The moment the Draft National Register of Citizens was published, omitting over forty lakh names from the list pertaining to Assam alone, it was clear that the BJP would use it as a campaign-handle in the coming elections. The fear was not unwarranted. On Tuesday, the BJP president, Amit Shah, addressing a conclave of party workers in Jaipur, the capital of the poll-bound Rajasthan, threatened to identify all illegal migrants from Bangladesh and to expel them. Linking the presence of illegal migrants to the question of security, he challenged the Opposition parties, especially the Congress, to support the Bangladeshis. He asserted that his party would never compromise national security even if the Congress was ready to gloss over the infiltration of foreigners for the sake of votes.
He was particularly harsh on the Congress president, asking him pointedly to spell his party’s stand on the illegals. A day earlier, the party general secretary, Ram Madhav, had declared that those excluded from the NRC would be disenfranchised and deported. Shah also reassured his partisan audience that Hindus, who did not figure in the NRC, need have no fear since their citizenship would be duly regularised. “The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, will ensure that Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and others coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh will become eligible for Indian citizenship.”
The BJP justifies the distinction between Hindus, Sikhs and other Indian denominational groups on the ground that they are victims of violent suppression in these countries whereas Muslim intruders have their own homelands and are either economic refugees or security suspects linked to the ISI. The logic of Partition which entailed the transfer of population on sheer religious grounds still rings true with the BJP leaders, especially when neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh has accorded an equal citizenship of dignity and respect to the minorities who, either out of choice or sheer force of circumstances, had stayed back in those countries. The upshot of their terrible behaviour towards the minorities is that 70 years after Partition, the percentage of Hindus in Pakistan is barely one per cent while in Bangladesh, too, it has come down from a high of over 30 per cent to about ten per cent. However, the tit-for-tat response by the mainline party, which now rules at the Centre and in more than three-fourths of the States, is controversial.
It was in furtherance of this line of thinking that the Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal called for the NRC to be extended to the rest of the country. Speaking in the national capital the other day, Sonowal seemed determined to follow up on the draft NRC for Assam, arguing that foreigners could not be allowed to distort the demographic character of his State nor could they be allowed to make unnatural claims on its welfare funds. It is a line that goes well with the ordinary voters. As Shah in his address in Jaipur asked rhetorically, the ‘NGOwallas’ and ‘urban Naxals’ are questioning the justification for drawing up the NRC, saying that their human rights would be crushed if any punitive action was taken against those whose names are deleted from the draft NRC. “How about the human rights of the poor who are denied the meagre welfare funds since the illegals claim a major chunk of it…” It is a tailor-made issue for the BJP to flog on the campaign trail.
Undeniably, the issue of illegal Bangladeshis in Assam is a hugely emotive issue. Several districts, especially bordering Bangladesh, have had their demographic character altered, with the ‘foreigner-Muslims’ dominating the population. The rise of a Muslim-centric regional party in the State, too, has caused alarm among the native population. But the argument that the head count to determine genuine and fake citizens in the rest of the country ought not to be undertaken is weak, especially when tens of lakhs of Bangladeshis have settled in various parts of the country. It may not be possible to weed all of them out, also because Bangladesh refuses to accept that any of its citizens has intruded into India, but citizenship should not be so cheapened that anyone and everyone can walk in and a lay a claim to it — and eat into the meagre welfare funds, jobs and other socio-economic benefits available in this country. It is wise to vest some value in Indian citizenship, regardless of the political/electoral objective behind the BJP’s aggressive championing of the NRC.