By contesting the basis of identity and citizenship, Banerjee is tapping into a deep pool of Bengali sentiment as well as anxiety.
The minimum requirement of citizenship has been set at the possession of the ubiquitous voter identity card; the declaration that “every voter is a citizen” is West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s riposte to the politics of identity that the BJP-NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen to exclude constituents from “others”.
The simplification of determining identity is imperative for the Trinamul Congress as the BJP raises the spectre of communal identity by threatening to extend the complicated, expensive and error-ridden process of listing via the National Register of Citizens to West Bengal after the exercise in Assam, in which 40 lakh people have been made stateless as of now.
By declaring that the Voter ID would be the one and only proof required to establish citizenship, Ms Banerjee has transformed herself into a champion of the defenceless against the wicked intentions of an unprincipled aggressor. This is a role where she excels, having perfected it with years of practice against the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front in West Bengal. The fusing of the cause and the champion is reflected in her clumsy but evocative slogan — “Ma, Mati, Manush” — (Mother, Land and People) originally chanted during the 2006-07 Singur-Nandigram confrontation, and which is being repackaged now in the context of communal identities and citizenship.
The BJP also made it easy for Ms Banerjee to create a new interpretation of the intentions of the NRC, in which the saffron party metamorphoses into an inhuman and unprincipled aggressor, in using the NRC’s complicated proofs of identity to exclude legitimate citizens, more specifically 25 lakh Hindus, mostly Bengali-speaking, and 13 lakh Muslims, also Bengali-speaking. After meeting a delegation of members of the United Bengal Front, Ms Banerjee used the eve of Independence Day to launch into the BJP for questioning the rights of citizens after 72 years.
The statistics out of Assam delivered to Ms Banerjee by a delegation of Bengalis from that state has added substance to her attack that Hindus and Muslims who are Bengali speakers are in peril, not only in Assam, but in West Bengal too if the BJP returns to power at the Centre. The invocation of a Bengali identity by Ms Banerjee is a tactics for countering the communalisation of identity and citizenship by the BJP through the NRC. Through multiple iterations, the Sangh Parivar has distinguished between Hindus who fled Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan from others, specifically Muslims, who also fled. In this version, the Hindus are refugees with rights; while the Muslims are infiltrators, whose very presence is illegal.
By contesting the basis of identity and citizenship, Ms Banerjee is tapping into a deep pool of Bengali sentiment as well as anxiety. The seriously flawed and expensive NRC process begins with a cutoff date, which is March 24, 1971. The cutoff date is a reminder of the influx of millions of people from across the border during the Liberation War of East Pakistan from West Pakistan, which was described as a humanitarian crisis, a “genocide” against the Bengali-speaking nation. Language and dispossession are triggers that address the entrenched angst of Bengali nationhood.
As a counter to the BJP’s narrative that has spread through the social media like wildfire that the Bengali Hindu is in danger because of the expansion and increase of the Muslim population within West Bengal with infusions of infiltrators through sinister networks from Bangladesh, Ms Banerjee’s version invokes the idea of the Bengali nation being marginalised by the machinations of an alien power, in this case the BJP at the Centre, and more insidiously awakens anxiety among families that came to West Bengal in 1971 as refugees and remained as settlers. The families were both Hindu and Muslim. After 1971, there has been a trickle of people who have come across the border to settle in West Bengal for a variety of reasons, including economic ones.
To those families, the NRC is a menacing process. If the process is unleashed in West Bengal by a BJP government at the Centre and at the urging of an increasingly powerful BJP in state politics, these families would find it difficult to prove anything beyond the fact of ration cards, Voters IDs and now Aadhaar cards. These were prized documents that were paid for in multiple ways; sometimes by votes and at other times with support. As a true-blue Bengali, Ms Banerjee is aware of these anxieties roused by the uncertainty of proving a right to citizenship. Her declaration, therefore, that the Voter ID is the only proof needed is an assurance as well as a strategy.
There is no reliable data on how many people from Bangladesh or for that matter erstwhile East Pakistan have come across the border and settled in West Bengal. Efforts in the past to separate the local from the infiltrators produced heartrending stories and visuals of Bengali speakers across India being rounded up, tied together with ropes and sitting on the border with BSF forces guarding them. The terrible experience of Bengali speakers from West Bengal’s districts on the west bank of the Hooghly being hounded in Maharashtra and Delhi are fresh as memories of being hunted.
By emphasising on the geography of religion as a means of determining who is entitled to citizenship, the BJP may have taken a gamble that could fail in West Bengal. In the process, it has handed to Ms Banerjee an alternative narration that has the potential of galvanising the masses of “Manush”, menaced by the politics of identity. Her slogan at the July 21 rally that 2019 must see the end of the BJP at the Centre and its political nadir in West Bengal needed something more to make sense in entirely personal terms for the masses of Bengali voters. The peril in which Bengali speakers would find themselves if the NRC is used in West Bengal, just as they are in Assam, could be the one addition to push doubtful voters across and into the Trinamul Congress’ open arms in 2019, as a way of staving off a danger too terrible to contemplate.