After the publication of the much-anticipated National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam on August 31, the process which was expected to see closure after the final list is likely to continue further with political parties and local organisations expressing unhappiness and deciding to appeal the Supreme Court for re-verification of documents. Given the large scale of the process and its implication, many people have questioned the idea of NRC itself. Many concerns regarding the final NRC remain to be addressed and the 19 lakh people excluded from the list would not be called stateless until and unless decided by the Foreigners’ Tribunals. With many of those excluded claiming to be genuine citizens with documents to prove their case, the final figure is expected to go down even further.
The mess in Assam notwithstanding, the NRC idea is catching on elsewhere, causing fear and panic among people, especially the poor. While people, who have been excluded from the final NRC in Assam, after the initial shock of being left out, are trying to figure out and plan their next step, panic over NRC seems to be spreading in West Bengal. Media reports have attributed over six suicides to NRC-related fears in north Bengal in recent weeks. As NRC has become a victim of hyper nationalism and vote bank politics, verbal duels between the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the BJP on the NRC issue have become relentless. This has given rise to lot of anxiety among people in Bengal where, according to reports, people have been flocking to government offices to procure new documents or get errors in old ones corrected.
While BJP leaders have made repeated assertions about bringing Bengal under NRC, TMC Supremo and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has sought to address fatal panic over the issue, renewing her pledge to keep Bengal out of the NRC exercise. However, last Tuesday, Union Home Minister and BJP chief Amit Shah declared in Kolkata that the Centre will take the NRC across the country and “no matter how much the TMC opposes it, the BJP will get it done.” Shah also made it clear that Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi and Christian refugees will be accorded Indian citizenship beforehand with the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB). Earlier too, and during the Lok Sabha election campaign in Bengal particularly, Shah had repeatedly spoken of the government’s plan to introduce National Registry of Citizens throughout the country and take action against illegal immigrants.
Replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha on July 17 on whether the NRC will be implemented in states beyond Assam, Shah had declared that the Modi-led NDA government would identify all illegal migrants in India and deport them as per international law. Whether it is the NRC or CAB, both are a continuum of the BJP’s majoritarian project. Although the long-pending NRC in Assam, direct fallout of the 1985 Assam Accord, was set in motion by a Supreme Court directive in 2013, the BJP was quick to come with the CAB to make a political capital out of it. Political analysts are of the view that when the CAB was introduced by the BJP in the Lok Sabha on July 19, 2016–to grant Indian citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh on the basis of “religious persecution”–it was in direct response to the NRC in Assam and was aimed at protecting the Hindu migrants from Bangladesh.
The bill was referred to the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) in August 2016, and it was quickly passed in the Lok Sabha after the JPC submitted its report in January 2019. However, the bill lapsed because of lack of numbers for the BJP/NDA in the Rajya Sabha. Though the CAB has been put on the backburner for now, the home minister has reiterated that the government would first amend the existing citizenship rules by passing CAB before it implements a nationwide NRC. The Citizenship Amendment Bill amends the Citizenship Act of 1955, which lays down the norms regarding Indian citizenship, to make non-Muslim illegal migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, eligible for citizenship. Further, the bill also relaxes one of the conditions for acquiring citizenship by naturalisation under the existing Act for Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians from the three neighbouring countries by only requiring them to have stayed in India for six, instead of 11, of the previous years.
The important point of debate, as also disagreement, in the proposed amendment has been that it makes illegal migrants eligible for citizenship on the basis of religion, which is in violation of Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees right to equality, and Article 15, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion. Though CAB will ultimately have to pass the judicial scrutiny, as it will be tested against Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution, it remains to be seen whether it will cross the judicial hurdle. But the government appears confident of crossing that hurdle and hence Shah’s reiteration in Kolkata last week that the government would first amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 before it goes for a nationwide NRC. If that happens, as Shah has said, then all non-Muslim migrants from neighbouring countries who would have faced the risk of being excluded from the NRC would have the safeguard of being provided with Indian citizenship.
Like the Ayodhya issue in the late eighties, the NRC fell into the BJP’s lap quite unexpectedly. Just as it quickly calibrated its political strategies around the Ayodhya temple issue, which helped the BJP come to power in Uttar Pradesh in the early nineties and later come to power at the Centre in alliance with some of the non-Congress opposition parties in the late nineties, the saffron party, riding the wave of hyper nationalism, knows the potential of NRC to push the majoritarian rhetoric for consolidating its Hindu vote bank. Last week, Shah spoke of Bengal’s contribution to the BJP’s overwhelming victory in the last Lok Sabha election with 18 seats and expressed hope of a reprise in the next state election. Therefore, the demand to replicate NRC in states such as West Bengal among others offers the BJP with lot of possibilities to bid for power in Bengal by keeping the communal pot boiling till the 2021 assembly election in the state.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.