“There will be no NRC (National Register of Citizens) in Bengal as long as the Trinamool Congress is in power,” has been West Bengal Chief Minister and party supremo Mamata Banerjee’s constant refrain since the Lok Sabha 2019 polls. And after roping in Prashant Kishor as her chief election strategist, ahead of the 2021 Assembly polls, Banerjee is using the NRC as a single-point agenda to rally support for her party and push back a BJP surge.
Since June this year, Banerjee has been constantly raising the alarm over the NRC and the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill. This has served two purposes — one, to consolidate the minority (Muslim) vote bank in her favour; and two, to split the Hindu and non-Muslim refugee votes between the BJP and Trinamool. Muslim votes play a determining factor in 130 of the 294 Assembly seats in West Bengal.
To add to it, there has been a slew of policy decisions — such as land regularisation for refugee colonies, digital identification cards of citizens and so on — that in a way, counter the NRC, while boosting the Chief Minister’s image as a grassroots mass leader. “These are primarily confidence building measures,” said a party leader, requesting anonymity.
According to Professor Biswanath Chakraborty, a noted political analyst, the three by-poll victories for the Trinamool in Kharagpur (East Midnapore), Karimpur (Nadia) and Kaliaganj (Uttar Dinajpur), show complete consolidation of Muslim votes for the ruling party. On the other hand, there is no such consolidation in case of the Hindu votes yet. In fact, there has been a further division of Hindu votes (and those of non-Muslim refugees) between the BJP and the ruling party, which hurts the saffron party’s poll prospects.
“Mamata Banerjee has used NRC to not just consolidate Muslim votes in her favour, but, has split Hindu votes,” he told BusinessLine, adding that it was high time for the BJP get a name to fight back the chief minister’s image as a mass leader.
“BJP cannot bank on Modi-Shah magic to see it through in the State elections here. They need to balance national and regional issues with an appropriate State-level leader,” Chakraborty opined.
Raising the Alarm
Since her party’s poor performance in the Lok Sabha polls, Banerjee was quite astute when it came to raising the alarm over the issue of NRC. She initially raised the issue of omission of Hindu names (particularly, Bengali ones) from the draft NRC carried out in Assam. She then laid out her cards slowly, first invoking Bengali pride (to build public opinion and whipping up sentiments); then as the issue got public attention, she began making it her main point in public meetings and press conferences.
She played on this further by claiming that several people had committed suicide in Bengal over the uncertainty caused by the NRC.
Every time a senior BJP leader spoke of NRC, even if it was in Delhi, Banerjee quickly took to social media to counter them and reiterate her opposition. She even streamlined party spokespersons so that the issue would not die in the din of too many voices.
In November, when Union Home Minister Amit Shah said in Parliament, that a citizen’s register on the lines of NRC in Assam will be implemented pan-India, Banerjee was attending a State government programme at a remote village some 1,500 km away. But that did not stop her from taking up the issue and speaking on it at length.
Even during the campaigning days of the just concluded by-polls, it was said Trinamool Congress workers in places such as Karimpur and Kaliaganj — two constituencies near the Indo-Bangla border — carried out a door-to-door campaign against NRC.
“There were standing instructions to talk to those households (Hindu ones) that may not have the necessary documents to show during an NRC headcount and convince them against the exercise,” a Trinamool leader said.
Regularising Refugee Colonies
Banerjee has also taken policy decisions to counter NRC. One such decision was to regularise all land in the State, where refugees have settled since the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
The Chief Minister maintained that refugees have no land documents from the time they settled down. The State government will provide land titles, thereby granting them legality. They will now get rights to the property and pay taxes to the government.
Typically, these residents have voter ID cards and ration cards but face difficulty in getting passports as they generally fail to provide official documents for residence proof.
Since the Bangladesh Liberation War, an estimated 200,000 refugee families (80-90lakh population) have settled in Bengal, especially in border districts such as North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur, Nadia, Murshidabad, Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri. Refugee colonies are also found places like Asansol and Durgapur and in parts of Kolkata, in localities such as Jadavpur and Dum Dum. Settlements came up on State government land, land belonging to the Central government and PSUs, Railways, and even on private properties.
According to State government sources, 94 refugee colonies have already been regularised, while another 235 will be regularised now.
Political observers say the Trinamool lost a huge chunk of Scheduled Caste votes and also lost votes across communities such as Rajbanshis and Matuas (a Hindu refugee community from Bangladesh) in the Lok Sabha polls. They are settled in several districts. The move will help Banerjee get through the non-Muslim refugee votes, the same chunk that BJP is targeting through NRC.
Digital ID cards
The Mamata Banerjee government is also issuing ‘non-subsidised ration cards’. These can be used as ID proof apart from existing ones such as Aadhaar, PAN, passport and voter ID cards. The cards are part of a larger exercise, that is, digitisation of ration cards and cleaning up the public distribution system (PDS) here.
In fact, Banerjee’s government put out television advertisements claiming that the process is not linked to the NRC in any way but aimed at issuing a set of identity cards so that people can withdraw rations.
This is being seen as another counter move. Ration cards, it is being said, can be used as one of the documents to submit proof of citizenship.
BJP sees red
In fact, senior BJP leaders have been quite vocal about the parallel identity cards being issued and the refugee colony regularisation process. The Assembly by-poll results show that the West Bengal Chief Minister has, albeit temporarily, put speedbreakers on the saffron party’s march. Her party won all the three seats with a comfortable 20,000 plus lead over its challengers in the two seats.
According to BJP MP Swapan Dasgupta, the dissection of results shows her success in creating alarm over the possible fallout of the nationwide National Register of Citizens.
“Whereas the BJP promised an NRC after the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the ongoing session of Parliament, Trinamool propaganda focused on flaws of the NRC in Assam. It was suggested that the NRC would not only discriminate against Muslims but would end up making Hindu refugees stateless. She equated that the proposed NRC would automatically include all Hindu refugees from Bangladesh,” he said.
Dasgupta adds that the BJP is relatively new in Bengal and that there is a need to balance the national approach with regional. “More than spin doctors, it was how she presented her points to the people that mattered,” he added.