Opinion | How Much Impact Did CAA Have On West Bengal Results? A Closer Look

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The Centre's move to notify the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) rules ahead of the Lok Sabha elections was perceived as a game-changer in West Bengal's political landscape. The decision was expected to significantly boost the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) position in the state. The implementation of these rules had long been advocated by a section of Dalit refugees, known as the Matuas, who fled religious persecution in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and settled in West Bengal.

The CAA aims to facilitate citizenship for migrants belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, who entered India on or before December 31, 2014. The Matuas, who constitute over 17% of the Scheduled Castes (SC) in West Bengal, are among those who stand to benefit from this amendment. They represent the second-largest SC group in the state after the Rajbongshis, who comprise more than 18% of North Bengal's SC population.

Many Await Recognition

Despite significant progress in granting citizenship to many Matuas, a large section still awaits recognition due to a lack of proper documentation. Their concerns were further heightened by the prospect of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) implementation in neighbouring Assam, where reports emerged of Hindus facing deportation due to inadequate identification.

While the citizenship rule amendments were welcomed in Matua-dominated areas, they faced opposition from the Rajbongshis. Organisations led by Rajbongshi leaders have been advocating for a separate state of Greater Cooch Behar, encompassing seven districts of North Bengal, as well as Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, and Dhubri in Assam.

On Sunday, June 9, when Narendra Modi and his cabinet took oath, a notable absentee was a young face from West Bengal. BJP's Nisith Pramanik, who won the Coochbehar Parliamentary seat with a significant margin in 2019, lost to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) candidate in this election by over 39,000 votes. This defeat is viewed partly as a referendum reflecting the Rajbongshi organisations' perspective on the CAA, which they perceive as legitimising "illegal" residents in their territory.

Rajbongshis Jittery

Despite the BJP's efforts to reassure the Rajbongshis by nominating Ananta Rai (officially Nagendra Ray) to the Rajya Sabha last year, tensions persisted. Rai, bearing the title of "Maharaj" as a descendant of the former ruler of Cooch Behar, distanced himself from Pramanik's election campaign even though Pramanik had reportedly played a role in Rai's nomination to the upper house of Parliament.

In other constituencies in North Bengal with a significant Rajbongshi presence, such as Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, and Darjeeling, the BJP secured victories with narrower margins, except in Raiganj, where its lead increased by approximately 8,000 votes.

In the seat dominated by the members of the Matua community in Bangaon, the BJP's Santanu Thakur retained his Lok Sabha seat, albeit with a reduced margin. In the 2019 general election, he had defeated his aunt and TMC leader Mamat Thakur, the then-sitting MP from Bongaon, by over 1.1 lakh votes, thus becoming the first non-TMC candidate to win in this constituency since its delimitation in 2009. Thakur also serves as the leader of All India Matua Mahasangha, headquartered in Bangaon.

The aunt, now a Rajya Sabha member, has been alleging that the CAA will do more harm than good to the refugees. Meanwhile, Santanu Thakur's margin of victory decreased to less than 74,000 votes in 2024. Interestingly, even the assembly segment of Bagdah, vacated by TMC candidate Biswajit Das to contest the Lok Sabha seat against Santanu Thakur, gave the BJP candidate a lead of over 20,000 votes.

Support For TMC

In other constituencies with a considerable presence of Matuas, such as Ranaghat, the BJP retained its seat with a slight decrease in margin. In adjoining Krishnanagar, the TMC retained the seat. Four of the assembly segments, mostly rural with a significant minority population, overwhelmingly supported the TMC candidate. The BJP, however, did well in urban Krishnanagar Uttar, leading by over 53,000 votes, and also in Krishnanagar Dakshin and Tehatta. Krishnanagar Uttar was won by former TMC leader Mukul Roy in the 2021 assembly polls on a BJP ticket, but he has been ailing and out of the public eye for some time.

Notably, Tehatta favoured TMC in the 2021 assembly election when Tapas Kumar Saha beat the BJP's Ashutosh Paul by over 6,000 votes. However, in the 2024 parliamentary polls, the same segment gave the BJP candidate a lead of over 8,000 votes.

Elsewhere, in areas where the state witnessed protests after the introduction of the Bill in 2019, the TMC retained the Howrah and Murshidabad seats and captured Baharampur from five-time winner  Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. The minority-dominated areas saw the most protests as the bill excluded Muslim refugees from its benefits.

In conclusion, it is too early to dismiss the political implications of the CAA. The verdict, however, indicates that the CAA had a marginal impact on the outcome. It all boils down to how eligible applicants obtain citizenship in the future. Perhaps a clearer picture will emerge during the West Bengal assembly elections in 2026.

(Jayanta Bhattacharya is a senior journalist writing on polls and politics, conflict, farmer and human interest issues)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author