Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) activists hold a rally in Kolkata on Jan. 4 to protest against policies of the Trinamool Congress-led West Bengal state government and its chief minister Mamata Banerjee. (Photo: AFP)
As the 2021 elections are round the corner this summer in two eastern Indian states, West Bengal and Assam, a fierce battle is expected over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which is accused of discriminating against people based on religion.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), enacted the law a year ago but could not implement it because of fierce opposition.
The law aims to grant citizenship to refugees from neighboring Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan if they are not Muslims and arrived before December 2014.
"This new law is seen as a threat to the identity and culture of tribal Christians, and on the other hand it has the potential to garner Hindu refugees' votes to the BJP in West Bengal. This is the paradox," says political observer Ratnadeep Gupta.
Critics accuse Modi of building a Hindu state. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has cited the new legislation adopted by the Indian parliament in December 2019 and downgraded India to its lowest category of "countries of particular concern" in terms of freedom to exercise religious faith.
However, Modi himself and BJP leaders maintain that the law aims to ensure that citizenship is granted to persecuted religious minorities, including Christians and Hindus from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They argue that Muslims are not a minority in these nations and face no persecution.
The new law is likely to yield electoral dividends for the BJP in West Bengal, but it is different in Assam. A sizable section of BJP leaders in Assam are opposed to the law because of the state's demographic and social peculiarity.
Assam has witnessed protests and often violent politics over the issue of infiltration of Muslims from neighboring Bangladesh. However, ethnic groups in Assam have also been protesting the influx of Hindus from Bangladesh who they say are changing the state's demographics.
In Assam, essentially, the law is seen as a threat to the indigenous people's culture and identity and the rest of northeast India, where Christians are the majority in four states. At least five people died in Assam at the peak of anti-CAA protests on Dec. 12, 2019.
The law has been opposed vehemently by Muslim organizations, opposition parties including the Congress and the communists, and student bodies across India. In most parts of India, including in and around the national capital New Delhi, Muslim groups have led the protests, opposing its anti-Muslim slant since 2019.
In West Bengal, where the state election is due in April, the BJP's chief rival will be the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool (grassroots) Congress. Banerjee, the state's chief minister, who is accused of being pro-Muslim, has said her party will never implement the new federal law.
The BJP faces a contrasting situation. In West Bengal, the party leadership is under pressure to implement the new law at the earliest and grant citizenship to immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Assam, party leaders are forced to deny it. This paradox made Modi's trusted lieutenant and powerful federal home minister, Amit Shah, maintain silence over the issue during his visit to Assam last month.
The BJP is trying to do a fine balancing act, but that's easier said than done.
Shah's colleague and Bongaon MP Shantanu Thakur (also BJP) has put pressure on the federal government, saying people in his constituency bordering Bangladesh want immediate implementation of the law. This would essentially mean granting citizenship to the Matua Hindu community.
Members of the Matua community have migrated to West Bengal from Bangladesh over the years and are now keen for legal citizenship in India.
"This is a huge community spread over several districts in border areas. Essentially, they are Hindu refugees and if the CAA is implemented, they can influence results in favor of the BJP in at least 15-20 seats in the state assembly," says local teacher Manu Saha.
The Matua are a socially deprived community, numbering 25-30 million. It is clear that, keen to wrest power in West Bengal, BJP leaders cannot ignore the sentiment of its own lawmaker Thakur and his support base.
A local communist leader has said the BJP's national leadership is trying to skirt any specific answer to the query on when it will actually implement the CAA. Modi's party had pledged in 2019 to implement the CAA and swayed the overwhelming support of the Matua community.
However, the chances are that if the CAA is implemented immediately, the BJP, which is in power in Assam, will have to bear the brunt. During his recent visit, Amit Shah merely said that implementing the contentious law was facing delay because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is largely seen as a tactical ploy.
Meanwhile, in Assam, the politics over the CAA is heating up with strong political ramifications. Pabindra Deka, a senior legislator of regional party Asom Gana Parishad, resigned from the party because of its backing of the law brought in by the BJP.
The influential North Eastern Students' Organisation, a body of tribal students, said the protest is a message to Modi's party that the northeast, which has a substantial Christian presence, will remain opposed to the law until it is scrapped.
The CAA and a controversial move for registration of all citizens, called the National Register of Citizens, are seen as the Modi government's failure to ensure protection and equal rights for religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.
The influential US Commission on International Religious Freedom has downgraded and slammed India on this issue. "India took a sharp downward turn [in religious tolerance] in 2019," said its 2020 report released online last April. The Modi government "used its strengthened parliamentary majority [after the 2019 general election] to institute national-level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims."
The going is tough for BJP, and the 2021 state elections will be an indicator of Modi and his party's political future.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.