The spectre of NRC implementation is fast turning Bengal into a political battleground, with the TMC appearing to have an advantage over the BJP after the omission of a large number of Hindu Bengalis from the register in saffron party-ruled Assam.
The demand for the NRC exercise to weed out infiltrators has been gaining momentum since last year in the state, which shares over 2000-km-long border with Bangladesh.
However, the publication of the final NRC list in Assam, which left out over 19.6 lakh people – of which around 12 lakh are Hindus and Bengali Hindus – has changed the political narrative in the state to a great extent.
The ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has been on the offensive by milking the issue of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as an “anti-Bengali” move on the part of the saffron party.
“What does the omission of 12 lakh Bengalis and Hindus from Assam NRC show? It shows that it is a tool to target Bengalis. The BJP which claims to be the champion of Hindus and its rights should first answer how come Hindus and Bengalis were omitted from the list.
“The figures prove that their main target was Bengalis,” TMC secretary-general Partha Chatterjee said.
BJP national president Amit Shah, who had repeatedly said that the exercise would be conducted across India, is expected to address a seminar on the issue here on October 1.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who met the Union home minister in Delhi over the matter early this week, has been building strong public opinion against the exercise. The TMC supremo had led a rally against NRC on September 12 here.
Last month, the West Bengal Assembly had passed a resolution against NRC, with Banerjee vowing not to allow its implementation in Bengal.
TMC MP Sudip Bandyopadhyay said the register has not just divided the masses, but also made people refugees in their own country.
“The BJP has said if it comes to power, it will implement NRC in Bengal. So the people of Bengal are conscious enough to decide what is good and bad for them. The party should first explain why Bengalis and Hindus have been excluded from the list,” Bandopadhyay said.
The ripple effect of NRC in Assam has already been felt in Bengal, especially in districts bordering the neighbouring state, with panicked people lining up at government offices to get documents in place.
Two recent deaths in the state have been attributed to the panic swirling around the citizenship register.
The TMC leadership has blamed the BJP for creating anxiety over NRC in Bengal.
Banerjee, however, iterated that the exercise will not be allowed in the state and the BJP would have to get past her if they tried to touch anyone.
The promise of NRC implementation, which has been a major poll plank of the BJP in the last Lok Sabha polls, is considered by its leaders as a plausible factor that led to the rise of the party in Bengal, having bagged 18 parliamentary seats earlier this year.
Nevertheless, the exclusion of around 12 lakh Hindus from the final NRC list in Assam has put the saffron party in a precarious situation.
The party has now said that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill would be implemented first, which would provide Hindu refugees Indian nationality, and then the process to oust “Muslim infiltrators” would be carried out.
“The illegal Bangladeshi Muslims pose security threat to the inhabitants of the state and the country,” state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh told PTI.
During the 1971 Liberation War in Bangladesh, millions of people had fled the country and moved to India, particularly in Bengal and the northeast region.
“In Bengal, we would first implement citizenship bill and then the NRC. The TMC is just trying to create a panic to reap political dividends,” Ghosh added.
According to sources in the TMC, the Mamata Banerjee-led party is trying to play the “anti-Bengali card” in Bengal, ahead of the 2021 Assembly polls.
“After our setback in the Lok Sabha polls, where our tally dropped and BJP’s grew by leaps and bounds, we have been looking for an issue to counter their narrative. The NRC has given us that issue,” a senior state TMC leader told PTI.
BJP’s refugee cell chief Mohit Roy conceded that the final NRC list in Assam is a setback for the party, but assuaged all fears by saying Hindus, who have been left out of the list, will be secured through the implementation of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.
The contentious bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, to grant Indian nationality to people of minority communities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians — in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The NRC issue serves dual purpose for the ruling party — firstly it would help unite the Bengalis against the BJP, a section of which had drifted towards the saffron party during the Lok Sabha polls, and then it would further cement its base among the 30 per cent Muslim population in Bengal, the TMC sources said.
A deciding factor in nearly 80-100 of 294 assembly seats in the state, minorities, especially Muslims, are likely extend their support to the TMC, as they are opposed to NRC in Bengal, the ruling party’s Muslim leadership has claimed.
The BJP leadership, on the other hand, feels the TMC’s plans to use NRC to regain its lost ground won’t yield any results “as the Banerjee-led party has lost the plot in Bengal and the state is yearning for a change in 2021”.
Opposition Congress and CPI(M), however, are of the opinion that both the BJP and the TMC are using the matter to serve their own political interests with utter disregard for the suffering for the masses.