Historically, West Bengal has witnessed the highest rate of migration in the country through its long, porous borders with Bangladesh (2,216.7 kilometres) and Nepal (96 km). Apart from the two major migrations that took place from Bangladesh in 1947 and 1971, there has been a steady and continuous influx of people. Every year, border guards intercept thousands of people trying to enter the country and refugee rehabilitation is a serious concern of the State government. During the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front regime, the State government even set up a separate department for refugee rehabilitation. The current Trinamool Congress government regularised 92 refugee colonies in November 2019.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB)has created a divide among the refugees on religious grounds. This is spreading panic not only among the refugees who have settled in the State for decades but also in the Muslim population which accounts for 27 per cent of the total population (as per the 2011 Census).There is a fear that the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which will inevitably follow the CAB, will make millions of Muslims stateless. The public outcry against the passing of the CAB in both Houses of Parliament has been louder than the relatively muted celebrations among certain “Hindu refugee” communities.
For years, political parties in the State have vied for the votes of the refugees settled in the State. There are well over 80 Assembly constituencies, particularly in the districts bordering Bangladesh, where refugees have been a factor in deciding the outcome of the elections. But the CAB and the NRC may well be the issues that will decide the political future of West Bengal. The battle lines are drawn between the ruling Trinamool Congress, which seems resolved to oppose the CAB and the NRC to the bitter end, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose future in West Bengal hangs in balance over the acceptability of the two issues among voters.
Three days before the CAB was to be tabled in Parliament, Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee once again raised her battle cry in opposition to it and compared her resistance to a second freedom struggle. “I would prefer death to such a discriminatory Bill. This movement will be the second war of independence for our nation. This is a fight to the finish,” she said while addressing her party workers in Kolkata.
In reality, her stand against the CAB and the NRC is more than a “freedom struggle” for her. It is more of a lifeline for her government and a chance to claw back to her position of political preeminence—a position that is currently under serious threat from a fast-rising BJP. It was clear from her speech that the CAB and the NRC would be her main political tools to beat back the BJP and retain power in the 2021 Assembly elections.
The day the CAB was introduced in the Lok Sabha, Mamata Banerjee issued a direct challenge to the Centre, almost daring it to implement the CAB in the State. “Who is the BJP to decide who will get citizenship and who will not? We will never allow it in Bengal. They cannot throw out a legal citizen of the country and make a refugee out of him,” she said, labelling the CAB and the NRC as two sides of the same coin.
The CPI(M)-led Left Front and the West Bengal Pradesh Congress also condemned the Bill in strong words. Though the Left, the Congress and the Trinamool have all taken an unwavering stand against the CAB, it is by no means a united opposition. CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Mohammad Salim even raised questions regarding Mamata Banerjee’s commitment to her opposition to the CAB and the NRC. “The Trinamool government is looking for land to set up NRC detention camps, has taken money from the Centre and is proceeding with setting up these camps; and yet the Chief Minister is vocally opposing the NRC,” he said. Salim likened the NRC, the CAB and the NPR (National Population Register) as “three episodes of the same mega serial”.
Interestingly, non-political organisations displayed more promptness in hitting the streets in protest against the CAB than political parties. Several bodies and platforms such as the NRC Birodhi Jukta Mancha and the No NRC Movement—which originated on Facebook and has a membership of more than one lakh—have emerged specifically to address the CAB and NRC issues. These organisations, along with well-known ones such as the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) and student bodies from different institutions, have taken their protests to the streets not just in Kolkata but also in different districts across the State, particularly regions where there is a high Muslim population. “The kind of response we are seeing from the general public against the NRC and the CAB is something not witnessed in a while. More interestingly, it is not only Muslim organisations that are protesting. In fact, Muslim organisations appear to be onlookers here, choosing to wait for Mamata Banerjee’s course of action,” Ranajit Sur, a veteran activist with APDR, told Frontline .
On the day the Bill was placed in the Lok Sabha, the Joint Forum Against NRC, a conglomeration of different rights organisations and members of various political parties, held a massive rally in Kolkata. It was the culmination of a three-week-long campaign across the State. Addressing the rally, the Communist Party of India leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, said: “If the government is identifying you as an infiltrator, then it is the government that must prove it. It is not your job to prove your Indian citizenship.” Other speakers at the rally also exhorted people to not cooperate in the NPR process.
