On Sunday, Union Home Minister Amit Shah headed to Kolkata to launch the Bharatiya Janata Party’s “No more injustice” campaign leading up the West Bengal Assembly elections in 2021.
Given that this was happening just after the communal violence in Delhi, what Shah said about the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act was critical. The two measures related to Indian citizenship have shaken up India. Last week, friction over them sparked off widespread rioting in Delhi, resulting in nearly 50 deaths.
Moreover, West Bengal was the first target state for the BJP as it pushed its nationwide NRC agenda in the wake of the Supreme Court-monitored exercise in Assam. As part of this policy, the BJP passed the Citizenship Amendment Act in December which brought in a religious filter to Indian citizenship law. The act permits non-Muslim “illegal migrants” from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to get Indian citizenship.
All through 2019, as first reported on Scroll.in, Amit Shah had linked the CAA with the NRC, claiming that first bringing in the CAA would allow Hindus to evade the citizenship test when it was implemented. Put simply, he suggested that Hindus and other non-Muslim communities left out of the nationwide NRC would be considered refugees eligible for citizenship under CAA, but Muslims would not.
This was a firefighting response to attacks from the Trinamool Congress, given that the 2018 Assam draft NRC has reportedly left out Hindu Bengalis the most – an embarrassing and potentially harmful fact for the BJP, given that the party almost solely depends on Hindu Bengali votes in West Bengal.
But the linkage drawn by Amit Shah meant that when the CAA was passed in December, large parts of India erupted in protest. People felt that an NRC that targeted only Muslims was no longer merely a talking point: the BJP was taking concrete steps to bring it about.
Change in messaging
In Kolkata, Amit Shah’s speech made it clear how the BJP is changing its messaging reacting to these widespread protests. While in 2019, Amit Shah would make it a point to advertise that nothing could stop the government from bringing in a nationwide NRC, on Sunday his speech did not even mention it.
Instead, Shah concentrated solely on the CAA and how it would help Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. In fact, the meeting was kicked off with the state BJP president gifting Shah a picture of Goddess Kali from the iconic Ramna Kali Mandir in Dhaka – making it clear how important Bangladeshi refugee politics is for the BJP.
This significant change, from shouting about an NRC from the rooftops to eliding it completely, is a conscious change in messaging the BJP has made since protests broke out across the country. On December 22, in fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “nowhere has the NRC word been discussed, been talked about” by his government – an absurd claim given the mountains of evidence that the BJP had mentioned the NRC at multiple rallies, parliamentary speeches and even in its manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Yet, that the prime minister made an attempt to wash his hands of the NRC was a stark change – given that he himself is on the record pushing for an NRC.
While the BJP high command has changed its messaging, its Bihar state unit has gone even further. Last week, the BJP MLAs in the Bihar Assembly actually voted for a resolution that vetoes the implementation of the NRC in Bihar. Bihar has been the site of massive demonstrations against the NRC.
The BJP’s change of messaging is stark given its initial championing of the NRC, but it is not the only party that is responding to street protests. The Congress has also seen a gradual movement towards opposing the NRC as well as its first step, the National Population Register. In West Bengal too, the Trinamool moved to ban the NPR once widespread anti-NRC protests – many of them violent – broke out in December.
Although BJP has changed its public messaging on NRC, it is unclear if this means a change in core strategy for the party. The Modi government has still given no indication that it is considering stopping the NPR, the first step of the NRC. The NPR is slated to begin in April.
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