West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Updating the National Register of Citizens, a long-overdue exercise, is necessary to detect all foreign nationals illegally residing in India.

    Banerjee will, of course, oppose it since she depends on the votes of these illegal immigrants to retain power in Bengal.

Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s stringent opposition to the ongoing massive exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) not only reeks of narrow political opportunism and unpatriotism, but is also a direct challenge to the Supreme Court, which had ordered the NRC update and had been monitoring the exercise (read all Supreme Court orders on NRC updating in Assam).

Moreover, Banerjee’s statement on Wednesday (3 January), warning that the NRC updating exercise could have a negative fallout in Bengal appears to be a dangerous attempt to trigger communal strife.

Banerjee, addressing a public meeting in Birbhum district, made highly provocative remarks against the NRC updating exercise in Assam. As is her wont, she blamed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the centre for it when, in reality, the union government has nothing to do with the exercise. She not only displayed her wilful ignorance in this regard but also attempted to play the Bengali card by saying the NRC updating exercise was a “conspiracy by the centre to drive Bengalis out of Assam”.

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This statement is a highly mischievous one and needs to be challenged immediately. The challenge should be mounted by the Assam government which should, right away, bring Banerjee’s insidious statement to the Supreme Court’s notice through a special petition. She has attributed communal motives to the NRC update that has been mandated, and is being monitored, by the Supreme Court. This should not go unchallenged; she is not only patently guilty of contempt of court, but also of trying to trigger communal tensions.

But Banerjee is not naive. She has made the statements (against NRC update in Assam) deliberately with the objective of portraying herself as a saviour of not only the minorities – the whole exercise is aimed at detecting illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam – but also one of all Bengali-speaking people. Banerjee has played the Bengali card in the past, most notably during the Gorkhaland agitation. But this time, she is playing it with renewed zeal because she is worried about the growing support for the BJP among Bengali Hindus, especially in the rural and semi-urban areas of Bengal. She feels she can put the BJP in Bengal on the back foot by blaming the party for the likely exclusion of names of Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims (who entered the state in large numbers after 24 March 1971, the cut-off date as decided under the 1985 Assam Accord).

However, all Hindus who fled Bangladesh after 1971 – due to religious, social and economic persecution that is rife in Bangladesh – and have taken refuge in Assam or other parts of India have no cause for concern. The union government has already announced its resolve to amend the 1955 Citizenship Act to enable Hindu migrants from neighbouring countries to claim Indian citizenship. But, as was argued in this article in Swarajya by this author nearly a year ago, Assam’s concerns about the presence of Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh needs to be addressed immediately. Assam should not have to bear the burden of hosting Hindu refugees – they should be relocated to other states, and the possibility of reviving the Dandakaranya Project or conceiving something along similar lines should be explored.

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Also, as has been argued in the same article, those Bengali Hindu refugees who migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan and chose to remain in Assam have to integrate themselves with the Assamese. Unfortunately, they have kept themselves away from Assamese society and Assamese cultural milieu in the name of preserving their Bengali identity and this lack of integration has caused social strife in that state. It is perfectly possible for them to preserve their Bengali identity – speak, read, write and learn in their mother tongue, sing and listen to Rabindrasangeet and celebrate Poila Boisakh – while, at the same time, celebrate Bihu, go to namghars and speak Assamese fluently. After all, they don’t shy away from striving to speak English fluently!

Banerjee’s apparent attempts to stoke fears among Bengali Hindus by reviving the painful memories of the 1960s language movement, which led to the exodus of tens of thousands of Bengali-speaking Hindus from Assam to Bengal, is condemnable. She said on Wednesday (3 January) that the NRC update is an excuse to expel Bengalis from Assam. “Look at Assam. 'Bongali Khedao' (expel the Bengalis) is going on there,” she said. She deliberately tried to play communal politics and suggested a communal angle to a Supreme Court-mandated exercise.

As for the post-March 1971 Muslim immigrants, they have genuine cause for concern and are most likely to find their names, as well as those of their progeny, missing from the final NRC once it is published by the middle of this year. And Banerjee has no business defending them. They have entered India illegally and, as Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal put it bluntly, and rightly so, those whose names do not figure in the NRC will lose their citizenship and fundamental rights. They will lose their citizenship rights and will only have humanitarian rights – to food, clothing and shelter. What Sonowal said is strictly as per the law of the land and the Constitution of India. What Banerjee said on Tuesday (2 January) is quite the opposite in spirit.

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Banerjee’s attempts to club Hindu and Muslim migrants from Bangladesh as one has to be resisted, and that resistance has to come from Bengali Hindu migrants. It is up to them to stand up and declare that they do not want, and need, Banerjee to be their spokesperson. Unfortunately, and very strangely, some sections of Bengali Hindu immigrants share an inexplicable sense of kinship (based on linguistic affinity) with Bengali-speaking Muslims despite having fled persecution in East Pakistan and then Bangladesh solely because they were Hindus. Banerjee is trying to fish in troubled waters, and Bengali-speaking Hindus in Assam have to stoutly resist and defeat her nefarious designs for their own good. They will lose the sympathy and support of the people of Assam if they allow her to speak for them. And they should remember that she is opposing the amendment to the Citizenship Act to grant them Indian citizenship.

No right-thinking and patriotic Indian who has the interests of their nation at heart can oppose the NRC update in Assam. The updating of the NRC, a long-overdue exercise, is necessary to detect all foreign nationals illegally residing in India. Banerjee will, of course, oppose it since she depends on the votes of these illegal immigrants to retain power in Bengal. But she should not go unchallenged. The Assam government should consider taking Banerjee to the Supreme Court and file not only a contempt petition but also a case for trying to incite communal tensions and violence, against her.

In the final analysis, the NRC updating exercise will not only sift genuine Indian citizens from foreigners, but also patriotic Indians from the unpatriotic ones. For, those who oppose the NRC update cannot be called patriotic at all.

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