An all-India NRC would turn citizens into supplicants
The Supreme Court’s Ayodhya judgment followed the logic of the original Ram Janmabhoomi campaigners down to the letter: the award of the entire site to the infant Ram and the Hindus who claimed it and an alternative plot of land elsewhere for a mosque as a consolation prize for the Muslim parties to the dispute. This had been the position of L.K. Advani and his legions from the start of their campaign and 30 years later the apex court endorsed it. The court acknowledged the illegal razing of the Babri Masjid in 1992 in a tut-tutting way but deemed it irrelevant to the title dispute. The faith of Hindus prevailed over the stone-and-mortar facts of history. When India’s majoritarian Second Republic is formally inaugurated, this unanimous judgment will be justly celebrated as its curtain-raising preamble.
But it is a measure of the distance we have travelled towards a Hindu India since Advani’s road trips in a pink rath that the symbolic significance of raising a Ram mandir on the ruins of a mosque has been dwarfed by the substantial steps taken by the Bharatiya Janata Party government to institutionalize discrimination against Muslims in matters of citizenship. I am referring to the all-India Inquisition that this government hopes to consolidate by creating a nationwide National Register of Citizens that will be free to legally target Muslims once the home minister’s warty brainchild, the citizenship (amendment) bill, becomes law.
Assam’s experience with compiling a National Register of Citizens is a trailer for the massive turmoil that India will experience if the NRC is implemented in every state in the Indian Union as Amit Shah insists it will be. Nearly two million residents were left off the NRC’s rolls. The BJP’s enthusiasm for the NRC was based on its expectation that those winnowed out would be Muslims; as it happened, over half the people who didn’t have the paperwork to prove their citizenship turned out to be Hindus. The BJP finance minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, has rejected the NRC in its present incarnation; in lockstep with Amit Shah, he has demanded a new nationwide NRC under which Assam would be surveyed again.
The home minister has a solution for the million Hindus disqualified by the NRC. The solution is the citizenship (amendment) bill, which proposes to amnesty all illegal migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, provided they aren’t Muslims. This open violation of the constitutional injunction against creating a religious test for citizenship is to be camouflaged in the language of refuge. India will shelter Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi and Christian minorities fleeing hostility in these countries in keeping with its great tradition of offering the persecuted refuge. Muslims need not apply because it is obvious to the BJP that no Muslim from a Muslim majority State can suffer from religious persecution, not even Ahmadiyas or Shias. Once the CAB is passed by Parliament, the BJP can weaponize the NRC, secure in the knowledge that Hindus caught in the NRC’s dragnet will not have to be persecuted or interned because the CAB specifically amnesties all non-Muslims and puts them on an accelerated path to citizenship.
Consider the implications of this. First, any government, state or Central, will be able to legally single out Muslims for investigation because after the CAB becomes law, the only category of immigrants likely to be declared illegal will be Muslims. The CAB would, in effect, create a statutory basis for profiling Muslims. Notice the lengths to which the CAB goes to make sure that the religious minorities that come under its purview do not include Muslims. Afghanistan, which doesn’t have a border with India, is included in this short list of neighbouring countries, while Myanmar, which does border India, is not. The reason for this omission is obvious: Myanmar is a majority Buddhist state with a propensity for ethnically cleansing its Muslim minority. Including Myanmar in the CAB would be ideologically inconvenient for the BJP because that would mean extending CAB’s amnesty and path to citizenship to persecuted Muslim migrants from that country. This would nullify the larger political motive of the CAB: namely framing Muslims as the only category of people likely to harbour false citizens in India.
It is important to be clear about the ambition of the CAB-NRC inquisition. In calling for an all-India NRC, the government’s aim is not merely to identify, arrest and intern illegal Muslim immigrants. This is not the old Bangladeshis-under-your-bed paranoia on steroids. This is potentially a bid to unsettle the citizenship status of India’s Muslims in general.
Democratic societies are based on the presumption that their residents are citizens except for those who explicitly aren’t, like diplomats or tourists or people on work visas. If the State has doubts about an individual’s citizenship status, it has to substantiate its suspicions. With a National Register of Citizens, the burden of proof is abruptly shifted: the citizen has to prove his/her claim to citizenship. It’s like the abrupt withdrawal of the presumption of innocence. Once the NRC’s wheels begin to grind, you aren’t a citizen till you prove you are; you’re guilty till you prove yourself innocent.
This is what the residents of Assam have endured under the NRC’s inquisitorial eye. They have all had to create a private archive of documents — land records, old identity cards, cremation and burial records, ancient school certificates — that they can feed into a bureaucratic maw to prove their provenance. This is what the home minister wants to make everyone in the country do by making the NRC an all-India affair. Every Indian will have to prove to designated agents of the State that they are, in fact, Indian. From being citizens by right, citizens by birth and residence, we will, at one stroke, be turned into supplicants, citizens licensed by the State. The BJP has always had the illiberal instincts required to see citizenship not as a right but as a privilege granted by the State, but the hubris needed to imagine this certifying Leviathan, the all-India NRC, is almost certainly derived from that great population processing precedent, Aadhaar.
If an all-India NRC comes to pass, the process will be a time of form-filling frustration and some anxiety, like any interaction with our indifferent, inconsistent and often corrupt bureaucracies. For most Indians, their anxieties will be allayed by the knowledge that should they fail to provide adequate paperwork, the Citizenship Amendment Act (as the CAB will be known by then) will come to their rescue. As Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians, they will be amnestied and offered a six-year path to citizenship. For Muslims, though, failure to satisfy the NRC will trigger an existential crisis: undocumented Muslims will be declared illegal immigrants, barred from the rights and privileges of citizenship.
Nobody knows what the government of India plans to do with the two million residents of Assam left off the NRC, but the home minister has been promising his public that these ‘termites’ and ‘infiltrators’ will be deported. Another alternative is internment camps, some of which are reportedly under construction. It’s worth remembering that before they were ethnically cleansed, the Rohingya were interned in massive camps in Rakhine. In this context, it’s useful to imagine the numbers that an all-India NRC might generate and the logistical and moral challenges of corralling such a population.
A national apparatus dedicated to snouting up false citizens but only from a single religious community: this will be India’s gift to modern governance. It’ll be the Spanish Inquisition re-imagined with the aid of surveillance, big data and the reach of the modern nation State but directed, like its inspiration and predecessor, at treacherous minorities, pretending to belong. It can be stopped but only if India’s citizenry (as it is now constituted) and its institutions — Opposition parties, Parliament and the higher judiciary — recognize the danger for what it is and act to avert it. Given the home minister’s constant declarations of intent, we shan’t be able to say that we weren’t warned.