National interest is not being served by current politics of NRC and citizenship; narrow political interests are

  • The Citizenship Amendment Bill is listed for passing in the forthcoming session of Parliament

  • The Bill has been especially contentious in Northeast India, also the location of the first National Register of Citizens exercise

  • The potential outcomes of these exercises are extremely serious

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) is listed for passing in the forthcoming session of Parliament. As everyone probably knows by now, it claims to give citizenship on relatively easy terms to non-Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The Bill has been especially contentious in Northeast India, also the location of the first National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise, where 19 lakh people in Assam have been excluded from the list, leaving them in limbo.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders have been more than amply clear about their reasoning for the NRC and the Citizenship Bill. The NRC is primarily designed, according to them, to throw out illegal Bangladeshis who have apparently been swarming into India in their tens of millions. Everyone from the Prime Minister and Home Minister down has made public statements on throwing out “infiltrators” and “termites”.

However, the government has the task of accurately identifying the “infiltrators” because simply picking up and throwing every Bengali Muslim is not yet okay to openly do. The NRC exercise was undertaken, with direct supervision of the Supreme Court under former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, to separate the infiltrators from the citizens. It was such an unmitigated disaster that even the Assam BJP rejected the list, and the officer in charge has been transferred.

After the list was published, it slowly emerged that between 10-12 lakh of the 19 lakh excluded are Bengali Hindus. Some four-six lakh are Bengali Muslims. A lakh or so Gorkhas and another lakh or so indigenous tribals have been left out. Therefore, the list was politically unpalatable to the BJP. The Assamese chauvinist groups, such as the All Assam Students Union, also rejected it, because it excluded too few people, by their estimates. They had hoped for higher exclusion figures.

 National interest is not being served by current politics of NRC and citizenship; narrow political interests are

People show their documents after arriving at a National Register of Citizens (NRC) Seva Kendra to check their names on the final draft, in Guwahati. PTI

The Citizenship Bill is touted as the political shield that will save the Hindus from exclusion from the NRC, which Amit Shah has promised to extend to West Bengal and eventually to the whole country… minus Tripura, probably, because Biplab Kumar Deb’s BJP government there has been opposing it, while tribal groups support it. Tripura is the only Indian state where migration from what is now Bangladesh has actually turned a majority into a minority.
However, the CAB that was passed in the Lok Sabha once before would have done nothing at all to save anyone left out of the NRC. A new version of the Bill is apparently in the works, but it is also unlikely to do anything for those who are already out of the Assam NRC, if they have already applied for inclusion there. Nor is it likely to be very useful for anyone who is left out of subsequent NRCs elsewhere in India.

This is because no matter how it is framed, it would have to set certain specific parameters. For instance, the original Bill was intended for non-Muslims fleeing religious persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. How would it work? Well, firstly, to avail of citizenship under this Bill, a person would have to submit some kind of application, presumably at a local government office in his or her area of residence.

What would the applicant have to write in his or her application? Presumably, that they came to India fleeing religious persecution in Bangladesh, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, as the case may be. What would the government office then do? It would have to check that the applicant indeed came from Bangladesh, and was indeed a non-Muslim, and actually arrived fleeing religious persecution. How is the government to check any of this? We do not know, but at present, the only method known is on a case by case basis, through India’s external spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, because it involves verifying facts in foreign countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

If such a scrutiny process is dispensed with, there would be nothing to prevent, for instance, Lashkar terrorists or Rohingyas from applying for citizenship under CAB pretending to be Hindus fleeing religious persecution in Bangladesh or Pakistan. A fake ID with a Hindu name from any of those countries would suffice – and would be easy enough to procure. If the scrutiny process is actually done, then there are already 19 lakh cases waiting in Assam, and West Bengal, with its vastly larger population, will doubtless generate several times that number. The RAW will be doing nothing else except verifications of CAB applicants for the next few decades or centuries. The applicants will have to wait for the verifications for those decades or centuries, during which waiting period they will be effectively stateless. They may well be dead long before their verifications can be done.

