By Ashis Biswas
In West Bengal, the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) never loses any opportunity to urge the Central Government to observe existing norms and niceties of governance within a federal political structure. However, there are also occasions when the Bengal Government would do well to follow its own frequently lectured prescriptions to other States and authorities, on sensitive issues.
Confirmation of this was available recently during a session of the Supreme Court where the upgrading of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam was discussed. The registering of genuine Indian citizens as well as the process of identifying illegal Bangladeshi immigrants had slowed down because of delay on part of West Bengal and Meghalaya Governments in co-operating with the Assam exercise. This was stated officially by Assam Government authorities.
The need for Assam Government’s interaction with Bengal on the sensitive issue of citizens’ identification arose as many Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims in Assam claimed their Indian ancestry despite a lack of documentary evidence. By way of clarification, they told officials they had relatives staying in other states, especially Bengal and elsewhere.
Officials carrying on the upgrading exercise said they had sent a list of such claimants to Bengal authorities for verification almost three years ago. But they had received replies involving only about 8000 people. Considering that some 1.15 crore cases had been referred to Bengal, the pace of authentication/rejection in Bengal was pathetically slow.
The identification exercise itself was ordered by the Supreme Court. The first draft of the NRC exercise that would eventually pronounce on the citizenship status of over 3.2 crore people was released on Dec 31, 2017. It confirmed the citizenship of nearly 1.8 crore people. This leaves the rest, a large population of over 1 crore people, in acute suspense.
First list omissions included many prominent Hindu and Muslim speaking politicians, including MPs and former Assam Ministers. The only common thread linking them was that they were mostly Bengali-speaking.
Since the serving BJP Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has declared that identified non citizens cannot claim entitlement to jobs, higher education or other facilities, the first draft had only added to the tensions of mostly Bengali speaking people staying in Assam.
However, on behalf of the Assam government and other authorities, it was pointed out that the survey and enumeration of citizens based on the 1951 older register was not complete. There would be subsequent drafts announcing the names of more citizens, published. The SC had ordered the work to be completed as early as possible, within the first half of 2018.
Commenting on the verification of claims among some people in Assam of having relations in other states, the SC has ordered Bengal, and Meghalaya to speed up their work. If the process took a very long time, the Court indicated it could order’ an investigation ‘to sort out the matter.
Privately, many people in Assam including politicians, believe that as a State Bengal was determined to oppose the SC-ordered exercise because of vote bank considerations of the ruling TMC party. The BJP and like-minded parties in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regard the TMC as a functioning platform for the Muslim community, whether of the Rohingya or illegal Bangladeshi, variety.
Their fears were further fuelled by Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who addressed public rallies after the publication of the NRC’s first draft. At Alipurduar on Jan 8 2018, she appealed to North Bengal people to ‘accept and give shelter to those displaced as non citizens from Assam’, clearly indicating her total opposition to the SC’s directive. She blamed the BJP for driving out Bengalis from Assam and added that she would oppose it all the way. ‘Do not play with fire,’ she thundered.
This prompted people in Assam to file FIRs against Banerjee for her allegedly inflammatory comments on a sensitive issue.
Given this background — not to mention Ms Banerjee’s supportive statements attacking the National Investigating Agency (NIA) for conducting its ongoing operations against Bangladeshi /Pakistani Islamic extremists in India — official circles in Assam are worried about the future. The fact that Bengal has been dragging its feet about verifying the claims of nearly 1.5 crore of Assam residents regarding their ‘relations in other Indian states’ was also worrisome.
‘What if the Bengal Government declares that all such claims are true?’ Has been a common question doing the round in Assam. This would make a mockery of the long delayed exercise ordered by the SC. After all the proper identification and adopting an official policy relating to the illegal immigrants streaming to the northeast from Bangladesh, has been a deeply emotive issue in the region. Thousands of lives and millions worth of property have been lost in past agitations over this issue.
Will all this come to nought because of the stand taken by the TMC to make sure it wins the Muslim vote in Bengal? No one knows the answer.
However, the TMC’s open espousal of the cause of the Rohingyas and their settlement in India has also attracted notice. Consequent on Ms Banerjee’s support for the Rohingyas, the Bengal administration has been quietly rehabilitating small batches of Rohingyas in areas like Baruipur, a southern suburb of Kolkata, for some time now.
Intriguingly, the state Government has made no announcement regarding the arrival of these people, nor about who transported them or who is paying their stay and other expenses! No official has yet clarified on what administrative authority a state government is doing all this within a federal framework, because the matter certainly belongs in the central policy domain. Or whether a state government can issue a public appeal challenging a Supreme Court directive on a matter relating to citizenship issues in other states. (IPA Service)