Bengali Hindu refugees from Bangladesh form a bulk of those excluded from the new NRC list.
Here’s what the Modi government can do to limit the possible damage that they could cause.
The entire National Register of Citizens (NRC) updation exercise for Assam has turned out to be a futile one with Bengali Hindu refugees from Bangladesh forming a bulk of the 19 lakh-odd people who have been excluded from the final list.
This has placed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments in the state and the Centre in a very difficult situation.
Hindus are, obviously, the core support base of the BJP and in Assam, Bengali Hindus form a critical support base for the party. Assamese Hindus, and the indigenous groups of the state, also voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in the 2016 assembly elections and the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The easiest thing to do for the Narendra Modi government to provide the much-needed succor to the Bengali Hindus left out of the NRC would obviously have been to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.
This bill is to grant Indian citizenship to Hindus (and five other religious groups) fleeing persecution from Bangladesh (and Pakistan and Afghanistan). But then, the Assamese Hindus and other indigenous people of Assam are vehemently opposed to the bill.
When the BJP government at the Centre attempted to get the bill passed in Parliament last year (it lapsed in the Rajya Sabha earlier this year), Assam witnessed widespread protests over it. A large number of organisations — civil society groups, students’ bodies and major political parties (including the Asom Gana Parishad or AGP, a constituent of the BJP-led alliance ruling the state) — rose in protest against it.
The BJP had to bear the brunt of popular anger in the Brahmaputra Valley (inhabited mostly by Assamese Hindus and indigenous groups, but also by Muslims of Bangladeshi origin). But the bill was welcomed enthusiastically in the Bengali-majority Barak Valley, thus triggering the age-old Barak-Brahmaputra divide.
Tempers in the Brahmaputra Valley cooled only after the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) was allowed to lapse in the Rajya Sabha.
Some in the BJP may contend that the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, held soon after anti-CAB protests that rocked Assam, indicate that the protests were largely engineered by opposition political parties. The BJP won nine of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in the state, and all by very convincing margins.
“Had the people of Assam really been so angry with the CAB, the results would have been different,” said a senior BJP office-bearer.
This contention, however, is a bit too simplistic.
Seasoned political observers say that in the presidential-style elections this year, people voted for Narendra Modi over Rahul Gandhi and the rag-tag bunch of mahagathbandhan leaders.
“The Assamese Hindus and the indigenous groups like the Bodos, Karbis, Dimasas, Ahoms etc are still opposed to any move to grant citizenship to Bengali Hindus. Their position — that Bangladeshi infiltrators, be they Hindus or Muslims, should be detected and deported — remains unchanged. After all, this was what they sacrificed during the Assam agitation and no one would like to see the sacrifices of the movement’s martyrs sullied,” said a senior AGP leader.
But that does not mean that if a fresh bill (to grant citizenship to Bengali Hindus) is drafted and introduced in Parliament, Assam will descend into disorder.
“There will be protests once again, but they will not be widespread. Modi retains his immense popularity and the BJP is sure to win the next assembly polls in 2021 irrespective of a new CAB,” said a senior BJP leader, who did not want to be named.
Another reason why the protests against a fresh CAB may be more muted is one vital realisation that has dawned on Assamese Hindus and the indigenous people after the NRC.
“A large section of Assamese Hindus and indigenous people are very distressed that only a few lakh Bangladeshi Muslims were left out (of the final NRC) and that Hindus have been affected the most. They have realised that if the names of these 11 lakh Bengali Hindus get deleted from the electoral rolls and the names of Bangladeshi Muslims remain, more areas of Assam will become Muslim-majority,” explained another BJP leader.
In fact, Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has been laboriously underlining this danger of Assam slowly becoming a Muslim-majority state if Bengali Hindu refugees from Bangladesh are denied citizenship and treated at par with Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators.
“Indigenous people, including the Assamese, have to realise that they will be doomed if Assam, or even large parts of Assam, become Muslim-majority areas,” said Sarma.
Leaders of the BJP and AGP say that a new CAB is the answer to the flawed NRC. But a fresh CAB should ensure that Assam alone does not have to bear the burden of hosting the lakhs of Bengali Hindu refugees.
“They should be re-settled in other parts of the country. And in order to make a new CAB more acceptable, the passage of the Constitutional Amendment Bill granting Scheduled Tribes (ST) status to six communities of Assam should be expedited,” said the BJP leader.
If the six communities are granted ST status, the total ST population of Assam will go up to 40 per cent and with reservation of assembly and Lok Sabha seats also kicking in automatically, the danger of Muslims of Bangladeshi origin gaining political power would have been addressed.
Simultaneously, more assembly and Lok Sabha seats ought to be reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs), irrespective of their population.
This already exists in Assam: the Karimganj Lok Sabha seat, despite being a Muslim-majority one, is reserved for SC.
If more assembly and Lok Sabha seats are reserved for SCs and indigenous people of the state, the imminent threat of Muslims becoming a dominant political force in the state would be taken care of.
Thus, it would appear that the Modi government can take the calculated risk of framing a new CAB (with some safeguards for Assam) after passing the Constitutional Amendment Bill (granting ST status to six indigenous communities) and reserving more seats for SCs.
If these are done, a fresh move to grant citizenship to Bengali Hindus will not trigger trouble in Assam.