A State of Fear, Confusion and Hope: CAA and Bengali Dalit Refugees in India

By Praskanva Sinharay

A hunger-strike called by MM in November 2014 demanding “unconditional citizenship” for “Bengali refugees (Matua, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian)”. Image courtesy: Author.

The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) has marked the culmination of a longstanding anti-migrant political campaign of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. Since the early 1990s, the BJP along with other organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have consistently raised the issue of cross-border migration from Bangladesh and campaigned for the deportation of “illegal” migrants, particularly in the border states like West Bengal (Gillian 2002). The core of this campaign has been communalization of the figure of the migrant through propagation of a binary—”refugee versus infiltrator”—designed along Hindu majoritarian lines to ignite social antagonisms. Under this scheme, a Hindu from Bangladesh who has migrated due to religious persecution is considered a “refugee” whereas a Muslim migrant falls under the category of “infiltrator.” With the enactment of CAA, this communal binary has taken a legal form, and the religion of a person, for the first time, has become a criterion for acquiring Indian citizenship.

The passing of CAA led to nation-wide protests (Srikanth 2020). The BJP, however, has defended the new law as an instrument to provide citizenship to persecuted minorities from the three neighbouring Muslim-majority countries. On 29 December 2019, BJP leader J.P. Nadda claimed that those opposing the CAA are anti-Dalits as the majority of Hindu migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Pakistan are Dalits (ex-untouchables). To substantiate his claim, Nadda gave the example of Matua and Namasudra refugees who are going to be the beneficiaries of CAA.[1] The example of Bengali Dalit refugees cited by the BJP president to defend the CAA is interesting, particularly in context of West Bengal, a border state which hosts 82 percent of the total Bangladeshi immigrants in the country.

The current problem with the legality of citizenship status of Bengali Dalit refugees started in 2003 when the BJP-led coalition government passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2003. This Act introduced the category of “illegal migrant” in the legal framework of Indian citizenship. Under the provisions of the 2003 Act, Namasudras who migrated to India from Bangladesh after the country was created in 1971, often through broker-mediated informal networks even in the absence of valid documents, or were born in India to migrant Bangladeshi parents, feared the legal threat of disenfranchisement. The Act soon led to the detention and arrests of Namasudra refugees as “illegal migrants” in West Bengal and other states, as well as administrative harassment like denial of caste certificates.

MM’s poster – Call for public meeting in Kolkata on December 28, 2010 demanding “re-amendment of Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2003”. Image courtesy: Author

Since 2004, the Namasudras, organised under the banner of a religious organization called Matua Mahasangha (MM), launched a movement demanding “unconditional citizenship rights” and rehabilitation for Bengali refugees residing in India. In the last fifteen years, the movement has received considerable public attention. All political parties empathised with the demand and MM leaders earned political prominence because of the organization’s influence over the Namasudra electorate.[2] Problems of the refugees at the grassroots, like getting official paperwork done, which I observed during my fieldwork between 2012-2016, have mostly been addressed informally through mediation by MM and local party leaders. But the fear of disenfranchisement for Namasudra refugees remained due to no change having been made in the citizenship law.

Does the CAA, as the BJP claims, now resolve the citizenship demand of Bengali Dalit refugees and put an end to the prevailing fear of disenfranchisement and dispossession? This question prompted me to revisit my fieldsites to understand the mobilization of Bengali Dalit refugees around the CAA.

Conversations with multiple respondents revealed the growing popularity of BJP among the Namasudras. The refugee movement which started in 2004 under the aegis of MM currently stands divided along party lines. In the last Lok Sabha election, for instance, the head of one faction of MM, Shantanu Thakur, contested the Bongaon constituency on a BJP ticket and defeated his aunt, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) candidate Mamata Bala Thakur, who heads the other faction of the organization. On the eve of this election, the BJP promised to grant citizenship to all “refugees” (non-Muslim persecuted minorities) and to deport the “infiltrators” through preparation of a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC).[3] The ruling party in the state, TMC, on the other hand, highlighted the example of exclusion of Hindus from the NRC in Assam to counter the BJP’s promise.

In spite of BJP’s assurance, a large section of Namasudras is opposing the CAA, preparation of a National Population Register (NPR) and subsequently the NRC for three main reasons. Firstly, the CAA, explained Ratan Biswas, does not meet the original demand of granting “unconditional citizenship” to refugees as it mentions a cut-off date.[4] “What will happen to a Matua who has come today?” he asked. Under the present provisions of the CAA, Biswas thinks, many refugees will remain under the category of “illegal migrant.” Secondly, there is considerable confusion among people regarding the production of documents like proof of religious persecution, or birth details of parents at the time of applying for citizenship under CAA and later during NRC. At the local level, the confusion has been compounded by conflicting claims by different political parties. The TMC, for instance, has referred to the CAA as BJP’s “trap” which will automatically turn a citizen into a foreigner once an appeal for citizenship is made. Finally, some Namasudras are also raising doubts about the probability of getting citizenship because of their distrust towards the BJP, the party which had once passed the 2003 Act. Among other initiatives, a joint forum of Namasudras and Muslims has also come up to protest against the CAA and NRC.

The citizenship question is going to be a key issue of political mobilization in West Bengal in the run up to the state assembly election in 2021. While the BJP claims to have addressed the demand of Bengali Dalit refugees through the CAA, a deeper investigation reveals the different strands of opposition to the new law. With the possibility of a citizenship test like Assam’s based on documentary proof in the near future, the Dalit refugees in West Bengal continue to live in a state of fear, confusion, and hope.

Praskanva Sinharay is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta. His research focusses on caste and politics in contemporary West Bengal through an ethnographic study of the Matua Mahasangha.


[1] Matuas are the followers of an anti-caste religion introduced by Harichand Thakur in colonial Bengal and belong almost entirely to the Namasudra community (an ex-untouchable caste of Bengal). [2] Namasudras constitute the second largest scheduled caste population in West Bengal. [3] As per the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, NRC is a register containing details of Indian Citizens living in and outside India. During preparation of NRC, a person has to prove her citizenship based on valid official documents. [4] Interview with Ratan Biswas (name changed) on 04.02.2020.

Works Cited

Gillan, M., 2002. Refugees or infiltrators? The Bharatiya Janata Party and “illegal” migration from Bangladesh. Asian Studies Review, 26(1), pp.73-95. Srikanth, H., 2020. Three Streams in the Anti-CAA Movement. India Forum, Issue (Feb 7, 2020) [See link: https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/three-streams-anti-caa-movement, accessed on 09.05.2020]

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