In West Bengal, the danger has for long been that fire, when it catches, does so spectacularly. Here, a domino effect of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill could provide the next big conflagration.

It’s clear that the 2021 assembly elections in West Bengal will be a shootout between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Trinamool Congress. It’s also clear that NRC and the proposed Bill, which would allow non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan the opportunity for naturalization by reducing residency requirements, will remain a fulcrum for political jousting in the run-up to those elections. Union home minister Amit Shah underscored it during a showy visit to Kolkata on 1 October, where he addressed a several thousand-strong audience at an indoor stadium.

During a visit to Bengal in January as part of electioneering for the Lok Sabha polls, Shah in his incarnation as BJP president had flagged emotional touchpoints among the state’s Hindu population. He alluded to how cows wouldn’t be smuggled into Bangladesh from West Bengal, were the BJP to come to power. Hindu refugees would receive citizenship. Cross-border infiltration of Bangladeshis would stop.

Riding national rhetoric on local polemics, the BJP blitzed 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats when results were declared in May, a gain from the 2 seats it had won in 2014. Trinamool was just ahead with 22, down 12 seats from the previous elections. BJP is hoping to carry this momentum to the assembly elections in the hope of raising its assembly tally from 3 seats in 2016 to give Trinamool, which won 211 of the 295 seats, a run.

But, as in Assam, religious binaries, especially when tagged with illegal Bangladeshi migrants, is an explosive issue here. It has been part of Bengal’s DNA for more than a hundred years. It’s a history worth recalling. And, few remember Bengal wasn’t Partitioned once, but twice.

George Nathaniel Curzon, viceroy and governor general of India, signed off on the first partition of Bengal in July 1905 along religious lines—the Muslim-majority eastern Bengal and Hindu-majority western Bengal. It took effect on 16 October 1905. With it, the template for future strife was set.

Nationalistic anger against British rule had been building for some years, and many among the educated Bengali Hindus, the growing elite, were already at odds with the Muslim elite led by Dhaka’s nawab, Khwaja Salimullah, who wanted to diminish Kolkata’s domination in the politics and economic life of Bengal.

The Nawab was frank in his support for Curzon’s Partition. “… The people in the Eastern Province … are feeling a refreshing sense and a relief from the thraldom of…Calcutta," Salimullah declared, claiming that Partition benefited “children of the soil, both Hindus and Mohammedans …more adequately appreciated than they could as mere appendages … of Western Bengal." A government chronicle of the administration of Andrew Fraser, lieutenant governor of Bengal at the time, and published in 1908, noted: “The more highly educated classes [of Bengali Hindus] realized … the Muhammadans were now likely to exercise more influence on the administration and to obtain a fairer number of appointments."

(There is a counter-criticism that the Nawab cared more for the preservation of privileges of eastern Bengal’s Muslim elite than the emancipation of all Muslims. And, that his stance was helped along by a large loan from Lord Curzon’s administration.)

By Curzon’s blueprint, Bihar and Odisha were clubbed with western Bengal to form Bengal province, and the vast province of Assam was administratively merged with northern and eastern Bengal to form East Bengal. Some historians maintain it was done to have 12 million Hindus in East Bengal outnumbered by 18 million Muslims; and to have 17 million Bengali speakers in the western province outnumbered by 37 million people who did not. Curzon wrote to an associate that Bengal’s division would undermine the Bengalis’ “sense of superiority and destroy their dreams and that is why they are agitating against it".

Even the reuniting of Bengal in 1911 after consistent public furore would not be able to prevent the subsequent, second division of Bengal in 1947 along religious lines. That episode, and the tense years immediately preceding it, would showcase the angst and abilities of a BJP icon, Syama Prasad Mookerjee. More next week.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.