By Ashis Biswas
By opposing the Central Government’s efforts to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam on Supreme Court orders, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is merely doing what she does best — pandering to the Muslim vote bank.
This may be the broad feeling among Bengal Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders. However, they also worry whether their party’s prospects in both Assam and neighbouring states may be negatively impacted by Mamata’s moves.
It is not just in Bengal that there is general concern as to the eventual political fallout of the NRC updating exercise. The ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) is trying to put a spanner in the works by resorting to barely concealed scaremongering over the most sensitive political issue in the northeast region. The problem is, even without the TMC’s posturings, opinions in Assam remain sharply divided over the political outcome of the NRC updating.
Briefly, Assamiyas fear that if the BJP sticks to its stand of accepting Hindu Bengali settlers hailing from East Bengal as citizens, they could be reduced to a minority in their own state. It is common knowledge that whether Hindus or Muslims, in some areas, people of East Bengali origin settled in Assam declare Assamiya to be their mother tongue in the decadal Census operations. This does not apply to the Hindu voters in the Barak Valley.
Once they acquire citizenship, they may very well assert the normal rights they had chosen not to exercise for decades, for reasons of safety and security, which could be problematic for Assamiya interests. Especially after the violent phases of the ‘Assam agitation against illegal foreigners’, the tendency not to declare their actual mother tongue had become stronger.
Over decades, religious and linguistic minorities in Assam had supported the Congress. The situation started changing for the saffron party in the three Bengali-majority Cachar districts as Hindus began supporting the BJP, which they regarded as their saviour. In these districts, Bengali Hindus normally have consistently declared Bengali as their mother tongue, unlike Bengali speaking Muslims. Indeed, Bengali speaking Muslims in Assam have mostly declared Assamiya as their mother tongue over the years whether in Cachar or elsewhere.
No wonder, from the Asam Gana Parishad (AGP), which supports the ruling BJP in Assam, to the smaller parties and outfits such as the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), warnings have been issued not to enroll East Bengali Hindu refugees as citizens. Mostly these have been addressed to the BJP and the Central Government. This is why so many Hindu Bengali voters, including ex ministers and prominent citizens, find their exclusion from the first list of NRC so ominous.
However, both at the state and central levels people have been officially assured that ‘no genuine citizens would be omitted.’
Whether at the state or the Central level, the BJP has not budged from its stand on the issue of dealing with Bangladeshi immigration into Assam and the Northeast region as a whole: Hindus can stay, but Muslims would be repatriated to Bangladesh. The BJP had swept the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Assam mainly relying on this slogan, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself using very strong language on the matter. ‘Throwing out illegal Bangladeshis’ has long been a slogan that resonates deeply with Assamiya Hindus.
Therefore, the final enumeration of the different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups in Assam in the updated NRC would be of crucial importance to the ruling BJP at the sate and Central levels. In an overwhelmingly Assamiya-dominated Assam, the BJP would lose much of its Bengali support at Cachar and elsewhere. Its strength in the state could be much reduced. The old pattern of national parties ruling states only as junior partners to a regional party—a la Bihar— could well return.
There would be a political fallout elsewhere too, especially in neighbouring Bengal. This could be worrisome for the BJP. After winning Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections, the BJP has announced its intent to target Bengal and Odisha as states it must win ii order to expand and consolidate its present hold in the East. Its growth in the East of India has taken longer and been more difficult to achieve, than in other regions.
It could win Assam only recently. Its recent victories in Jharkhand and present growth in Bihar has come about only after the break up of the undivided Bihar state.
In case there is either a gradual influx/exodus of Bengali Hindus or Muslims into West Bengal, because of developments in Assam —- Mamata awaits the possibility with lip-smacking anticipation! — the BJP might as well write off any possibility of winning in Bengal in the foreseeable future.
This is not to suggest that the BJP, especially at the central level, runs short of options. There is an old proposal to issue resident work permits for people identified as ‘illegals’ in Assam, along the lines of similar arrangements for settled migrants/refugees in several European countries. This results in such people not enjoying certain rights of genuine citizens, like voting, for a specified period.
For Assam, the Centre could agree to work out a political system along the pattern followed in Fiji, where native citizens enjoy greater political weightage/protection of rights to help them prevent area/demographic domination by settlers. Assamiya leaders, aware that Bangladesh would hardly agree to the repatriation of illegal foreigners driven out of Assam, have raised this demand.
As for Bengal, a Bihar-type solution — the splitting of this populous state into separately administered North and South Bengal units has also been discussed. The growth in BJP votes has been more pronounced in the northern districts than in the South.
It would be interesting to speculate how the ruling TMC or other parties would measure up to such a political challenge in Bengal in the long run. Once the NRC revision is complete and its findings announced, such issues could be discussed more substantively. (IPA Service)