plan of action for 2019. NRC and Kashmir are two pieces of the puzzle.

As the Modi government has very little to show on the socio-economic front, it is looking to consolidate its core Hindutva vote bank and its hold on the northeastern states. It possibly wants to be seen as acting against “illegal Muslim immigrants” and “Kashmiris” to tickle the jingoistic nerve in the Hindi heartland. It is not conceivable to push back 4 million people into Bangladesh without risking ramifications beyond our borders and obviously the plan is to possibly scatter them across the country.

That way, the BJP’s claims of having upheld the Assam Accord and acting against illegal immigrants would hold true while it would not invite any international repercussions. But this game is inherently fraught with risk. When forty lakh people are waking up every morning with the fear of losing their livelihoods and bearings and when linguistic chauvinism is gaining strength in both Assam and Bengal, the Supreme Court has given a prudent order to the Centre and Assam to not resort to any coercive means. One just hopes good sense will prevail.

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