COME elections, the BJP can be counted on to excavate one or more of its core issues, give them a fresh lick of paint, let the coat dry and put them out before the voters. “Illegal” immigration is one of the core issues along with the Ram temple at Ayodhya, abolishing Article 370 of the Constitution and introducing a common civil code to replace religion-based personal laws governing marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance. In the eight years of the Modi government, the BJP has delivered, in entirety or partially, on three of them. However, the subject of “infiltrators” or “ghuspethiya” (intruders), largely from Bangladesh, remains a knotty one, not the least because the RSS and BJP underpinned their understanding and exposition on a distinction between a “refugee” and an “infiltrator”. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, is founded on this definition that segregates a “refugee” as a Hindu who sought sanctuary in India to escape alleged religious discrimination and persecution in the country of her origin and is, therefore, deserving of empathy and citizenship. A “ghuspethiya” on the other hand is one who “sneaked” in through a porous border to foment trouble by using unlawful means to acquire nationality and enfranchisement.
The recent communal violence in Bangladesh has come as grist to crank up the perceived apprehensions over an ‘influx’ from that country.
Before the CAA was redefined to reduce the 11-year waiting period to six for getting citizenship through naturalisation for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, the BJP sharpened its tone on “illegal” immigration. At a national executive meeting in Bhopal before the 1996 elections, it demanded the three ‘Ds’ — detection of “illegal” immigrants, deletion of their names from voters’ lists and deportation to their country of origin (read Bangladesh). The 1996 election manifesto issued a generic warning, stating, “Various demographic entities are bound to come in conflict” due to “an alarming growth of a section of the population” in “certain Northeast areas”. West Bengal was not on the BJP’s radar then. A more definitive commitment towards “resolving” the infiltration issue was enshrined in the 2019 manifesto which affirmed the completion of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the areas impacted by “illegal” immigration, extending the NRC countrywide in a phased manner, and fortifying border security. The CAA was a consequence of these averments. The CAA was one component of a larger package that contained the NRC as well as the resolve to upgrade the National Population Register (NPR).
On August 10, 2021, Nityanand Rai, the junior home minister, gave a status report on the CAA, NRC and NPR in a written reply to a question raised in the Lok Sabha. He said while the CAA was enforced on January 10, 2020, there was no decision on preparing a national NRC, while the NPR could not be updated because it required field work which was thwarted by the pandemic. The BJP has a long way to travel before realising the commitments contained in its last manifesto.
But that has not stopped the party from campaigning against infiltration with the vigour it musters in election after election. The BJP has propagated the issue widely because it noted that the “unlawful” migrants have penetrated nearly every corner under the “guise” of seeking employment. It’s no longer about Assam and the Northeast. The BJP identified West Bengal as the present epicentre of “disorder” fuelled by the expatriation from its neighbour.
In the West Bengal Assembly polls, the BJP called attention to the implementation of the CAA as a “priority” if voted to power, but was mum on carrying out the NRC for fear that it may unsettle the Hindu migrants from Bangladesh as well as the Rajbanshis of the north and the Matuas of south Bengal it wooed. The Rajbanshis and Matuas, who constitute over 25 per cent of the state’s population, had asked for the CAA, but opposed the NRC, a reflection of the contradictions inherent in a tangled package. Taking the infiltration pitch to unexpected heights, Home Minister Amit Shah, who led the West Bengal battle from the front, described cross-border infiltration as its biggest problem, called Bangladeshis “termites” and declared once the BJP was in power, “not a single bird will be able to enter”.
Between the rhetoric and the reality lies a vast, grey space inhabited by quotidian matters that impinge directly on people’s daily lives without compelling them to adopt ideological stances. This is what happened in West Bengal, where barring pockets, the BJP’s infiltration pitch left voters indifferent.
The BJP never gives up. The recent communal violence in Bangladesh, allegedly triggered by the desecration of a Koran at a Durga puja gathering in Comilla which spurred attacks on Hindu temples, homes and business establishments across the country, came as grist to crank up the perceived apprehensions over an “influx” from Bangladesh. There are four impending bypolls in West Bengal and two seats, Shantipur and Dinhata, lie close to the border. The Centre remained silent on the violence, but the BJP’s state leaders breathed fire and brimstone.
In January 2020, shortly after the Centre had notified the CAA, Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladesh PM, gave a measured response in an interview to Gulf News, where she nonetheless questioned why the amendment was necessary. At various points, Bangladesh’s politicians expressed disquiet over their country being clubbed with Pakistan on the subject of minorities’ treatment. After the violence, Obaidul Quader, the ruling Awami League’s general secretary, assured Bangladesh’s Hindus that Sheikh Hasina and her party were with them.
Does it help India’s ruling party to yoke the conduct of foreign policy and strategic affairs to domestic politics intended to win elections? It’s incumbent on the BJP to reflect on this question.
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