Four million people in Assam have been put on trial and described by the second most powerful man in India, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah as “ghuspetia” (interlopers) in a blood curdling speech in parliament.
Shah has issued a challenge to the opposition asking if they were with “Indians” or with the “interlopers”. The not-so-silent dog whistle that Shah is blowing, and those put in the spotlight are the BJP’s favourite electoral fodder - Muslims.
In a country with primitive state capacity, evident in the disastrous demonetisation, which saw people dying, the daily Adhaar leakages and the troubled GST rollout, the government now wants us to believe that it has identified migrants from Bangladesh who will henceforth be non-citizens and who will be deported. These so called “migrants” include a former Indian president’s family members, a man who has served in the Indian Army for three decades and even the relatives of a BJP Member of Parliament (MP).
The government also expects desperately poor and illiterate people to present proof of identity, dating back three decades in a country where we are still unsure about the Prime Minister’s educational degree and equally unsure if one of his ministers is a graduate as she has claimed. She had laid claim to various degrees in her mandatory declaration.
A BJP MP has jubilantly claimed that the opposition has lost four million votes. And, this is the crux of the issue that has Shah so excited. Shah is desperate to make the upcoming general elections due in eight months about “interloper Muslims” versus the BJP.
Shah and Modi are steadfastly clinging to the hyper-nationalism plank, laced with dollops of polarisation – the most potent and deadly electoral weapon to yield a big win at the polls for the BJP.
Shah was delighted when the chief minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee warned of a “civil war” if the citizens register and identification were made operational. This is exactly the kind of thing that works wonders for the BJP at the hustings – the portrayal of Indian Muslims as the stereotypical villains.
Modi won an absolute majority on the plank of “development”, “good governance” and his trade mark slogan “acche din” (good days) and a dog whistle to the true believers. Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), described Modi as the “first Hindu ruler after 800 years” when he was elected prime minister. Singhal skipped over virtually all the Hindu prime ministers and even the BJP’s first prime minister - Atal Behari Vajpayee.
The “good governance” and “development” have not planned out. Hence, only the loud dog whistle is left and Shah believes that the four million interlopers are going to win him an election.
The BJP is thrilled. An RSS self-described ideologue and thinker asked that the “migrants identified be put in camps”. Ominous and harking back to Nazi Germany, but the Sangh draws a lot of inspiration from fascism. A wary opposition is trying to ensure that it does not fall in to Shah’s trap and take on the BJP on this issue, which it will potentially run away with.
Despite Shah having no qualms about exploiting the matter, the Assam migrants issue, which has been on a slow burn for decades, is hugely complex and has the potential of setting east India aflame. And, it can also jeopardise relations with neighbouring Bangladesh, which says it will not even take back a single migrant.
What Shah is trying to spin as a Hindu-Muslim issue in reality is often a Bengali speaking Hindu versus an Asamiya speaking Hindu. Or a Bodo speaker versus a Bengali speaker. Language is one of the key markers of the conflict, which has simmered for decades.
The citizens register has the potential to ignite a potent war. The BJP has already decided to make it one of their main electoral planks and also added the Rohingya refugees to the mix. Shah’s geography may be a bit uncertain, but he knows his electoral maths.
A senior BJP leader told me that the register was on a par with the Ram mandir (temple) issue, which the BJP has milked for electoral benefits for years. He laughed and said “tareek nahi batayengey par mandir wahi banayengey” (we won’t tell you the date, but we will construct the Ram temple in Ayodhya).
So what happens next? Realistically the chance of turning four million people in to non-citizens is low, but what the BJP hopes is that they will not vote and this “nationalist” endeavour will pay all across India.
While the human tragedy of four million people suddenly told that they are non-citizens plays out, the issue will continually be used to grab the headlines. In the best case scenario, the Supreme Court will intervene and put the exercise on hold since these four million people have no place to go.
But, as Assam and Bengal brace themselves for trouble and a wary opposition hopes that a way out is found, Shah is smiling all the way to his vote bank.
Swati Chaturvedi is an award winning print and broadcast journalist. Her book “I am a Troll - Inside the BJP’s secret digital army” has received international acclaim. Her twitter handle is @Bainjal.