West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s threat of a civil war and a bloodbath if a section of the West Bengal population is sought to be disenfranchised on the basis of a future report of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which was in principle mandated by the Supreme Court to identify illegal migrants from Bangladesh is highly provocative and incendiary.
Banerjee has the tendency to shoot from the hip but being in a highly responsible position as chief minister she must weigh her words and think of the consequences of her irresponsible statements.
This is a highly sensitive matter and if there are riots or other forms of violence the blame can come on Banerjee for it. Such a statement can be interpreted as incitement to violence.
The NRC which took up the case of Assam in the first place in its draft report, has identified over 40 lakh migrants from Bangladesh after the cut-off date of March 24, 1971 as living illegally in Assam. The hard reality is that a substantial section of them, most of them fleeing under duress due to persecution and a life of deprivation became a convenient tool in the hands of some political parties especially the Congress in Assam and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal to use as a vote bank.
While Mamata’s concern is with Bengal where the NRC is yet to identify the illegals, she is shaken by the Assam example and fears for the loss of her Muslim vote bank in her state. She has reason to believe that after Assam it is West Bengal that would be targeted for NRC’s attention since some BJP leaders have explicitly revealed so.
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It is widely believed that the influx from Bangladesh was highest in West Bengal. During the UPA regime, Sriprakash Jaiswal, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, had made a statement in Parliament on July 14, 2004, that there were 12 million illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators living in India, and West Bengal topped the list with 5.7 million Bangladeshis.
Having cultivated these immigrants and showered favours on them, including the grant of Indian citizenship without regard to the fact that they infiltrated into India without valid papers, the Trinamool Congress has been a huge beneficiary of the large vote bank in Bengal as the Congress was in Assam.
Politically, the Bangladeshi migrants are in a position to influence the results of the elections in a large number of constituencies in the Northeast. One estimate is that this is so in about 32 per cent of the constituencies in Assam alone. The estimates for West Bengal are yet to be computed.
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The BJP is salivating at the prospect of this huge vote bank of Mamata’s party in West Bengal losing the power to prop her up. At what stage the likely disenfranchisement would happen is, however, a big question mark and the benefit of this may well be lost to the BJP in next year’s Lok Sabha elections.
While making the statement on civil war, Mamata apparently did not reckon with the BJP’s penchant for polarizing Hindu voters. The BJP would indeed do everything possible to turn the Hindus en masse against Mamata, citing her desperation to keep the minority voters in good humour.
The party would indeed project Mamata’s stand of seeking to prevent the disenfranchisement of a section of the minority voters as an index that vote bank politics is more important to her than national interest.
Indeed, in the shape of NRC, the BJP has discovered a goose that lays golden eggs though the body would only be doing its duly-mandated work.
Clearly, Mamata has been caught on the wrong foot. Whether she shifts her position to suit her interests remains to be seen.