There are other issues too. Chakmas from Bangladesh, who happen to be Buddhists, have been living in India as refugees since the 1960s and are yet to get citizenship which normally they should have got in 11 years under existing laws, and would get in six years – not immediately – under CAB. They live in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram and the state governments, owing to resistance from local tribes, have not processed their applications under any party including the BJP which now rules Arunachal, in all the years from 1969 to now.

The Hindus who think that the NRC will throw out the Bengali Muslims and the Citizenship Bill will save them have not studied what happened already in Assam. The experiment has been done and the results are there for all to see, if they bother to look. It has excluded mainly Hindus, especially Bengalis. That was only the beginning. The Citizenship Bill is now creating fresh fissures in Northeast India and fresh bandhs and protests have begun in all the states. This is likely to escalate as the Bill is passed.

Moreover, the blatant hatred for Bangladeshis being expressed by holders of the highest offices here has not gone unnoticed there. The main reason the Northeast is peaceful now is because of peace in Bangladesh, where the Sheikh Hasina government rolled up the training camps and safe houses of Northeast insurgents after coming to power in 2008. Her party, the Awami League stands for a liberal, inclusive Bangladesh, friendly towards India, in opposition to more stridently Muslim parties that have historically leaned towards Pakistan.

It may not be possible for Bangladesh to remain liberal, inclusive and friendly towards India indefinitely if India itself carries out a gigantic exercise targeting Bengali Muslims. Hasina now has an iron grip on Bangladesh, maintained by a less than democratic crushing of the opposition, but should her grip slip for any reason, India will be faced with a potentially hostile neighbour to its east – a return of East Pakistan in another form.

It is thus clear from even a basic analysis that India’s national interest is not being served by the current politics of NRC and citizenship. Narrow political interests are. Constitutional India is being replaced with Hindu Rashtra India. This is the stated political goal of the Hindu Right but it puts at risk the country’s peace and progress, its social and economic stability, and its future security. It also threatens to harm the lives of millions of ordinary people, especially in Northeast India and West Bengal, who are just going about scratching together meagre livings in trying circumstances.

Citizenship confers the right to have rights in a country. By threatening to take that away from millions on the basis of their religion, the country is messing with its very foundations. The idea of the citizen is a modern construct, separate from the idea of the subject, which was the concept in the age of empires. Increasingly, there is a reversion towards subjecthood rather than citizenship for the non-Hindu minorities as constitutional guarantees are replaced by medievalism.

The idea of citizenship is embedded in the structure of the state. After all, a person has to be a citizen of some country. The idea of the country as a Hindu Rashtra therefore will naturally include some and exclude others. If taken to conclusion, via processes such as countrywide NRC and CAB, it will complete one cycle of the process of Partition that the British colonial government began in 1905. It will also result in the final validation and victory of the two-nation theory that led to the birth of Pakistan.

The basic premise of that theory was that people of different religious faiths belong to, or are entitled to, different countries. That is the basis of the Pakistani claim to Kashmir – the fact that its population was and is majority Muslim. This claim will stand strengthened. Furthermore, the Naga insurgents who are now in difficult negotiations with the Government of India for a flag and a constitution of their own will also be handed an additional basis for their demands. Their motto was and is “Nagaland for Christ”. If non-Indic faiths constitute separate nations, it follows logically that the devoutly Christian Nagas, like their Mizo brethren, were not wrong in thinking themselves separate nations.

The potential outcomes of the NRC and CAB exercises are extremely serious. Those who are suppressing the truth about NRC and CAB and cheerleading their pitfalls may be doing so out of ignorance. That is the charitable explanation. The uncharitable explanation would be that they are doing so despite being aware of the risks, because they are getting financial and other benefits by cheerleading every mistake and suppressing every inconvenient fact. They are doing what they are doing out of corrupt, greedy and power-hungry motivations.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

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Updated Date: Dec 04, 2019 13:02:13 IST