In 2021, the national festivity of “election” is scheduled to be on the checkerboard in two states of India: Assam and West Bengal. From the top leadership to ground zero, all major and minor parties have already got themselves emblazed in the battle of votes to pitch for their favourites and not let even an inch to their rivals. But what makes these elections interesting in these two states is their contrasting shades of prismatic perspectives vis a vis NRC and CAA and the rhetoric of the country’s ruling class.
While the ruling party at the centre took all the credit of implementing the NRC in the state, a much-promised, published and politicised act, but the results of their much-touted activity seem to make them unhappy.
Initially, when reports and coverages of exclusion of genuine Indian citizens and discrepancies surrounding exclusion from NRC were made through various media outlets and civil society vanguards, they were then brazenly ignored, disregarded as crooked up stories or some anomalies which were bound to happen. When newspapers and articles started pointing out the systematic flaw of using the criteria of documentation to prove one’s nationality in an immature democracy like India, they were heavily trolled by the ruling establishment.
But suddenly all hell started to break loose when much to the disdain of the ruling party and their supporters, Hindus topped the list of excluded individuals. For ages, it was institutionalised, internalised and propagated in the state that the root of Assam’s problem lies in the vast Bangladeshi migrant population who were mainly Muslims. Figures in some lakhs were thrown up liberally to account for illegal Bangladeshis.
Even though the Assam movement statedly was an anti-foreigners movement devoid of any communal hue, there was always a substantial and subtle variety of communalism in the Assamese society regarding who constitutes the foreigners. Bengali speaking people, especially the Muslims, were taken to be the usual suspects.
The BJP and its allies captured on this subtle communalism and made Muslims the exclusive foreigners who ought to be thrown out. The BJP with all its rhetoric and tools of propaganda tried to make sure that migrant Bangladeshis equals to Bengali speaking Muslims and not the Hindus, even if they were just a meagre number fleeing Bangladesh just for the sake of their lives.
This was mandated because before it could spread its tentacles to the ethnic Assamese voters, the party used to be sustained and continues to be by votes of the Hindu Bengali voters of the state, be it the Aborigines or the migrants of East Pakistan or even the later entrants.
This has the ruling political party in a fix. On the one hand, it has the enormous desire to capture the ethnic Assamese voters who want nothing less than the exclusion of foreigners, be it Hindus or Muslims, from their state. On the other hand, they can’t afford to lose their core votes of Bengali migrant Hindus who in the eyes of staunch Assamese also qualify as foreigners.
But the party could not afford to take either side. To balance this asymmetrical and paradoxical population, the tool of communalism came in handy. Very carefully, they propagated the theory of Bengali Muslims as the only foreigners in the state. They even tried to make a distinction between immigrants and refugees where Bengali Muslims always qualify as immigrants or infiltrators who want to change the demographic profile of the state and Bengali Hindu migrants (if any), the impeccable refugees, fled due to religious persecution.
But the tipping point was the result of the NRC. Contrary to their years of propaganda and the imbibition of the same propaganda by the society at large, it came to light that most of those excluded from the NRC were not Muslims but Bengali Hindus.
It thus constituted a big headache and setback for the ruling power. On the one hand, if they went on with the NRC list of excluded individuals, their supporters and voters would likely to be thrown out, and if not, would amount to betraying the promise of NRC to the ethnic Assamese society. This also would have political ramifications outside the state, most notably West Bengal, where the party is leaving no stone unturned to gain a foothold.
What would the parties answer to the Bengali Hindu predominant state of West Bengal be if they go on with the NRC in Assam and deport a lakhs of Bengali Hindus? Surely they can’t afford to go on with the NRC, but not implementing the NRC may also challenge its prospect of holding its bastion in Assam. This is the backdrop where the CAA act comes into where the distinction of immigrants vs refugees was institutionalised and legalised mainly through communal criteria.
The CAA was mainly brought in to legalise the excluded Bengali Hindus and oust only the excluded Bengali Muslims from the state. But this communal division was heavily contested by ethnic Assamese groups and civil society because this would effectively mean liquidating the NRC, where the majority of the excluded names would stay in the state via the backdoor entry of CAA and only a handful of them, namely Bengali Muslims, would be delegitimised.
Then what were all the anti-foreigner movements for years about? This question started to gather ground and the dubious backdoor entry of Bengali Hindus via CAA started to be highly contested. People were in no way ready to give an inch other than their purported Assam accord where foreigners, bereft of religion, identified through the NRC, need to be delegitimised. The bone of contention continues.
The ruling party in Bengal has always been castigated by the BJP as Muslim appeasing, projecting itself as the votary and championer of Hindu rights. The BJP had even campaigned for a similar NRC in the state to weed out Bangladeshi Muslims. But the campaign for NRC in Bengal, unlike Assam, from the very first day, has always been against Muslim immigrants and not against foreigners per se. Why?
Firstly, the state didn’t have a history of foreigners vs indigenous, like in Assam, or any purported ethnic struggle in terms of social, political or demographic rights. Secondly, excluding some fury over a cup of tea over their football team and favourite fish, the clash between ghotis (aborigines of West Bengal) and Bangals (who came from erstwhile East Pakistan or present-day Bangladesh) is as imaginary as it could be. There is no to minimal institutionalised prejudices against refugees (who are mainly Bengali Hindus) in the landscape of Bengal. A refugee has ruled West Bengal for the greatest time in its entire political history.