The Indian Cultural Forum issued a statement signed by 625 people, including eminent academics, writers and artists, condemning the CAB. Among the signatories were Romila Thapar, Prabhat Patnaik, Arundhati Roy and Amit Chaudhuri.
After four days of peaceful protest, the agitation turned violent on December 13, as angry mobs protesting against the CAB and the NRC went on a rampage in Murshidabad, Howrah and Medinipur, setting up blockades, destroying public property and attacking railway stations.
Mamata Banerjee has been vocal against the NRC right from the start. In fact, she was among the first leaders to send a delegation to Assam when the NRC exercise was taking place there. Even during the Lok Sabha election, Mamata Banerjee made the NRC one of the main planks for her campaign, giving it a Bengali identity twist to suit her politics. She tried to project the NRC in Assam as an anti-Bengali issue, alleging that Bengali-speaking people of Assam were the primary targets. But, since the Assam NRC result was not out before the Lok Sabha elections, it did not gain much ground, and Mamata Banerjee suffered a serious setback in the State resulting from a surge in the BJP vote share. The BJP wrested 14 seats from the ruling party and secured 18 of the 42 seats in the State. With its vote share soaring to 40.25 per cent, just 3 per cent less than that of Trinamool, it seemed poised to give the Trinamool a run for its money in the 2021 Assembly elections.
For Mamata Banerjee, Muslim votes have always been a key factor for electoral success. The 27 per cent Muslim population in West Bengal according to the 2011 Census may have increased to over 30 per cent now. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections revealed a sharp polarisation in the voting pattern in the State, with the BJP consolidating Hindu votes to its side. In around 130 of the 294 constituencies in the State, Muslim votes have a decisive role. Of these 130 constituencies, the Muslim population stands between 40 to 90 per cent in 74 constituencies. In the Lok Sabha elections, Mamata Banerjee led in 98 of the 130 constituencies and 60 of the 74 constituencies, clearly pointing to the firm Muslim support for her. But in spite of that, the BJP secured 40 per cent of the overall votes, which was an ominous sign for her.
The BJP hopes that the CAB will serve to further wean away Trinamool’s Hindu votes and increase its own vote bank among the refugee Hindus. “It must be remembered that there are various categories of Hindu refugees. Those who came in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are already integrated into the social and political system. But for those Hindu refugees who have come to India in the 1980s and 1990s and continue to come today, this CAB will be a huge relief and the BJP can count on their support in the elections in the years to come,” the well-known psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty told Frontline .
Already, there is rumbling within a section of the Matuas (Namashudra community refugees from Bangladesh who had entered India around 1971) over the ruling party’s opposition to the CAB. The Matua population that is a factor in around 30 constituencies has already started leaning towards the BJP.
The grant of Indian citizenship has been a longstanding demand of the Matua community, and in the Lok Sabha election this year, a sizeable section voted for the BJP, costing the Trinamool its Lok Sabha seats in Bongaon and Ranaghat.
BATTLE FOR SURVIVAL
The usually combative and mercurial Mamata Banerjee, who, in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was one of the most vocal critics of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, appeared to have toned down her aggressive stand after the setback. The months following the election results saw her party reeling under allegations of corruption and violent uprisings at the grass-roots level against the widespread practice of local Trinamool leaders taking “cut money” from government welfare schemes.
Moreover, in her attempt to win back Hindu votes, Mamata Banerjee once again resorted to playing the religious card, which only managed to alienate a section of her Muslim supporters. Moreover, the announcement of Asaduddin Owaisi that his All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) party will also be contesting the Assembly election meant more trouble for Mamata Banerjee as it would mean a possible split in the Muslim votes—something that she simply cannot afford in the given political situation.
In this scenario, the only political handle available for Mamata Banerjee to take on the BJP in the State was the proposed NRC and the CAB. On September 6 this year, at the Trinamool’s initiative, all the major political parties in the State except the BJP joined hands to pass a resolution in the Assembly opposing the NRC exercise in Assam and resolved not to allow it to take place in West Bengal.
