Certain things are above politics, namely the nation’s unity, integrity and security. Advocating regionalism for political gains can affect the nation’s health, adversely. The National Register of Citizens (NRC), now in the drafting stage, is an exercise to identify the millions, mostly Bangladeshis, who have settled in Assam illegally, thus altering the demographic balance in many districts and depriving the indigenous population of their resources and rights. These aliens, because they have the active backing of certain political parties, have substantial political control over Assam. They also often serve as a conduit to radical extremists being pushed into India by Pakistan’s ISI. So to portray the NRC as an exercise to target Indian Bengalis, is not only a case of shading the truth, but is also dangerous.
If many Bengalis legally residing in Assam have been left out of the draft NRC, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has no one but herself to blame. Reports say that her government verified only 15,000 of the 1.20 lakh names of Bengali origin sent to it by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India. A humungous 1.05 lakh names were not verified by the Bengal government. To try and make political capital out of her own government’s “oversight” is a grave injustice to these people if they are legal Indians. So it’s incumbent on CM Banerjee’s part to get her officers to work 24X7 to ensure that the people for whom it is claimed her heart is bleeding are proved to be legal residents, if they are indeed so. This will require more than words or visits to Assam’s Bengali-dominated areas by her party legislators to show their “concern”. This will require hard work, a term, which her government is, no doubt, familiar with.
Moreover, the Chief Minister’s rhetoric about Bengalis being targeted in Assam, which may result in a bloodbath, gives the issue an “Assamese vs Bengalis” colour and revives unpleasant memories. This so-called rivalry has a history washed in blood. Assam once witnessed the violent Bongal Kheda (Throw Out Bengalis) movement, which caused ethnic riots and resulted in the migration of thousands of Bengalis into West Bengal. The fear is, Bongal Kheda may see a “revival” if the Chief Minister continues to give the draft NRC a regional colour. The politician in her may think it is great optics for her party—as the protector of the Bengali community—to stage protests at Assam Bhavan in Kolkata, but in reality this may be seen as an aggravation of an already tense situation. For every small incident in Bengal, the tremors may be felt in not that faraway Assam.
What is surprising here is Mamata Banerjee appearing as the most virulent critic of the draft NRC of all Opposition leaders. At a time when she has complete control over the ground in Bengal and is expected to win the lion’s share of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats next year, why did she feel the need to launch such a high-pitched campaign to “protect Bengali interests”? She must be aware that illegal migration from Bangladesh is almost as serious a problem in Bengal as it is in Assam, so much so, many of Bengal’s border districts have witnessed demographic changes, reducing the majority community to a minority. Once, the charge against the then CPM-led Left Front government in Bengal was that they allowed Bangladeshi illegals into the state, gave them “legal” documents and made them their vote-bank. It is being said against the current Chief Minister that as long as these aliens were CPM’s vote-bank, she had a problem with them and raised the matter even in Parliament; but now that she is in power, she is replicating the CPM’s methods, perhaps more aggressively, and, therefore, her rhetoric is actually directed at getting hold of that vote-bank— to show that they are not only welcome, but also protected in her state. If that is indeed the case, she is missing a distinct undercurrent in Bengal where the bulk of the Bengali community is getting increasingly restive about illegal migration, worried as they are of consequent economic harm. So her “protect-Bengalis” narrative may not find many takers or sympathisers in the state among the majority community—and even among the minority communities belonging to the state—especially since the NRC exercise is about identifying and isolating illegal migrants of whichever faith. In fact, BJP’s demand for an NRC in Bengal may find support cutting across religious lines, as it happened in Assam. A leader who has Prime Ministerial ambitions should avoid showcasing herself to the whole country as supporting illegal migrants, at the cost of India’s unity, integrity and security. The people expect Mamata Banerjee to support Indian and not foreign citizens.