Caught between NRC and CAA, Bengal is at crossroads

The general mood on the ground in Bengal is rapidly turning against CAA and NRC and people are uniting across caste, community and social divides

People queuing up at an NRC verification centre in Assam. Over 19 lakh have been excluded from NRC published on Aug 31 (file photo, PTI)
People queuing up at an NRC verification centre in Assam. Over 19 lakh have been excluded from NRC published on Aug 31 (file photo, PTI)

Biswajit Roy

The BJP government has made a two-pronged onslaught on the nation’s hitherto secular Constitution and body polity through the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) and passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Parliament. The NRC is aimed at filtering out suspected Bangladeshi infiltrators while the CAA is meant for re-inducting non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, caught in the NRC net by introducing religion-based citizenship.

Together, the mechanism will weed out the ‘termites and parasites’, Union Home Minister Shah’s euphemism for Muslims which is a chilling reminder of Hitler’s description of Jews in Nazi Germany and a testimony to tenets of a Fuhrer-inspired saffron fascism, as admitted by its ideologues Savarkar and Golwalkar. Ideology apart, the NRC-CAA pincer attack is a double whammy for Bengal. It has already made Bengalis, irrespective of their Indian and Bangladeshi nationalities, vulnerable to witch hunts in the Northeast and other parts of the country. Further, it will tear asunder the post-Partition social fabric of the state that bore the main brunt of Partition riots along with Punjab. So, the survival instincts of Left-liberal Bengalis are prompting them to stand for the idea of India of Nehruvian era and its constitutional edifice despite their critique of both Gandhi and Nehru as well as Indira Gandhi.

BJP’s game plan in Bengal

Since the Trinamool Congress assumed power in 2011 and particularly after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, Mamata Banerjee’s estranged ally of the Vajpai era started fast replacing the Left Front and the Congress as main opposition. Securing 18 out of 42 LS seats in May 2019, Modi-Shah duo has begun a no-holds-barred move to bag Bengal in the 2021 Assembly polls. The BJP has been trying hard to outsmart Mamata by playing up discords between her Muslim support base and Hindu Dalits from Bangladesh, mostly Namasudras in South Bengal and Rajbangshis, the dominant SC community in the north in bordering districts. Both Modi and Shah have been whipping up anti-Muslim sentiments in the guise of anti-infiltrator tirade in their campaigns in Bengal while promising citizenship to Hindu refugees. ‘Nomos’ and other Dalits were special targets as they are among latecomers since seventies unlike the earlier waves of mainly upper castes.

The Vajpai-era amendment to the Citizenship Act in 2003 made all those who had come before March 24, 1971 (the day before Pakistani atrocities against Bengalis of all faiths in erstwhile East Pakistan triggered a massive cross-border movement) illegal immigrants irrespective of their religion. The Modi-Shah duo assured to undo it in favour of Hindu latecomers in 2014. The Bengal link to CAA comes here. This, together with controlled but deliberately engineered communal clashes, helped the saffron design for groundswell in bordering areas in between 2014 and 2019. In industrial areas, the Sangh Parivar mainly depended on Hindi- speaking upper castes and Dalits to fan communal polarisation.

Thanks to Mamata’s overzealous drive to court Muslim clergy and her relentless poaching into the residual base of Left-Congress, the BJP largely succeeded in the 2019 General Election. With 40 per cent of the vote-share that included substantial ‘Bam (Left) votes in Ram kitty’, the party smelt blood and made its pitch for NRC in Bengal shriller. But the Assam NRC experience has derailed its bandwagon both in the state and Bengal, though for opposite reasons.

The changing mood of Bengal

Initially, Bengal’s politicians and populace were generally nonchalant to the NRC exercise in Assam. But they can’t ignore the increasingly loud alarm following the exclusion of around 20 lakh of so-called infiltrators from final NRC including 13 lakhs Bengali Hindus and 6 lakhs of Bengali-speaking Muslims. Disenfranchised and stateless, many are already detainees in detention camps while some have committed suicide. A similar trauma awaiting around a lakh of Gorkhas has also found resonance in the Darjeeling Hills, long allied to the BJP in pursuance of a separate state of Gorkhaland. Tribals in Junglemahal districts who had voted for the BJP in the LS polls have felt deceived as a section of tea tribes and plains tribes are also at the receiving end of the Assam NRC.

