As Polls Approach, Citizenship Amendment Bill Edges Centrestage In Bengal

The Citizenship Amendment Bill is perhaps the main reason for PM Modi's rally at Thakurnagar

As Polls Approach, Citizenship Amendment Bill Edges Centrestage In Bengal

At Kanthi, Amit Shah set the stage for a BJP-Trinamool showdown over Matuas of Thakurnagar


The Citizenship Amendment Bill now awaiting passage in Rajya Sabha debuted in West Bengal today at Amit Shah's election rally at Kanthi.

It is also this bill that has prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to choose Thakurnagar, about 70 km from Kolkata, as the venue for his first rally in the state on Saturday. Thakurnagar is home to the Matuas, a substantial Scheduled Caste community, most of whom came to India from Bangladesh or erstwhile East Pakistan, and many of whom do not have citizenship.

"Can Mamata stop cow smuggling? We will stop it. Can she stop illegal immigrants? We will stop them. They want votes from illegal immigrants. The Trinamool will do nothing against them," Mr Shah said and then added a communally sensitive twist.

"This is Bengal but if you do Saraswati Puja or Durga puja here, goondas attack you. Should we not be able to do Saraswati Puja and Durga Puja here in Bengal or do we have to go to Pakistan to be able to do it?" he said.

Having set the stage, he brought up the contentious issue of Citizenship Amendment Bill.

"Shouldn't Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh refugees get citizenship? Narendra Modi has got a bill. I want Mamata Banerjee to tell the people of Bengal, will she support the bill or not? Shouldn't she tell the people of Bengal? For her, illegal immigrants are welcome. Why not refugees? We will give citizenship to all refugees." he said.   

While that might sound like a lot of rhetoric, it has a huge resonance in Bengal where Hindus and Muslims streamed in from Bangladesh over past decades. Both the Left Front and the Trinamool allegedly facilitated ration cards, voter cards and citizenship for them, creating a solid vote bank.  

But the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 now in Rajya Sabha says Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs Christians or religious minorities from India's neighbours will get citizenship, but not Muslims.  

The BJP has long stated that Hindus are refugees but Muslim illegal migrants. 

"The Bill will give citizenship to outsiders, they say. Trinamool is very clear - we are for Indian citizens. With the Amendment bill, a person will be declared for six years before he is made a citizen. This is one more election jumla which will come up in Rajya Sabha next week," reacted Trinamool Congress' Derek O'Brien.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill is perhaps also the main reason for PM Modi's rally at Thakurnagar. Strictly speaking, it will not be a BJP rally but an All India Matua Mahasangh rally. Over the last century, Matuas - who are Hindus - migrated from Bangladesh to Bengal and other parts of the country. The Mahasangh claims there are eight crore Matuas in the country and three crore in Bengal. And they all vote in unison, some Matua leaders claim. 

In 2003, the NDA government passed a Citizenship Amendment Bill that set 1971 as a cut off year for all migrants. If one came before that, they were a citizen. After that, an illegal migrant - this in line with the cut off year in the Assam Accord.

The Matuas call that a 'kala kanoon' as it resulted in huge uncertainty among thousands of Matuas who had come to Bengal after 1971. They have been campaigning to have that cut off year revised. The 2016 amendment will automatically make all Matuas citizens, claims one section of Matuas, and are welcoming PM Modi to Thakurnagar. Another section, however, claims the 2016 Amendment will change nothing and are opposed to PM Modi's visit.

The section opposed to PM Modi is led by the local Trinamool lawmaker who is herself a Matua and the daughter-in-law of the Thakur family that heads the Matua sect.

Those welcoming PM Modi to Thakurnagar claim they are apolitical but prefer the BJP to the Trinamool.

At Kanthi, Amit Shah has set the stage for a BJP-Trinamool showdown over the Matuas of Thakurnagar.

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