Mamata Banerjee’s universalist stand on questions of citizenship raised by the NPR-NRC-CAA debate is a welcome addition to a narrative bloated by divisive ideology
In a typically cryptic Centre-Right way, BJP's Dilip Ghosh's jibe that "getting elected or voting does not make one a citizen", ostensibly referring to party MP, Shri Santanu Thakur, was aimed at exhorting the Matua Bengalis to celebrate the passage of CAA in the Indian parliament. The Centre-Right, through the triumvirate NPR, NRC and CAA wants to segregate whom they define as 'infiltrators' from whom they call 'refugees'. Politicised use of tags like 'illegal immigrants', 'religiously persecuted minorities of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan', 'indigenous and non-indigenous', etc., essentially breach the Constitutional definition of "We, the People". As a result, Assam now does not know what it would do with the huge NRC excluded population. In Bengal, CAA brings in an opportunity of 'plea bargain' by self-declared non-Muslim Bangladeshis refugees, who, left to the discretion of the Central government, would have to first turn them to 'refugees' again before they are mercifully re-registered as citizens.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, in her opposition to such a diabolical procedure of stripping the citizenship of linguistic and religious minorities across India, rung the alarm bell regarding the potential damage to nation's composite culture of pluralism. Once the grievous damage of communal division that NPR, NRC and CAA would get imprinted on India's fragile social fabric, it is irreparable for Mamata. True to her republican spirit, she is not ready to lose the battle for democracy and pluralism, while the issue of illegal border crossers can hardly be resolved by faulty NPR, NRC and CAA. In her famous slogan of "CAA, CAA, shame, shame" she deplored the self-flagellation of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Centre-Right, which frequently turns to an extremely xenophobic and exclusivist religious lebensraum. She debunked the attitude of labelling nonimmigrant citizens of Assam as illegal immigrants and protested against the gameplan of repeating the same lebensraum in Bengal. She refused to give in to vote bank politics in Bengal by using NPR, NRC and CAA and threw up her alternative conception of recognising everyone found living within the borders as Indians unless the state prosecutes them as a foreigner or illegal immigrants.
Does this liberal, democratic and humanist universalism of inclusion, as repeatedly asserted by Mamata during her Lok Sabha campaign get glossed over in the vitriolic rhetoric of othering of Muslims by her opponents? Irrespective of ups and downs in vote share, what remains important is Mamata's unflinching commitment for an inclusive, humane and democratic citizenship in the true spirit of Bengali cosmopolitanism that could blunt the sting of the toxic polarisation. By this, Mamata made her opponents turn perversely shriller in their divisive rhetoric on citizenship, as she went on to effectively neutralise the ploys of religious division in Bengal and elsewhere through NPR-NRC-CAA.
AIMIM leader Waris Pathan's stoking communal passion, or Union Minister Giriraj Singh's reactionary attrition stand in sharp contrast to Mamata's powerful debunking of such rhetoric toward the gullible. As against Centre's emphasis on conducting NPR-NRC, Mamata's shaming of CAA creates an alternative discourse of securing citizenship without crafting ethnic and religious chasm. The divisive contours of NPR-NRC that are brought out in the form of exclusion of Muslims by a special law like CAA throws a large section of people in a situation of contrived uncertainty about their citizenship. This not only rivets Bengal with Assam lebensraum politics, but a nationwide CAA increases vulnerability among minorities by allowing for 'reasonable doubt' on someone's citizenship by the state, based on their social identity and linkages with parents. Given that Assam's NRC largely excluded Bengali Hindus and Muslims who have been citizens in the past, a repeat in Bengal and the rest of India would be even deleterious. Though Central government is yet to come out with its version of NRC, the present data format of NPR controversially brings in entries on parents' date of birth and birthplace. As seen in Assam's NRC, the exclusion was a result of finding some anomalies in the documentation, determination of citizenship' under rules pertaining to NPR empowers the local registrar of citizen registration to include or exclude someone from 'national register of Indian citizens'. Here again, the Government of West Bengal withheld NPR exercise, giving a due rationale for not making a state register of citizens that NPR prescribes and which is supposed to act as a database for a national register of citizens.
In a recent judgment on deciding citizenship of Jabeda Begum of Assam's Baksa district, the Gauhati high court rejected voter's ID, PAN, land revenue slips and such other 15 documents as insufficient to prove one's citizenship, as none of these established lineage. Alas, even before NRC exercise has been taken up in West Bengal, so many people died out of trauma and the sense of future statelessness. The issue is, is it not enough to be a citizen of India, unless one also has the ability to prove that one is a citizen? How would the unlettered, marginalised, Dalits, minorities, orphans, beggars, footpath dwellers and many other such categories of people along with those who have some documents conclusively 'prove' their citizenship in a situation of erosion of democratic trust? Given Assam's experience of manufacturing foreigners out of bonafide and genuine Indian citizens and the role of NRC, in being the silent killer of at least 120 people in Assam and some 30 in Bengal even before NRC started in Bengal, it would be unwise to make Assam happen in Bengal.
In the queer turn of events, a high-level committee formed by the Government of India to recommend steps to implement constitutional safeguard to Assamese people reportedly arrived at a notion of 'indigenous', which would deepen the faultlines between ethnic identities and sub-regions of Assam. Bengal's problems with ethnic separatism would get a further shot in the arm from such developments in Assam. A further issue is that the universal character of Indian citizenship is getting undermined by considerations like who is an autochthon, who is indigenous and who is an outsider connoting pervasive racism, xenophobia and othering.
Mamata's universalist stand on citizenship desists from this ideological fall-out of NPR-NRC-CAA not only in the context of Bengal but also throws up a new light in the darkness of fragmentation and division. Regional players like Uddhav Thakre, Rajanikant or Nitish Kumar's difference with Prashant Kishore on CAA show that various states and regions of the country do not have any consensus on undertaking a controversial project like NPR-NRC and CAA. The situation warrants immediate positive course correction to reconcile conflicting identities and interests so that the very idea of India does not suffer a jolt.
The writer is an author, political analyst and an Associate Professor of Philosophy at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Views expressed are strictly personal