The final National Register of Citizens (NRC), which left out around 19.6 lakh people in Assam, has put India’s and the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a quandary.
The party has for almost two decades flagged the issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as a major plank almost on par with the other components of its Hindutva ideology, including withdrawal of Article 370 from the Constitution which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, uniform civil code and construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya.
The NRC and illegal immigrant issue forms part of the BJP’s national security plank and has figured in the party’s manifesto since 1996 and was also included in its political resolutions at each of the national executive committee meetings since 2003.
BJP patriarch Lal Krishna Advani, also a former deputy prime minister and home minister, had once estimated that the number of illegal immigrants was nearly 10 lakh. Three years ago, Kirren Rijiju, the then junior minister for Home Affairs, had told the Rajya Sabha that around two crore Bangladesh immigrants had been staying illegally in India.
The sheer number put out by BJP leaders from time to time in the past had prompted the party to project the illegal immigrant as a “serious threat” to India’s national security and launch a high-decibel campaign on it in the run up to and during the campaign for national elections earlier this year.
All these had combined to raise the BJP’s political stakes in the NRC issue quite high and gave it a powerful stick to beat its rivals, particularly the Congress and Trinamool Congress, for alleged minority appeasement.
It is not merely BJP leaders, but even leaders of Congress and Communist Party of India -- including the likes of Hiteshwar Saikia, former chief minister of Assam, Sriprakash Jaiswal, a former minister of state for Home in Congress-led UPA government (2004) and Indrajit Gupta, federal home minister in the United Front coalition government in 1996, -- had in the past quoted varying figures of illegal migrants.
However, Jaiswal and Saikia later retracted their claims.
According to The Times of India, in 1998, the then Assam Governor Lt Gen (Retd) SK Sinha had in a report sent to the Indian government that said no enumeration has been done to determine the number of illegal immigrants and no figure was therefore available.
However, Sinha had mentioned the progressive decline in the number of Hindus in Bangladesh between 1971 and 1989 and surmised that they had crossed over to India.
The final figure of over 19 lakh excluded from the Supreme Court-monitored NRC published yesterday has left the BJP crestfallen so much that senior BJP leader and Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma voiced utter disappointment over the number of excluded.
Sarma also said that once the legal course by the left-outs involving Foreigners’ Tribunals, the High Court and the Supreme Court runs out, only five to six lakh people may be left out of the NRC.
“The NRC has not been able to fulfill the expectation of the people of Assam because the 19 lakh people excluded also included 3.8 lakh who did not challenge their exclusion and those who died,” Sarma said , making it clear that the number of those excluded in the final list is much less and the figure should have been much more.
Sarma is among all BJP leaders in Assam who termed the final NRC as “erroneous” and the process of updating the NRC as “flawed” because the list, according to them, should have included more illegal immigrants.
The BJP leadership had also talked a number of times in the past about deporting the illegal immigrants.
However, The Indian Express reported that the Indian government had indicated that deportation was off India’s table. According to the newspaper, Rajnath Singh, during his visit to Dhaka as Home Minister in August last year, had indicated that India had no plan to deport those excluded from the NRC.
A year down the line, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar, during his trip to the Bangladesh capital, also said the NRC was an internal matter to India.
As Assam’s ruling BJP is coming out against the final NRC and questioning its fairness, the party might find it hard to replicate it in other Indian states, which the party leadership had often in the past spoken as a political rhetoric.
The BJP has already come under attack from the opposition parties which accused its government of not being able to handle the process of updating the NRC.
The view is gaining ground in the party that the Supreme Court should again be moved with the plea for re-verification of certain portion of the names included and left out of the register. The plea was earlier rejected by the top court in July this year and there is no guarantee that it will be upheld the next time around.
Having the raised the pitch so high, it was always going to be tough for the saffron party to tread carefully through the minefield of linguistic, ethnic and religious divides thrown up by the NRC in Assam.
That was a challenge for the party in the past and still remains so in the time to come.
Has the BJP tied itself in a knot of its own making over the NRC issue?
The question remains yet to be pondered.