West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has threatened ‘bloodbath and civil war’ over the draft Assam National Register of Citizens. She was speaking at a Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India conclave in New Delhi on Tuesday. It was her argument that those `staying here for 100,200, 30 years’ cannot be ousted from the country. Resorting to hyperbole, she accused the BJP of questioning the ‘Indianness of Indians.’
The Trinamool Congress chief failed to notice that for the NRC the cut-off was 1971, not 100 or 200 years. Also, that so far there is no move to drive them out, only to confirm their citizenship or lack of it. And this too at the behest of the highest court in the land and as part of the Assam Accord signed by the Rajiv Gandhi Government when she was a member of the Lok Sabha of Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress. The difference now is that she has her own party which needs to further consolidate its grip on the Muslim vote which is nearly one-third of the total electorate in West Bengal. So, she thinks it is alright to kick up a row over a national project meant to weed out non-citizens from citizens. In fact, her own State is a huge magnet for illegals but she seems to be unconcerned, just as early Congress governments were in Assam. Though the NRC was about non-citizens, in reality it has assumed the character of Hindus and Muslims, since it is rightly assumed that a majority of the Bangladeshi illegals are Muslims. Yet, there is no immediate threat against the 40-lakh odd left out of the NRC.
The media has highlighted stray cases of exclusions wrongly listed as non-citizens while they had been resident of Assam prior to the cut-off date. The authorities are committed to rectify these errors. In any case, it is a draft NRC to be finalized after the excluded are given full opportunity to present proof to the contrary. If still an assurance was needed that there was no need for panic, the Supreme Court on Tuesday directed that no action be taken until the final NRC is ready. Under the circumstances, to fuel the divisive fires was totally uncalled for. But matching Banerjee in aggressive grandstanding was the BJP President Amit Shah who thundered in the Rajya Sabha that the government had done what the previous governments had failed to despite a commitment in the 1985 Assam Accord and the directions of the apex court on several occasions. Shah laced facts with an emotional pitch about security of the nation and its neglect by the previous regimes. Quite clearly, the resulting polarization from a Hindu-Muslim binary over the NRC debate is set to play straight into the hands of the BJP not only in Assam but in large parts of the country. Shah took on those who talked about the human rights of the excluded, asking rhetorically ‘what about the human rights of the bona-fide citizens’.
Since it is inconceivable that such a large number of people can be deported to the country of their origin, given the pressure from the bona fide citizens of Assam they are likely to consider moving to what appears to be a more welcoming environment, particularly to neighbouring West Bengal. Mamata will be happy to accommodate them, while the BJP will use the influx to up the ante against her for being anti-Hindu. The BJP has already replaced the Communists as the main opposition party in West Bengal; the divide over the illegals will further accentuate the divide between Hindu and Muslim vote-banks, something both parties may not be unhappy about since cynicism is a huge virtue of politicians. It is remarkable that the former Congress Party chief minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi has welcomed the NRC draft, though he has questioned the exclusion of such a large number of people. The divide between the people of Upper Assam and the Barak Valley further complicates the problem of illegals. How Gogoi’s central leadership will walk the tight rope, without being seen as anti-Muslim since the excluded are mostly Muslims, presents a dilemma to Rahul Gandhi who had only recently taken to proclaiming himself to be a practicing Hindu. The point is that aside from Mamata and Shah, all other political leaders are caught in the middle of the ruckus over the NRC draft. Meanwhile, if a BJP leader had talked of ‘bloodbath and civil war’, the secularist-liberal megaphones would have gone apoplectic running him down. Mamata seems to have been given a free pass for her incendiary remarks.