Assam NRC final list: BJP wanted to weaponise citizenship exercise, but is now struggling with a political hot potato

  • The NRC list has put the BJP in such a tricky spot that the party is desperate to distance itself from the Supreme Court-monitored exercise.

  • The issue, instead of being a trump card, has turned out to be a political hot potato for the BJP.

  • Its political overture and optimism on the NRC were based on an assumption that the gigantic exercise will root out the Bangladeshi immigrants

The final and updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam was released on Saturday and it has put the BJP — which had once championed the humongous exercise to identify illegal immigrants in the state — in such a tricky spot that the party is desperate to distance itself from the Supreme Court-monitored exercise. Right from the central leadership to the state leadership, the party is struggling to tackle the NRC fallout which, instead of being a trump card, has turned out to be a political hot potato for the BJP.

The party’s predicament is a fascinating example of how political theories do not always work in the ground. The BJP wanted to weaponise the citizenship exercise to identify, sift and eventually deport Muslim immigrants who were said to have illegally entered Assam for decades and necessitated the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 that, according to the Supreme Court, was the cornerstone of the NRC exercise.

The BJP wanted to make political capital out of the demand for a reversal of the demographic change underway in Assam that marginalised the ethnic Assamese people and endangered their linguistic and cultural identities. Its political overture and optimism on the NRC were based on an assumption that the gigantic exercise will root out the Bangladeshi immigrants and reverse the demographic change that had adversely impacted the indigenous people’s livelihood and collective identity. The party, in its manifesto, had also tied up NRC with national security.

 Assam NRC final list: BJP wanted to weaponise citizenship exercise, but is now struggling with a political hot potato

The BJP finds itself in a spot of bother on the NRC issue. Representational image. PTI

And then all calculations went awry. To understand why this happened, we need to take a look at a few numbers. These numbers partially reveal the BJP story and explain why the party has transformed into the NRC’s biggest critic and has been demanding reverification after batting aggressively in favour of the world’s biggest citizenship register exercise and arguing for its nationwide implementation.

From 3.29 crore applicants in Assam, the final, updated list excludes over 19 lakh residents, which is less than half the number of people (41 lakh) whose names were not included in the first two drafts that were published on 30 July, 2018, and on 26 June this year. The entire exercise, monitored by the Supreme Court, kicked off in 2015 and cost the state exchequer Rs 1,220 crore.

Even in September last year, the BJP was sounding the bugle over the NRC when the first draft had turned out over 40 lakh exclusions. Addressing poll rallies, party president Amit Shah was thundering: “In Assam, our (BJP’s) government was made, at the Centre it was our government, we brought the NRC, (and) 40 lakh illegal migrants prima facie were identified.” He sought to corner the Opposition during a rally in Chhattisgarh, by saying: ““In 2019, after the BJP comes to power, we will not let even a single illegal migrant live in this country…. That is the BJP’s promise.”

The problem is, the figure of 40 lakh that Shah had touted — the figure was cited even inside the Parliament — has been whittled down to 19 lakh in the final list and it is evident that this will see a further downward revision.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, senior BJP leader and Assam finance minister, reckons the actual figure of exclusion — people who are illegal immigrants according to the NRC — won’t exceed 6-7 lakh. He calculates that around 3.80 lakh did not wish to appeal, another 5-6 lakh people belonging to the minority communities were driven out of Bangladesh before 1971, and then there are those with refugee certificates issued prior to 1971 whom the NRC authorities have rejected but whose citizenship will be considered by the Foreigner’s Tribunal. “When they will be included, the total number of exclusion will only be 6-7 lakh, which is very less,” Sarma was quoted, as saying in The Indian Express.

So, the first point of BJP’s objection over NRC is that it created a molehill out of a mountain. If the BJP had promised to identify and uproot all illegal immigrants in Assam which, according to its own estimates, numbered over 40 lakh, then the whittling down of that figure into a final exclusion list of 6-7 lakh doesn’t serve its political purpose, neither does it address the legitimate concerns of its own voter base which has become thoroughly disillusioned with the entire exercise.

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But the BJP’s woes go deeper. The NRC list of exclusions thrown up by the first two drafts (in July 2018 and June 2019) had a disproportionate number of Bengali Hindus who form the core of the BJP’s voter base in Assam. It fueled dissent within the state and pushed the BJP on the defensive. The party, which had put all its eggs in the NRC basket, couldn’t explain how the percentage of exclusions in districts of Assam bordering Bangladesh (Dhubri, South Salmara and Karimganj — all Muslim-majority regions) was lower than the state average.

Assam’s parliamentary affairs minister Chandra Mohan Patowary pointed out in the Assembly that while 12.5 percent people were excluded from the first two drafts, the corresponding figure for the Muslim-majority districts bordering Bangladesh — South Salmara, Dhubri and Karimganj — was 7.22 percent, 8.26 percent and 7.57 percent, respectively. The minister, according to a Scroll report, also cited data from Karbi Anglong (14.31 percent) and Tinsukia (13.25 percent) to posit that districts where Assam’s indigenous people were a majority (bhumiputras) have a bigger exclusion percentage.

This — according to some ministers in the state, many state BJP leaders and even the RSS — is ample proof that the NRC is deeply flawed and has been subverted by illegal immigrants who managed to obtain forged documents to prove their identities, whereas original Assam residents were left in the lurch.

This double whammy has put BJP on the ropes. Not only has its project of identifying illegal immigrants via the NRC (which it hoped would sift out a large number of Bangladeshi Muslim settlers who were long alleged to be changing the state’s demography) taken a beating, the citizenship register ended up harming its own voters base and fueling deep resentment to the extent that many Assamese residents are now blaming the NRC hotchpotch on the BJP. And having gleefully owned up a court-monitored exercise, the BJP is struggling to distance itself from it.

Ramen Deka, BJP MP from Mangaldoi, was quoted as saying that a large number of illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh had made the cut. “We are not at all happy. A large number of Bangladeshi Muslims have been enlisted, while genuine Indian citizens have been left out. The exercise was conducted under the supervision of the Supreme Court but the document is not up to the mark.”

The BJP is evidently feeling the heat, and far from accepting the final list, Sarma is saying that the BJP has “lost all hope” in the process. This may also mean that the party will think twice before calling for NRC in West Bengal , where Assembly polls are scheduled in 2021. Conversely, one may see Mamata Banerjee upping the ante, sensing BJP’s discomfiture over the issue.

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Updated Date: Aug 31, 2019 23:00:56 IST