India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah wave toward their supporters at a public meeting in Ahmedabad, India, May 26, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave

India's NRC and BJP's dangerous game of citizenship and religion

NRC's premise read together with the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 is an attack on the rights of Indian Muslims.
Published November 29, 2019

After Partition in 1947, the most pressing issue before India was how to reconcile and bridge the deep religious divide in the country. The challenge was not only to heal the wounds of Partition but also lay the foundation of a new democratic and secular polity.

The country's founding fathers envisioned a democratic, secular, and multicultural republic, which was a unique experiment for a new nation impoverished by 200 years of colonial rule. And the post-1947 democratic and secular profile of India allowed it to carry a lot more regional and international weight than many of its economically richer contemporaries, with the strength of its soft power helping it in establishing an imprint world over despite limited economic and geopolitical strength.

But seven decades down the line, India seems to be giving up the notion of reconciliation and of upholding secular values. And as this is happening, the country risks frittering away all the moral capitals it had earned as a constitutional and secular democracy.

Religion and citizenship

People whose names were left out in the NRC draft stand in a queue to collect forms to file appeals in Assam's Mayong village. ─ AP/File
People whose names were left out in the NRC draft stand in a queue to collect forms to file appeals in Assam's Mayong village. ─ AP/File

In a recent address to the Parliament, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah declared that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government will pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 that seeks to grant citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Parsis, and Buddhists who have come illegally to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. This amendment bill excludes Muslims and is in stark contrast to the Citizenship Act of 1955 that does not define citizenship on the basis of religion. Hence this is for the first time in modern India that religion is becoming the prime criteria for citizenship.

In the same speech, Shah announced that India will also implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) across the country.

The idea of the NRC, an exercise to identify genuine citizens of India, was exclusive to the northeastern state of Assam, a border state where there has been a long held demand that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh should be identified and deported. The state had also experienced a violent political movement in the 1970s and the 1980s that ended with the Assam Accord of 1985 where it was decided that a national register of citizens would be prepared and those who have entered India after March 25, 1971 would be deported.

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However, the idea of the NRC did not make much headway until the Supreme Court intervened in 2013. The court fixed a time frame to implement the process of identifying illegal immigrants. This was followed by the BJP coming to power in Delhi in 2014 and also capturing Assam two years later.

The NRC was primarily meant to identify illegal immigrants irrespective of their religion. However, the BJP, which claims Hindu Bengalis as its core constituency in Assam, injected a communal angle to the exercise and exploited its state machinery to exclude as many Muslims from the NRC as possible.

At the same time, the BJP promised to amend the citizenship Act and make stateless Hindus citizens of India. On August 31, Assam's NRC was published that declared 1.9 million people stateless, the number was far less than what had been anticipated.

Dirty politics

Over the years, a divisive narrative has been injected in the national and Assam polity that there are more than six million illegal Bangladeshis in Assam and that Muslims would take over the state very soon. However, the NRC data came as a big jolt to this propaganda and what was shocking for the BJP was that a majority of the 1.9 million left out of the NRC were Hindus.

When the myth met with the NRC post-truth, the BJP began discrediting the same NRC which its had so strongly advocated for the state. And last week, when the Home Minister announced that India would carry out an NRC exercise across the country, he added that Assam will go through the process again.

The question is, why is the BJP so keen on the NRC process to be carried throughout India despite knowing the huge human, emotional and financial costs involved in the process. Assam, which is a small state of 30 million people, spent more than 10 million dollars in preparing the NRC, so one can only imagine the cost of this exercise when it is carried out all across India.

We know the answer to this motivation. After the amendment of the Citizenship Act, the only group that could be targeted through the NRC is India's Muslim population because while non-Muslims will have protections through the citizenship amendment bill, Muslims won't.

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With the Ayodhya temple agitation running out its course, the BJP needs another divisive agenda to polarise the nation and stay relevant in the electoral arena. And the issue of illegal immigrants strikes a chord with a section of the population which feels that the presence of Rohingya Muslims and illegal Bangladeshi Muslims poses a grave threat to India's security. To make matters worse, political propaganda and media narratives are further fuelling that anxiety.

The BJP thinks that sloganeering based on the idea of a terror free India conflated with casting suspicions against the country's Muslim population will have resonance among the public and would accrue electoral dividends for the party.

Deep anxiety among Indian Muslims

On the other hand, the Muslim community is in deep anxiety with many fearing for their fates if they are not included in the NRC. There is a fear that many poor and illiterate Muslim families living on the margins of society may not have adequate resources to collect documents to support their citizenship claims.

Moreover, people living in rural parts of the country are not so particular about maintaining documents, and many women who shift from one part of India to another after marriage sometimes do not have any documents that state their place of birth and nationality. In Assam, many poor Muslim women were left out of the NRC because they didn't have the documents that provided this information.

This anxiety is also visible among Muslims in West Bengal and they are spending their days procuring certificates from concerned government offices. Suicides have been reported from the state on account of the fear of losing citizenship, with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stating that 11 people have already taken their own lives. But in its attempts to capture power in the eastern state of Bengal in the next Assembly elections in 2020, the BJP is in overdrive to create a wedge in society around religion by declaring the implementation of NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Bill, human costs be damned.

What happens when a person is left out of the NRC?

When one's left out of the NRC, he or she is declared stateless. While this does not mean that they can be thrown out of the country, the alternative is perhaps just as bad, if not worse. The Indian government is building detention centres in various places for those who will be declared stateless as a result of the NRC exercise. In Assam, seven detention centres are being built on top of the three existing ones, which are operating from within jails.

When declared stateless, the individual will also lose all fundamental rights afforded to him or her in a democracy and stands disenfranchised. But the NRC aims to do just that — create a new class of stateless citizens in India with no fundamental rights, and its very premise if read together with the Citizenship Amendment Bill is an attack on the fundamental rights of Muslims guaranteed in the country's otherwise secular constitution.

An attack on India's secular identity

Not only is this an attack on India’s civilisational past where the land has been known for protecting prosecuted people irrespective of religion and culture, the NRC is an attempt to redefine India’s identity as a majoritarian Hindu nation.

Most importantly, the NRC and the new citizenship bill will only go on to validate the two nation theory that India has always rejected. Reopening the wound of Partition with its Muslim citizens as targets has the potential to destabilise Indian society. Human rights activist Harsh Mander writes that the NRC “risks tearing the country apart, reopening the wounds of Partition, and ultimately destroying India’s secular democratic Constitution”.

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A section of the Muslim community has started a campaign to boycott the NRC process when it starts. And while Muslims seem to be its prime target, the NRC in fact is an attempt at transforming the nature of India's identity and an attack on its secular ethos and therefore all right-thinking Indians should take a strong stand against it.

If India turns its back on its secular principles and declares itself a Hindu nation the impact would be felt in the region at large and would fuel religious extremism across South Asia, endangering the lives of religious minorities not just in India but also in neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Ultimately, any attempt to attack the Indian constitution's secular character will have far-reaching consequences that a government guided by its narrow political vision cannot even begin to fathom.