With Narendra Modi visiting West Bengal on Saturday, Left groups organised to protest against the prime minister and his government’s plans to introduce a religious criterion in India’s citizenship laws.
In December, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act in Parliament that allows non-Muslim illegal migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to apply for Indian citizenship. In addition, the BJP has also promised a nation-wide National Register of Citizens. In tandem, these initiatives could be used to disenfranchise India’s Muslims, many fear, especially in light of repeated statements by – Home Minister Amit Shah about how this would operate.
The day started with unprecedented efforts by Kolkata Police to ensure that Modi’s route from the airport to the city was barricaded and closed to protestors. In the end, even that failed, and Modi has to take a helicopter to travel the 16 kilometre distance. Later in the day, the prime minister took the boat down the river Hooghly to visit the Ramakrishna Mission in Belur, thus making sure to avoid protestors again.
Left protesters congregated at Dharmatalla, starting a 12-hour protest that jammed the city. It was the first time that the Left had been able to conduct such an impressive show after its 2019 Lok Sabha debacle, where the coalition was able to garner only 7% of the vote share in Bengal.
The impressive Left show served to put pressure on Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, who had met Modi earlier in the day. “Mamata Banerjee calls BJP a natural ally,” said Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member Mohammad Salim.
After meeting Modi, Banerjee went to Dharmatalla in Kolkata to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and planned National Register of Citizens – leaving again to attend a light and sound show with the prime minister on the Hooghly riverfront.
At around 9 pm, the Left protesters – mostly college students – surrounded the Trinamool protests sit, forcing the chief minister to return to pacify protestors.
Banerjee argued that it was not the state government that had invited Modi. “We had to greet the prime minister since it is our constitutional duty,” she said.
She denied allegations that her meeting with the prime minister earlier in the day pointed to a tacit Trinamool-BJP alliance. “I went and met Modi to demand the Rs 38 crore West Bengal is owed,” she said. “Moreover when I met him, I told him that we will never accept NPR, we will never accept NRC and we will never accept CAA.”
Banerjee’s arguments worked and matters calmed down. The Left students protested till midnight, with some blocking a part of Chowringee Road, one the city’s main thoroughfares, overnight.