It is a known fact that the NRC in Assam was meant to detect illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Confusion persists over the National Register for Citizens in Assam, which was carried out in compliance with the directive of the Supreme Court, and the National Register of Citizens that the Narendra Modi government wants to implement across the country. Union home minister Amit Shah has made it clear that the NRC which the government plans to implement across the country is different from what was carried out in Assam. It is a known fact that the NRC in Assam was meant to detect illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The government, with its majoritarian bias, went into the NRC exercise in Assam with great zeal, but it turned out that 11 lakh of the 19 lakh of those excluded from the NRC is Assam were Bengali Hindus, as pointed out by Sukhendu Sekhar Ray of the Trinamul Congress. The government and the party, the BJP, find themselves cornered on a sensitive issue as far as the BJP is concerned. Assam’s finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, the convenor of the North-East Democratic Alliance, said on Wednesday that when the NRC is prepared for the entire country, that exercise should be taken up afresh in Assam because the people, and the BJP in particular, are unhappy with the Supreme Court-directed NRC. Mr Shah too has indicated that the NRC exercise will be taken up in Assam along with the rest of the country. The flaws and the troubles flowing from the Assam NRC are being sought to be blamed on the Supreme Court directive, indirectly if not directly.
The problem with the NRC in Assam was that it was meant to detect Muslims from Bangladesh who have illegally entered the state, and it was an intent that was at the heart of the BJP’s politics.
Mr Shah was at pains to explain in the Rajya Sabha that the NRC exercise in the country was not aimed at excluding Muslims or any other religious minority, and that the NRC should not be clubbed with the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which seeks to confer Indian citizenship on refugees belonging to religious minorities, which was taken to mean Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis who faced persecution and fled from Muslim majority Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. He made it clear that it was only meant for the minorities in these neighbouring countries, and that the Lok Sabha has passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill after all the parties had approved it at the joint select committee level. He emphasised that the Citizenship Amendment Bill should not be confused with the NRC.
But the problem is one of perception. The BJP has positioned itself as the party that defends the interests of the majority Hindus and wants to undo the imagined injustices that this community faced under “secular” governments – specially of the “minority/Muslim-appeasing” Congress Party -- when the BJP and its earlier avatar, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, were the helpless Opposition. The overwrought rhetoric unleashed by the BJP, ever since the 1990 Somnath-to-Ayodhya rathyatra by party patriarch Lal Krishna Advani, championing the cause of the Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid, has left the country with no option but to believe that all the policies of any BJP government are geared to serve only the interests of the majority community.
It was but natural that people believe that the intent of the NRC across the country is the same as that of the NRC in Assam, to detect illegal Muslim migrants. It is seen as but a pretext to deprive Muslims in the country of their rightful place in India under a Constitution that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of religion, among other things.
Mr Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have the unenviable task of riding the two horses of majoritarian politics and constitutional propriety. People are not very sure when the BJP, under the leadership of Mr Modi and Mr Shah, will tilt the balance towards majoritarian sentiment and give constitutional propriety a go by. The assurances that Mr Shah offered in Parliament do not carry much conviction because of the government’s and the party’s bid to mould the national ethos around Hinduness.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill poses inherent problems about the identity of the Indian nation-state. If, as the bill proposes, only the persecuted religious minorities in the Muslim neighbourhood are to be offered ready citizenship, it does compromise the identity of India as a liberal nation-state that does not discriminate on the basis of faith. If Muslims, individuals and groups, are being persecuted in these Muslim countries, India will firmly shut the door on them. For the moment, we can overlook the similarity between this policy and that of Israel keeping its doors open to Jews from anywhere in the world.
The BJP perhaps would find itself in troubled waters if it were to follow this policy of favouring non-Muslim refugees because then it will have to respond to the situation of Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Hindu migrants in Fiji and in many African and Caribbean countries.
If these are the juridical and historical challenges of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, then the NRC poses other problems because its aims have not been set out clearly. The NRC for the entire country has its origins in the NRC in Assam, and the aim of the NRC in Assam is to keep illegal Bangladeshi Muslims out while providing an escape route for Bangladeshi Hindus through the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
The rationale of the NRC in the country is premised on a fear psychosis, to identify the illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, and perhaps even Pakistan and Afghanistan. Somewhere, despite weak denials by Mr Shah, the NRC exercise turns on the fear of Muslims, and the Citizenship Amendment Bill indirectly strengthens the sentiment. The implication of the BJP’s thinking on illegal immigrants leads to the idea that India is surrounded by “enemy” countries which happen to be Muslim. It is a negative and defensive attitude fraught with dangers for India’s foreign policy in South Asia.