The heat that has been generated by the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) shows no signs of abating. Across the country, students, common people, Bollywood stars, intellectuals and Opposition parties continue to protest against the law. On the other side, the Central government has refused to back down. However, its ministers have not been able to articulate its point of view and win the people over.
BusinessLine caught up with Swapan Dasgupta, BJP member and Presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha, to discuss the contentious law. Dasgupta was a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which eventually became the CAA. Dasgupta spoke about the CAA, the BJP’s prospects in Bengal and the recent incident at Visva Bharati University, when he and others had to spend a few anxious hours waiting for a mob to disperse.
What happened at Visva Bharati on January 9?
I had gone to Visva Bharati at the invitation of the Vice Chancellor to give a talk on the CAA as part of their University Lecture Series. On the day of the function, the venue — the main auditorium — had been blocked. The Vice Chancellor shifted the venue. The lecture was delivered to a crowd of about 300 that included students, faculty, employees and maybe a few outsiders. Towards the end, a group of people shouting slogans wanted to storm the building. The security shut the gates. They prevented us for leaving for about six hours and kept up the siege. We could have forced our way out. But, that would have meant ugly scenes and violence.
What I find disturbing is not the protests. The VC made it clear that all could attend and give their views. But, a lot of them decided not to share platform with me. This no (sharing) platform business is the height of intolerance. It is an epidemic that is being spread in large parts of the world.
In the context of the protests, how do you see the narrative around the CAA play out in India now and the subsequent violence that erupted?
(The protests and violence are) based on certain misunderstanding. The first: CAA deprives certain people of citizenship. The CAA has no power to take away anyone’s citizenship. It has the power to grant and fast-track certain processes to those who are either legal refugees or illegal immigrants. Secondly, the linkage of CAA to a yet-to-be-designed form -- the NRC (National Register of Citizens), which is meant for identifying who is a citizen and who is an illegal immigrant – is also unfortunate. The linkage is also taking place in the light of the NRC in Assam, which was Supreme Court monitored; and which turned out to be horribly flawed.
Finally, I would say, the entire business of identifying or codifying citizens in the country is an overdue project. But, it requires exhaustive consultation, because India is a largely under-documented place. The Prime Minister made it very clear that (NRC or any form of it) has not come up either in Parliament or been taken up by the Cabinet for discussion.
Do you feel the BJP and Union government could have done a better job in its communication about the legislation?
I think the communication has been imperfect. The government has to take much more onus in communicating true facts, and they have not been very proactive in the entire thing. As a result, there is a lot of scare-mongering, particularly in West Bengal. There are questions which are not very pertinent or relevant.
The entire debate has been clouded by imperfect information emanating from all sides. So, I think, that clarity which should have been there has not happened. Moreover, the media has turned out to be extremely partisan. So this (the protests) have become an issue to say: “Let’s teach Narendra Modi and Amit Shah a lesson, cut them down to size.”
And finally, a large section of the Muslim community felt that they lost political power and influence post-2014. They felt their voice no longer mattered after the Triple Talaq Bill, after the Supreme Court judgment on the Ayodhya case and after abrogation of Sec 370 in Kashmir and subsequent division of that state. An influential section of them thought this was a good way to reclaim lost ground; try to assert and inform the political establishment that they do matter.
Did the BJP fail to read the ground?
You are probably right in saying that the BJP underestimated the potential opposition. The whole Citizenship thing has been under discussion from 2016 and there was opposition. But, that was in Assam and the North East. It was a specific opposition and much of that was taken care of in the 2019 Bill. The major difference between the 2016 and the 2019 bills has been as to how much (of) the concern of Assam and the North East has actually been accommodated.
But, the concerns that are being articulated now were not really expressed at that point in time. So yes, you can say that there was a failure of anticipation or you can say that these protests that you see now are post-facto.
One of the biggest shortcomings of the BJP in this context was that this was essentially a legislation primarily aimed at tying up some of the lose ends of the partition in Eastern India. This was the principal focus of this Act. And, who are the primary beneficiaries, what are the reasons, et cetera — the Bengalis from Bangladesh who came after 1972.
However, the local BJP in Bengal failed strikingly in getting some of these concerns expressed. I think they were very slow to react and I don’t think they matched up to the task that was expected. They have a formidable opponent in Mamata Banerjee who saw this as a great way in regaining lost ground, especially after the jolt she received in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Like a good politician she capitalised on it.
In view of the violence, is there scope to repeal the Act or make changes?
