In Assam, there is a major disillusionment among some people over the perceived failure of the much publicised National Register of Citizens (NRC) updating exercise. Far from identifying and isolating at least 5 million Bangladeshi illegal migrants if not more, the tangible outcome of the NRC operation has left its lip-smacking Assam-based backers shell-shocked. Apparently, there are only around 19,00,000 people whose ID documents are not in order. Moreover, this number will drop further once the ongoing appellate proceedings are over. Talk about mass hysteria making mountains out of molehills!
It is frustrating to reflect that nearly four years were spent, over 50,000 state officials engaged , at least ₹1200 crore of taxpayers’ money spent and 70 poor people committed suicide sans compensation , to arrive at this pitiful end. The revulsion among civil rights groups in India and abroad over this inhuman and broadly pointless exercise is not difficult to understand.
Worse, now that this controversial chapter is nearing its anti-climactic end, the sponsors of the exercise may have done their justified and noble cause -- ensuring/preserving the language, culture and customs of Assam -- irreparable damage. From now on flogging the dreaded foreigner for all the ills plaguing a particular state or region may not work as an effective political tactic any more.
So far so bad. But what has followed the ‘Find the foreigner’ exercise in Assam is even more puzzling. It is difficult to understand the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) enthusiasm over the NRC exercise, despite its spectacular failure in Assam! Apparently senior BJP leaders are yet to learn that their insistence on repeating the NRC exercise ‘in all States’ only bolsters the broad opposition allegation against it: the party seeks to create unnecessary divisions among people, stoking communal fires in the process as a diversionary tactic to deflect public attention to its resounding failures in Governance and economy .
The BJP’s present tactics in the NE region smack of double standards. It defends itself among Bengali Hindus settled in Assam and the NE (incidentally they were the first major ethnic group to have supported the BJP in this region, going back to a decade or more ago) that this NRC business was an agreement worked out between the Congress and Assamiya political parties. Its operation was ordered by the Supreme Court. It was implemented during Mr Ranjan Gogoi’s tenure as the Chief Justice of India and the BJP’s innings as the ruling party in Assam. The BJP had not sponsored the NRC. It was only carrying our orders of the apex court and the provisions of previous official accords. This is the sum and substance of the BJP’s present pitch in the Barak valley and other areas.
This obviously defensive BJP rhetoric, seeking to dissociate itself from the massive official excesses committed by NRC officials, causing much harassment and discrimination among minority Hindus, Gorkhas and Biharis, is tantamount to an admission that the exercise was an administrative failure and morally indefensible.
In the context of Bengal, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Left parties too, have decided to oppose the NRC, which they see as divisive and communal, all the way. While the BJP’s stated objective is to defeat the ruling TMC in the coming Assembly elections in Bengal in 2021, it may not be helpful for an aspirant party to face a situation where there is a total consolidation of all major parties opposing it.
As for the demand for a Bengal-based NRC operation, it remains to be noted that no one, not a single party has ever given such a call.
The contrast with Assam could not be sharper. In Assam, not only political parties but even social and cultural organisations, representing the Assamiya society as a whole were passionate in their demand for an end to what they saw as an illegal Bangladeshi infiltration. They feared that their language, culture, literature and traditional values were under a threat.
This kind of situation does not prevail in West Bengal. While non-Bengalis outnumber Bengalis in the greater Kolkata area, there has been no negative reaction from the locals. The majority of non-Bengalis is Hindi-speaking, its population is estimated at a shade under 10 million, out of an aggregate of around 90 million people. There is no apprehension among majority Bengalis that their language, culture, religious identities and traditional values are under threat.
Bangladeshis, whether Hindus or Muslims, have never felt unwelcome, linked as they have been for ages through ties of relationship and marriage.
If anything, Bangladeshis are more than welcome than before in today’s Bengal, not least for reasons of economy. Today, the state earns hard cash from a variety of ways from thousands of Bangladeshi tourists keen to visit Darjeeling, Digha, greater Kolkata and Murshidabad. The same applies to resident Bangladeshi students and medical patients requiring treatment in local hospitals! Entire markets, malls, hotels, restaurants and lodging houses in the Hogg market, Sealdah, Howrah and other areas cater predominantly to Bangladeshis. The home-stay system now operates in the Salk Lake and Southern suburbs of Kolkata, as well as in North Bengal to accommodate growing number of Bangladeshi residents/visitors.
In the garments and leather sectors, there are instances of Bangladeshi firms outsourcing some of their international orders to Metiaburuz and other areas, which keep thousands employed in Bengal. There are reports of Bangladeshis involving themselves in real estate transaction through their local relatives in Bengal.
The cumbersome procedure of’ throwing out illegal Bangladeshis’ is not likely to be very effective in Bengal, given this background. If anything, greater Indo-Bangla co-operation and growing bilateral ties has helped Kolkata in recovering some of its lost locational importance in South Asia, in addition to bringing sizable benefits to the state economy as a whole.
There is another specific question to which BJP circles in Bengal have no answer. In Assam, following decades of agitations, ethnic violence and the considerable loss of life and property, March 24, 1971 was accepted as a cut off point for Bangladeshis coming over to the state. What would be the cut-off date for West Bengal, where the migration from Bangladesh, legal or otherwise, have continued for decades? Shall the date used for Assam be applicable automatically?
‘It does not seem that fixing any such date would be easy, if at all possible,’ admits a senior BJP leader, unwilling to be quoted. It is likely that the provisions under the existing Foreginers’ Act would remain the most effective legal instrument to deal with illegal infiltration into Bengal, as before.
Shah as the BJP President, makes it only more difficult for his party to grow and increase its following in Bengal by insisting that the NRC would be done here. Undoubtedly, TMC leader Mamata Banerjee who thrives on manipulating political controversies, will benefit from the BJP’s present stance.