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Does BJP’s Revival of the CAA Issue Reflect the Party’s Desperation in Bengal?

The revival of the issue, despite possible protests in the northeast at a time when Manipur has seen severe ethnic conflict, has triggered curiosities.
Union home minister Amit Shah addressing a rally in Bengal on November 29. Photo: X/@AmitShah

Kolkata: No one can stop the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), Union home minister Amit Shah told a public meeting in Kolkata on November 29.

“Mamata Banerjee is opposing the CAA, but let me say it clearly that CAA will be implemented in the country,” Shah said, three days after junior home minister Ajay Mishra assured a gathering of the Matua-Namasudra population in West Bengal that the rules under the Act would be framed before March 30 next year.

March 30 is likely to coincide with the peaking of the 2024 parliamentary election campaign.

The revival of the CAA issue, which had taken a backseat since its passage four years ago, has intrigued political observers as it is likely to trigger protests in the northeastern states, a ‘sensitive’ region already tense because of the ongoing conflict in Manipur.

The legislation, passed by the parliament on December 11, 2019, allows citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians from the Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan who came to India before 2015. However, the rules are yet to be framed. Without the rules, the implementation cannot begin.

“For framing the rules, the deadline for Lok Sabha is January 9, 2024, and for Rajya Sabha, it is March 30. We will get it done by then,” Mishra said at an event in the Bangladesh-bordering Thakurnagar area of West Bengal’s North 24-Parganas district.

Thakurnagar is the place where the main socio-religious organisation of the community, the Matua Mahasangha, is headquartered. The Matua-Namasudras are Hindu migrants from Bangladesh and the biggest voteries of the CAA in West Bengal.

However, the CAA is never seen in isolation but as a precursor to the implementation of a citizenship screening exercise at the national level in the style of the National Register of Citizens in Assam, as Shah had earlier clarified that the NRC would be implemented only after ensuring the citizenship rights of the migrants belonging to the aforementioned six religions through the CAA.

Also read: Mohan Bhagwat’s Comments on Manipur Violence Show Northeast Remains a Puzzle That RSS Can’t Solve

The law had triggered different reactions in different regions. In West Bengal, the Matua-Namasudra community – which made up about 4% of the state’s population, according to the Census of 2001 – welcomed the legislation but mostly saw it as a partial fulfilment of their demand for flawless citizenship.

In the northeastern states, political parties and student organisations opposed it, saying it would legalise illegal immigration. Various opposition parties opposed it for what they called the anti-Muslim discrimination inherent in the law.

Most of the Matua-Namasudras have identity documents like voter ID, PAN and Aadhaar but face difficulties in getting police verification reports for passports, jobs and caste certificates when they are asked to produce records of their or their parents’ name in India’s pre-1971 voter list.

Ahead of the 2021 assembly election in West Bengal, Shah had blamed the delay in framing rules on the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the continued delay had left the state’s Matua populations upset, with many feeling betrayed by the BJP.

Following Shah’s comments on Wednesday, West Bengal industries minister and senior Trinamool Congress (TMC) spokesperson Shashi Panja reiterated chief minister and party chief Mamata Banerjee’s promise that the CAA would not be implemented in the state.

“The BJP has remembered the CAA because the elections are nearing. Over the past four years, they kept seeking extension after extension, nine extensions altogether, for framing the rules. The issue will again die when the elections are over,” she said at a press meet. The TMC has always maintained that the Matua-Manasudras are already citizens and do not need the CAA.

According to a senior BJP leader who is involved in the party’s Matua outreach programme, one of the reasons behind the delay is that a large number of Matua-Namasudra community members wanted “unconditional citizenship”. They are opposed to any provision requiring them to file an application declaring themselves as a refugee and any provision related to providing proof of religious persecution in Bangladesh or any self-declaration attesting to it.

Any such unconditionality could trigger unrest in the northeast, it was feared.