During the House proceedings, however, BJP Legislature Party leader Manoj Tigga reminded the House that on July 21, 1993, Mamata Banerjee, the then leader of the State Youth Congress, had led a rally demanding “no voter card, no vote” and how on August 4, 2005, she had stormed out of the Lok Sabha when she was not allowed to raise the issue of “illegal infiltration from Bangladesh” for debate in the House.
The anti-NRC political gambit by Mamata Banerjee finally paid dividends as, much to the BJP’s dismay, the Trinamool swept the byelections to three Assembly constituencies in November 2019, wresting two seats from the BJP. The BJP not only lost the Kharagpur Sadar seat that was won by the State party chief Dilip Ghosh before he went on to become a Lok Sabha member, but it also allowed the Kaliaganj seat to slip from its grasp. In the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had a lead of around 56,000 against the Trinamool in the Kaliaganj Assembly segment.
Even the BJP cannot deny that the Trinamool used the fear of the NRC to its advantage. “The Trinamool successfully put the fear of the NRC in the people of Kaliaganj, and for doing that also used the local administration. The tribal people, the people from the Rajbangshi community and the Muslims were told that the BJP would drive them out using the NRC, even though all these people were Indian citizens,” said Biswajit Lahiri, general secretary of the BJP in Uttar Dinajpur district, where Kaliaganj is located. Lahiri admitted that his party had not gone to the people to refute the Trinamool’s allegations.
The Trinamool, on the other hand, believes that its victories in Kaliaganj and Kharagpur are a validation of its claim that the people of West Bengal have rejected the BJP’s proposals for the NRC and the CAB. “The defeats in Kaliaganj and Kharagpur are of huge national significance. They showed that the BJP can be defeated by a spirited Trinamool even in constituencies where, in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had sizeable leads. Both these constituencies had small minority populations, which suggests that people of all communities have come together to support the Trinamool. The opposition to the CAB and the NRC is going to propel the Trinamool Congress to the centre stage of national politics,” senior Trinamool leader Om Prakash Mishra told Frontline .
The CAB’s impact on the Gorkha community in the Darjeeling hills of north Bengal will also be interesting to observe. According to Binny Sharma, senior Trinamool leader from Darjeeling, there is already panic among the people of the region. “The fear of the Gorkhas is justified as 19 lakh were left out in the NRC exercise in Assam. People have started raising their voices here. Things will change in the Darjeeling hills soon,” Sharma said. The Darjeeling hills handed Mamata Banerjee a crushing defeat in the Lok Sabha election, with the BJP winning with a margin of over four lakh votes—the highest in the State. The Trinamool is now pinning its hope on the CAB turning the tide in its favour.
NRC IMPACT ON THE BJP
The BJP, on its part, is hoping that the CAB will reverse the NRC effect. As early as October this year, when it was clear that the State unit of the BJP was on the back foot over the Trinamool’s opposition to the NRC, Union Home Minister Amit Shah assured in a public meeting in Kolkata that the NRC process in West Bengal would not take place before the CAB. However, by then it was too late to reverse the damage.
With the Bill now passed by Parliament, the State BJP leadership feels that the panic caused by the NRC among the people will subside. “The Trinamool created a panic situation through lies; the CAB will expose that. West Bengal has around 2.5 crore voters who have originally come from Bangladesh. The message going to the Hindu refugees is that the BJP is allowing them to stay, while the Trinamool is opposing them. This will be another catalyst for the unification of Hindu votes in Bengal; we can see that happening now. Mamata Banerjee has used her trump card, the NRC, a little too early. It is like using your best bowler for a practice match. It will not work anymore,” Joyprakash Majumdar, vice president of the West Bengal BJP, told Frontline .
Trinamool leaders are dismissive of the BJP’s hopes. “It is a futile exercise based on a complete lack of understanding of the Indian ethos. They have diluted the concept of refugee and it is a self-defeating project and is bound to end up in failure,” said Om Prakash Mishra.
However, informed sources in both the parties have expressed a feeling of uncertainty on the issue. The BJP has already burnt its fingers with the NRC, and the Trinamool is not sure whether it can keep the NRC factor alive until the 2021 elections to be an effective tool against that party.