The Modi-Shah regime’s repeated assertions to re-rerun the nightmare in Bengal and the rest of the country as well as expulsion of Bangla-speaking labourers from other states have sparked widespread panic and anger. Despite the Chief Minister’s repeated vow not to allow NRC exercise in Bengal, it has failed to stop thousands of Bengalis, mostly poor people from across communal and caste lines, from rushing to government offices and cyber cafes to update assorted identity papers. Harassed and depressed, some have committed suicide.

Bengal Bypoll defeats fast forwarded CAA

The change in the public mood became evident in the results of three Assembly by polls held in different corners of the state: Muslim-Nomoshudra dominated Karimpur in south, Muslim-Rajbangshi dominated Kaliaganj in North and the railway town of Kharagpur-Sadar with substantial South Indian descendants. The Trinamool won all three, the last two for the first time by defeating BJP in a three-cornered fight. The victory in Kharagpur was sweetest to Mamata since BJP state unit president Dilip Ghosh, a loudmouth RSS pracharak and now an MP, had held it only months back.

Considering the huge margins of BJP victories in May in Kharagpur and Raiganj that includes Kaliaganj, the erosion of its support is significant. Even BJP candidates and state leaders have attributed the defeats mainly to the party’s threats of NRC in Bengal. The Maharashtra fiasco has already punctured the myth of the modern-day Chanakya. Humiliated further after Bengal defeats, Amit Shah has now tried to arrest the erosion in its Hindu support base in Bengal by the passage of CAA before embarking upon a nationwide NRC exercise, mainly targeting Bengali-speaking people. But the Assam experience will continue to haunt Bengali Hindus and Dalits as well as Adivasis too even as some sections of upper castes and Dalits are likely to favour NRC and CAA respectively.

Opposition unity

The Congress-Trinamool Congress-Left votes against the CAA in the Lok Sabha, along with some regional parties, a rare show of opposition unity in recent times, mark the mood in Bengal. Earlier, an anti-NRC all party resolution was passed in the state Assembly sans BJP members, notwithstanding the different takes of the opposition parties in the Northeast on the exercise. The Chief Minister has urged for a broader anti-CAA alliance.

Civil society moves

It was not usual to hear slogans like ‘Lal Salam, Nil Salam (Red Salute, Blue Salute)’ or ‘Jai Bhim, Jai Birsa, Lal Salam, Hul Johar’, ‘Jai Hind, Inquilab Zindabad’, ‘Jai Bangla, Jai Bharat’ at political rallies in Bengal. Neither one often came across slogans like ‘Asfaq-Bismil, Bhagat Singh-Surya Sen-Netaji Subhas Amar Rahe’, ‘Gandhi ya Godse, chun lo tum raste’ as well as ‘Rabindranath-Nazrul ke bhag korte dicchi na, debo na (Won’t let you divide Rabindranath and Nazrul)’ and ‘Songbidhan ke bachate lorte habe ek sathe (Fight together to save the Constitution)’ earlier. These changes in left-liberal lexicon and iconography underline the urge to bridge the communal, caste and ethnic divides and unite secular democrats across spectrum.

All are unmistakable signs of a new socio-political reality in Modi-fied India including Bengal. As the Sangh Parivar’s battle cry of ‘Jai Sri Ram’ has unsettled the traditional binary of ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ in the state, new ideas and alignments are catching the imagination of a new breed of young civil society activists. As statewide campaigns against NRC and CAA, in every nook and cranny, is gaining momentum, it is compelling the cynical mainstream politicians to think afresh.

National Population Register (NPR)

The Trinamool government and activists have differences over state support to the NPR exercise which will be conducted between April and September, 2020. Although, the Chief Minister has described it as a part of a decadal Census enumeration and asked people to cooperate, activist groups pointed to the Union Home Ministry’s notification of July 31, 2019, under the 2003 rules of the amended Citizenship Act of 1955. They suspect it as the first step towards a nationwide NRC.

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