No. Not in the Act. You can either say that we will not grant any more citizenship. Or, you say there is complete amnesty for all illegal immigrants — which is the subtext of what Mamata Banerjee is saying — and all are welcome, whatever be the reason they have come for. If that (the second option) happens, you will have Assam go up in flames and a communal flare-up here (in West Bengal).
The larger question is this: ultimately, what do we do with people who are illegal? Atal Bihari Vajpayee proposed a sort of green card where they do not have voting rights. We also need to ask as to whether we can regulate the borders. I think the CAA was a noble and bold attempt to resolve some issues and this is just a big step. Hence I supported it.
Babul Supriyo and Governor Dhankhar faced protests at Jadavpur University. Reports suggest an institution also withdrew an invitation it had made to the Governor after the CAA protests. So, is the BJP not alienating the urban youth and student communities?
I don’t believe this is a national phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that is specific to certain institutions in Bengal. And I believe it is a problem that is associated simply with a declining Left; which is also becoming a more militant Left. There is a curious relationship, the more the Left gets electoral legitimacy the more it gets accommodating; the less the electoral popularity, the more it becomes rigid and hardcore.
Universities are places where you allow thoughts to permeate. You do not create intellectual safe zones where there is no challenge. It is a lesson that has to be learnt by both the Right and Left. The interplay between the two has kept society going.
What are the prospects of the BJP in Bengal, especially after CAA?
The BJP is a national party and a very dominant party in several parts of the country. But, here it is an extremely new party. It’s an old club which suddenly got massive traction and the process of digesting that success is still underway. The interplay and integration between those who have a comfortable club-like existence within the party for 30-40 years and those who see it as a platform to power is not yet complete. So, there is a lot more homework that the Bengal unit has to do.
And what are its prospects in 2021?
Assembly elections and Lok Sabha elections are two different things. In the latter, you can piggyback on Narendra Modi. That (is something) the Bengal unit did and in 2019 it was a vote for Modi. But the challenges are far larger in the Assembly elections.
You have a big leader in the form of Mamata Banerjee, who leads a powerful regional party. She decimated the mighty Left. Her government’s performance is not up to expectations and is marred by localised corruption. But, she is always (after) publicity. And at the moment she has created a phenomenon over CAA. And she has mobilised the entire Muslim community towards her side. So, electorally, if she get 10-12 per cent incremental votes, she will sail through.
In this context the BJP needs a systematic strategy for West Bengal. One is, you build an organisation brick by brick. That time is over. The second is you create a ‘hawa’ and build on it. Under the current circumstance that seems to be a logical approach. In the Assembly elections, Modi and Amit Shah are not the factors. So, you got to develop a Bengali leadership and get the more informed bhadralok section, the tribal community on board.
In 2019, the BJP succeeded in the periphery — north Bengal, tribal strongholds and so on; but they failed in the heart of South Bengal or in the urban constituencies. Even in terms of mobilising on CAA outreach, this has been the case.
Overall, taking a broader view, isn’t this Right versus Left narrative actually the same story being told from two differing perspectives?
The first thing, the Left — across variations of the moderate to the more extreme — has so far had the monopoly of intellectual discourse in a large sort of way. And that’s because they have access to the centres of intellectual capital across India. The BJP won elections — Vajpayee or Modi — but without much intellectual support.
What is considered as the Right in India is still a very small group; and, they certainly don’t have much of a presence in the intellectual power centres. What also passes off as the Right is a more technocratic approach. So, that is the default position of those who are not Left. So, if they are not Left, you say therefore they are Right.
In recent times, a section of the Left and section of the Muslim community have shared earlier misgivings over things like the Constitution, National flag, National Anthem and so on; and they have moved on to what may be considered a more Nehruvian plank. From the dictatorship of the proletariat to Nehru is certainly a form of the old-fashioned social democratic model. There is a shift and we see that. Whereas, what constitutes the Right takes into account the old nationalist heritage or the pre-Nehru nationalist heritage. But, how do you build it from there is a formidable intellectual challenge.
For a very long time, the RSS shunned any form of intellectual endeavour. The RSS is a large organisation and they have the resources. The good thing is that by moving away from this disdain for intellectualism, at least you are getting some sort of a churning. The Indian Right, if I may use it (that term), is still a work-in-progress. There has been a void from the 1950s to now (in Rightist thoughts). That void has to be filled. Both sides need to have a coherent view of the economy.
What is the definition of nationhood is the central debate, and that schism will remain because we are talking from two different sides. Overall, there is a debate and it is a healthy one. If electoral politics is backed up by a robust debate then it means we are coming of age as a democracy.