The migration of post-partition refugees from East Pakistan to West Bengal, except creating some initial economic and humanitarian crisis, did little alteration to its social and cultural landscape. Be it pre or post-partition, it was always a Bengali speaking state and continues be. The population of migrant refugees were its own population in an undivided Bengal. This explains the indifference towards large scale migration of refugees, not only restricting to pre-1947 or 1971 but for later entrants too.
It is not uncommon in Bengal to see people proudly extolling their origin and roots, even if it’s erstwhile East Pakistan. But sadly this indifference towards Hindu Bengali refugees or Bangladeshi Hindu refugees is not extended to the Bengali Muslims migrating from the other side of Padma.
There is always prejudices still in the minds of Bengali Hindus (be it the ghotis or the Bengali Hindu refugees themselves) and they come from the belief and assumption that post-partition, West Bengal is the natural homeland of all Bengali Hindus. These prejudices are reinforced by the horrors of partition and heart wrenching stories of partition violence. But even then, unlike Assam, the narrative of the enslavement of Bengals political, economic and social landscape by Bangladeshi Muslims is very little.
Despite having prejudices against Bengali Muslims, especially Bangladeshi Bengals, the vibrant civil society has always tried to diminish this fault line through their folk songs, liberal movies and literature, where it presents a non-sectarian, liberal Bengali culture encompassing nationality and tries to promote the narrative of “we all are Bengalis” by our culture and taste.
And so the bogey of foreigners vs aboriginals is missing in Bengals civil circles. This explains that despite the presence of prejudices against Bangladeshi Muslims, there is hardly any movement against them or any institutionalised narrative against them barring some pockets. The Bengali civil society or the masses at large are culturally, linguistically and emotionally linked with Bangladesh and their people.
Even the migration of people to West Bengal and its subsequent assimilation into Bengals landscape was without any strife. In West Bengal, the post-partition inflow of refugees coincided with massive scale land reform movements in the state where huge lands of zamindars were distributed among the refugee families. In today’s Bengal, the families of these erstwhile refugees became completely mainstreamed to form today’s Bengali society as it is known. It is so massive that if you try to cut them off, Bengal is lost.
The majority of families in Bengal, especially in south Bengal, know someone who migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan. This is the reason why the bogey of economic, cultural and ethnic enslavement is absent in Bengal as compared to Assam. And that may be the reason the narrative of NRC does not find much traction in Bengals landscape.
But despite a majority of refugees finding a share in the state, there are still some substantial refugee colonies, mostly of recent entrants trying hard to get their citizenships. And therein lies the importance of the CAA and why it may be important legislation for Bengal.
Another reason why the CAA became an important legislature in Bengal is due to the posturing of the two major political parties. While the BJP wants to project itself as the votary of Hindu rights all over the country and by extension Bengali Hindus in Bengal are ready to sweep away Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants from the state, the TMC projects itself as a true Bengali regional party espousing the cause of Bengali regionalism and projecting the BJP as an outsider to the Bengali land, culture and ethos.
It is for the latter’s espousing of the Bengali cause as an alternative to BJPs Hindu cause (which models on non-Bengali ethos) that the former chose to become a voice of Bengali Hindus, dividing the Bengali voters on communal lines.
The TMC understood that to the counteract the emotional appeal of the Hindu cause among Bengali voters an appeal of Bengali vs non-Bengali was necessary. And so, when the final NRC in Assam excluded names of lakhs of Bengali Hindus, the TMC projected it as an assault on the Bengalis and Bengal and portrayed the BJP as devious and anti-Bengali, fracturing the latter’s narrative of being the godfather of all Hindus and denting its credentials to espouse the Bengali Hindu cause.
The TMC went on to ask how being a party of the Hindu cause the BJP could exclude Bengali Hindus from the country and went on to project the BJP as anti-Bengali, who care for non-Bengali Hindus but not Bengalis. In such a situation, to hold their ground in Bengal, they needed a second law which could both quench the demand of Bangladeshi Hindu refugees waiting for citizenship and could provide citizenship to those Bangladeshi Hindus who have been excluded by the NRC, putting an end to the TMCs rhetoric against it. Which law could be the best suited for this purpose if not the CAA?
It’s as simple as dewdrops. To have a foot in Bengal politics the BJP needs to be the champion of CAA, which was recently implied by Amit Shah in his Bengal rally. But in Assam, it finds it hard to balance the paradox: they can’t go for the CAA nor the NRC. Here the party finds itself in a bind.
But let’s imagine a hypothetical situation where the NRC would have excluded only Bangladeshi Muslims. How happy would the BJP have been? Probably then the BJP would not even need the CAA in Assam. Now think, can this hypothetical situation be made a reality? Definitely.
Isn’t this the reason why the Assam state government wants to revise the NRC process and reexamine the NRC once again because the previous NRC has not been able to fulfil its often repeated propaganda? According to them, a course correction is necessary where the NRC excluded names would only be Muslims. All the crux and paradoxes faced by the party would just have bubbled in thin air. All the hullabaloo regarding this reexamination of NRC should be seen in this context.
Even if the NRC process isn’t done again, the objective of the BJP considering the elections is to put forth the point that the state government and BJP are happy to implement NRC and fulfil its promises, but not this one, thus, putting an end to all the protests against the BJP.
It also sends a message to its Bengali Hindu voters across two states not to worry because it is not going to implement the present NRC, but would consider a revised NRC where they aren’t included. But for that, the party needs to be voted to power.
The trick is simple: first, create a hole where people might fall and then come to rescue them all in exchange for money. In the present situation, “money” is replaced with “votes”. And this is probably the only way the BJP can make its way amidst its contrasting rhetorics and commitments. And it’s nice to watch how this high-level drama unfolds and turns out in front of our naked eyes.