Soon after Shah’s comment, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU)’s chief advisor, Samujjal Bhattacharjya, said that they would oppose the move.

“The government has exempted the inner-line cover areas and Sixth Schedule areas from the purview of the CAA. If CAA is bad for the Sixth Schedule areas and inner-line cover areas, how can it be good for Assam and the rest of the Northeast?” Bhattacharjya reportedly asked during a local TV channel debate, according to the Deccan Chronicle.

Also read: Can Congress Victory in Bengal Assembly Bypoll Have Any Larger Implications?

Nirmal Payeng, a youth leader of independent Assam MLA Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal, told The Wire they would oppose the CAA. A leader of the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO), which observes every December 11 as ‘black day’ and ‘anti-CAA day’, said they would issue a statement soon.

Apart from Assam, protests are expected in the states of Meghalaya and the tribal-dominated areas of Tripura as well.

Polarisation and the numbers game

According to Ayan Guha, author of the 2022 book The Curious Trajectory of Caste in West Bengal Politics, Shah’s pitch for the CAA seems to be directed towards the Namasudra-Matua refugees, as the community is becoming increasingly restless due to the inordinate delay in finalising the rules for implementation of the CAA.

“A large section of the community voted for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and 2021 assembly elections because of this promise. It is important for the BJP to hold on to the Namasudra support base to repeat its 2019 electoral success in the southern part of West Bengal,” Guha said.

He added that it will be a challenge for the party to navigate contradictory pulls and pressures emanating from different regions of the country on this issue. “It appears that, for the time being, the party is prioritising its Namasudra support base,” he said.

The Matua-Namasudra support is essential for winning the Bongaon and Ranaghat Lok Sabha seats of southern West Bengal and can play a significant role in the Barasat and Dum Dum Lok Sabha seats.

While the BJP won Bongaon and Ranaghat Lok Sabha seats in 2019, the 2021 assembly election revealed the Matua-Namasudra community in North 24-Parganas and Nadia districts were an exception among which the BJP’s support did not erode in the previous two years.

Maidul Islam, an assistant professor of political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC), feels that the revival of the CAA issue shows that the BJP has prioritised the numbers game. An issue like CAA is not only important in the Matua-Namasudra-dominated constituencies but also for larger polarisation.

“If they have to retain their 2019 tally of 18 Lok Sabha seats from the state, or to increase it, they have no other option but creating polarisation on issues like the CAA and Ram Temple. They must have calculated that they have more seats in Bengal where they can gain by such polarisation than what they may have to lose in the northeast,” Islam said.

Tripura and Meghalaya have two Lok Sabha seats each and Assam has 14.

Also read: BJP’s Exclusion of Muslims Is ‘Unacceptably Barbaric’, Says Amartya Sen

He added that the TMC, by unnecessarily targeting the BJP in the state assembly during the ongoing session, was actually helping the BJP’s polarisation initiatives.

However, Zaad Mahmood, an associate professor of political science at Presidency University in Kolkata, said that he would not be surprised if the BJP finally backed out of its promise using some pretext. The BJP is used to speaking in different languages while addressing different crowds and mixes the promises it is serious about with some bluffs, he said.

“The BJP can speak the language of cow-vigilante lynching gangs of central, northern and western India who target Muslims for their food habits. They can also address the beef-consuming Hindus and tribals of Goa and northeast India. Their success lies in their ability to keep people in confusion,” Mahmood told The Wire.

He thinks that in case the BJP finally goes ahead with publishing the rules, fully knowing its implications in the northeast, it would mean they are so desperate about getting the required numbers that they are ready to sacrifice the issue of national security by allowing more protests to break out in the already-volatile northeast.

“Publishing the draft ahead of the elections would mean that they feel increasing the number of seats from Bengal by creating a sharp polarisation is absolutely essential for them. In the numbers game, the northeast matters little when compared to West Bengal,” Mahmood said.

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