On Thursday evening, armed men in military fatigues picked out five Bengali men in eastern Assam’s Tinsukia and shot them dead. While the killings have charged the politics of Assam, they have also triggered a political blame game in neighbouring West Bengal.

The Trinamool Congress has sought to connect the execution-style murders to the updation of Assam’s National Register of Citizens. In doing so, the ruling party has targeted the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has championed the exercise. This is in keeping with the Trinamool’s strategy of claiming the sole representation of Bengali identity as a counter to the BJP’s narrative of Hindu identity. Indeed, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee pointedly named the victims, identifying them as Hindu Bengalis from the Namasudra Dalit community.

While the BJP has been using the updation of the National Register of Citizens as a dog whistle, indicating to its supporters in North India that the exercise is meant to identify and eventually expel undocumented Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, the Trinamool has been projecting it as a tool to victimise Bengalis, Hindu and Muslim. In August, Banerjee went so far as to claim that two-thirds of the over 40 lakh people left out of the register’s final draft were actually Hindu.

On Friday, she described the killings as part of a campaign to “expel Bengalis” from Assam. The Trinamool organised protest marches in Kolkata and other major cities in Bengal and announced that a delegation of its lawmakers will visit the families of the victims. On social media, the party’s leaders changed their display pictures to black.

While the Bengal BJP has not yet responded to Banerjee’s attacks, her remarks have drawn reactions from Assam. Senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma of the BJP has refuted Banerjee’s contention that the Tinsukia killings were related to the National Register of Citizens exercise. Anup Chetia, a former militant now with the pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom, criticised the Bengal chief minister for delivering what he called “provicative statements”. Two prominent members of Chetia’s group have been arrested in the wake of the killings.

Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata Banerjee's nephew and President of All India Trinamool Youth Congress led the protests on Friday.

Playing identity politics

Parallelly, the All India Namasudra Bikash Parishad, which works closely with the Trinamool, announced that it will intensify its protest against the “persecution” of Bengali people in Assam. The group, which has presence in both Bengal and Assam, also backed the bandh called by over two dozen Bengali groups on Saturday. All five people killed in Tinsukia belonged to the Namasudra community, the largest Dalit sub caste in Bengal. The BJP sees the Namasudra Dalits as a key support group. However, since they are mostly migrants from Bangladesh, the updation of the citizens’ register is seen to disadvantage them significantly.

This is not the first time the Trinamool has sought to use the National Register of Citizens exercise for political gain in Bengal. In July, when the register’s final draft was published, Banerjee called it a move to “torture Bengalis”. The party sent a delegation to Assam on August 2, but it was detained at the Silchar airport and refused entry into the state.

As the Trinamool has focused on emotive issues such as Bengali identity to target the BJP, it has sidestepped the Congress’s strategy of cornering the saffron party over the issue of corruption. While Congress chief Rahul Gandhi has attacked Prime Minister Modi for alleged corruption in the Rafale fighter deal, Banerjee has barely spoken on it.