India: Efforts Begin in West Bengal to Update National Register of Citizens

Jaishree Balasubramanian
New Delhi
180918-IN-registry-620.jpg West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee arrives at Parliament House in New Delhi, Aug. 1, 2018.

India’s Hindu nationalist BJP government has launched a campaign in West Bengal to elicit support for its plan to draw up a citizens list to identify millions of migrants who, it claims, do not belong in the state that borders Bangladesh.

The new canvassing comes weeks after a draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was released in eastern Assam state in July, left off the names of 4 million people. The Supreme Court has a hearing scheduled for Wednesday to address concerns about that list.

The West Bengal unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched the three-week campaign over the weekend, starting in rural areas along the state’s 1,000-mile (1,609-km) frontier with Bangladesh. About 20,000 party workers are involved in the campaign scheduled to end Oct. 7.

The initial plan was to “organize small group meetings and processions at the village level and later seminars at the district level and distribute handbills to explain why the NRC is important for the state,” senior BJP state party official Sayantan Basu told BenarNews on Tuesday.

“There are about 10 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the state, and we have been demanding for a long time to push them back,” he said.

The BJP leads India’s governing coalition but it is in the minority in West Bengal, whose state legislature is controlled by the All-India Trinamool Congress party.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who heads Trinamool, says she opposes the central government’s plan to use the NRC to identify and deport Bangladeshi migrants living in India without proper papers.

The NRC is being updated for the first time since 1951 to include people who have legal documents issued up to March 24, 1971, their descendants, and descendants of people on the original list, the government said.

Banerjee told reporters that sentiment against Bengali-speakers was responsible for the exclusion of millions from the Assam list and vowed she would not allow it to happen in her state.

“Some people came from Bangladesh after March 1971. ... This is not fair,” she told News18 Assam in an interview posted on YouTube on Sept. 14, in making her case for citizenship.

BJP national President Amit Shah told a news conference that the party was “committed to identify every illegal migrant in the country and deport them back to their respective countries as they pose a security threat to the nation.”

Shah said the undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh and other countries were also taking away jobs from Indian citizens.

“Infiltration from Bangladesh is a big problem for West Bengal. We will explain to the people how the Muslim immigrants are playing havoc with Bengal’s economy,” BJP National Secretary Rahul Sinha  told reporters recently.

TMC state minister Partha Chatterjee slammed the statements by BJP officials, and described the Hindu nationalist party’s NRC campaign as madness.

Court hearing

The 4 million left off the Assam list had been given until Sept. 28 to appeal to have their names added. Those efforts came to a standstill when the country’s apex court froze the appeals process setting up a hearing before the Supreme Court on Wednesday

The court is to hear the federal government’s proposal along with concerns from stakeholders regarding NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela’s plan to exclude five of 15 listed documents needed for the appeals process.

Hajela has suggested that the NRC of 1951, the 1971 electoral roll, citizenship certificate, refugee certificate and ration card, all issued by the federal or the state government not be accepted as proof of citizenship because many illegal immigrants would have access to those documents.

Acceptable documentation includes land deeds, permanent resident certificates, passports, bank and post office accounts and birth certificates issued before March 24, 1971, two days before the start of the Bangladeshi war of independence against Pakistan.

Hajela’s plan triggered fresh controversy as BJP and opposition officials said they were not consulted.

The federal government and the All Assam Minority Students Union are expected to draft affidavits opposing Hajela’s proposal.

Despite the controversy, officials from Jharkhand and Odisha states, both in eastern India, want to identify illegal immigrants in their states.

Bangladeshi officials could not be reached for comment, but when the NRC in Assam was released in July, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said he had no comment as the Indian government had not officially contacted his government.

Paritosh Kanti Paul and Jhumur Deb in Kolkata and Guwahati, India, contributed to this report.


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