Dhaka, Bangladesh
The National Register of Cruelty

The National Register of Cruelty

By Raju Rajagopal

Fear writ large in his eyes, Shaukat Ali knelt suppliantly on the pavement, surrounded by a hostile crowd demanding, "Are you Bangladeshi? Is your name in the NRC [National Register of Citizens]?" Reports said that Ali was beaten up for allegedly selling beef and was forced to eat pork, an act of ultimate humiliation for a Muslim. Fortunately, Mr. Ali escaped relatively unharmed, but when the mob finally went home, he had lost his livelihood of three decades. That image from the streets of Assam in April was disturbing in itself, but its import for the future of a secular India was even more chilling, as we witness a dangerous new intersection of beef, faith and citizenship on the ruling party's electoral road map. An unwise proposal As if on cue, just one day later, the BJP vowed to implement the NRC all across India. The party has referred contemptuously to illegal immigrants as "termites... eating our grain... and taking our jobs". Unmindful that such reckless rhetoric is an invitation to street violence, the BJP has added fuel to the fire by promising a path to citizenship to almost all but Muslim illegal immigrants. In short, the party is seeking to weaponise the NRC even before the project has fully played out in Assam - a proposition that has been quickly rebuffed by many in the Northeast. The ground reality is that the NRC in Assam has only recently entered its most sensitive phase of adjudicating claims and objections, involving thousands of senior government officers and data experts, with numerous companies of Central police keeping peace. More than 90% of the 40 lakh people who were excluded from the final draft have filed 'claims' for reconsideration, and 2.65 lakh 'challenges' have also been filed, questioning the inclusion of others. The Supreme Court, which is supervising the entire process, has set a hard deadline of July 31 for the final NRC, an uphill task given the sheer scale and complexity of the exercise at hand. Under these circumstances, it is premature to think of the NRC as a success in Assam, and it is unwise to push for its implementation in other States before assessing the fallout in Assam. What is the endgame? No one can predict how many claimants will ultimately succeed in getting on to the final NRC, but what we do know for sure is that there is no clear plan for what happens to those who don't make it. If one were to take the BJP's manifesto seriously, non-Muslims would get a reprieve, while Muslims, possibly including many Indian citizens who are unable to produce the right documents, would be deemed stateless. Thereafter, they may get a hearing at one of the hundreds of Foreigners Tribunals yet to be constituted, and if they fail, they could be destined for the dozens of detention camps that are yet to be built. To quote Aman Wadud, a Guwahati lawyer: "A foreigner can be deported only when the country of origin accepts them… When Indian citizens are declared as foreigners for hyper-technical reasons (lack of documents), they can never be deported… The result is indefinite detention." As per the government's own admission, the tribunal process has not gone well in the past, prompting the Supreme Court to call the whole process a "joke". For example, of the 46,000 declared foreigners since 2015, only four were actually deported, and only 2,000 are currently in detention. As for where the other 44,000 went, even the government does not seem to know. The court is very conscious of this reality and has been urging the government to explore more humane alternatives to prolonged detention. But unfortunately, every suggestion from the court as well as from retired bureaucrats and police officers has been summarily dismissed. That includes proposals to grant them 'refugee status', or give them work permits, or release them under sureties, or with ankle bracelets, and so on. All of this, unfortunately, lends a certain amount of credence to sceptics who claim that some of the intractable problems of our times remain unresolved only because of their potency as political wedge issues. The court, however, seems undeterred in seeking to end what it has called "external aggression". It has been aggressively questioning the government about what comes next after the final NRC, but as of now, there is little clarity on what the endgame is. So, here is problem one: Officials have been working hard for over three years to create a 'fair and transparent' process that is blind to an applicant's faith, language and ethnicity. They have made lakhs of house-to-house calls and pored over 6.5 crore personal records dealing with birth and marriage, citizenship and refugee status, family trees, land and tenancy, banks and LIC, and so on, often going back to the original issuers to authenticate them. But now, even before their mammoth effort is complete, the BJP has thrown cold water on them by promoting the idea that some illegal immigrants are more welcome than others. That notion corrupts the very spirit of the NRC, and can hardly be deemed a success. States will push back Problem two is the assumption that the Assam experience can be readily replicated in other States. But in reality, the NRC in Assam is a direct response to its unique history as a bulwark against illegal migration, which resulted in the promises of the Assam Accord of 1985. Naturally, a majority of Assamese have been more than willing to submit themselves to the rigours of the NRC. But there is no such history nor affinity to the NRC in most other States, which are dealing with many more pressing problems than illegal immigration. In the end, notwithstanding the mandate of the Citizenship Rules of 2003, millions of poor and marginalised communities may simply be unable to comply with the onerous demands of the NRC, triggering a needless humanitarian crisis. As this reality sinks in, States will surely start to weigh the social costs of the NRC against its murky endgame, and they are bound to push back hard. Setting aside all other considerations, the very idea that a nation should be putting the onus on every citizen to prove their Indianness 72 years after Independence is at once horrific and undemocratic. This is a proposition that must be vigorously scrutinised and debated before there is any attempt to implement the NRC beyond Assam.

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