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Above: A protest rally against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Guwahati/Photo: UNI 

The move to repeat the NRC exercise in Assam has opened a can of worms and could lead to further communal and social tension. Will the impending Citizenship Amendment Bill deepen the divide?

By Seema Guha

The BJP will replicate the National Register of Citizens (NRC) across India to weed out foreign nationals. In addition, Assam will repeat the exercise along with the rest of the country, Home Minister Amit Shah announced in the Rajya Sabha last week. He also said that no person, irrespective of religion, needs to fear the NRC. The government will bear the cost of hiring lawyers for those who cannot afford to do so. These assurances make for positive sound bytes, but the reality is different. Bengali Muslims in Assam are afraid that the exercise is being redone to target them and get their names out of the updated NRC.

But first, if the Assam NRC is being done all over again, why was Rs 1,600-crore of taxpayers’ money spent on a futile exercise? People in Assam had to scramble to gather their papers and verify the family lineage and the poor and illiterate had a hard time doing so. Many were asked to make an appearance in places far away from their homes. In fact, there was large-scale panic, especially among the minorities. All this now appears to have been in vain.

While announcing the plans for an all-India NRC, neither Amit Shah nor any other government leader has said what will happen to non-citizens. Where will they be deported? Can a heavily populated Bangladesh, already groaning under the weight of Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar, be willing to take the extra burden of the deportees? A majority of those alleged to be foreigners in Assam are poor and illiterate. They have no documents to prove whether they are Indians or Bangladeshis. Dhaka has time and again said that while it will accept all genuine citizens, even a friendly government like the current Awami League dispensation will refuse to take in people without proof of identity. So will the government of India spend crores in building prisons to keep the stateless under armed guard? No one knows if the BJP government has thought about the consequences.

On the face of it, it is unclear why the BJP wants to extend the NRC across the country. A repeat performance of this exercise in Assam is basically ideological and political. By wanting to have the NRC across the nation, the government is treading a dangerous path. If it is a question of identification of Indian citizens, is the Aadhaar card not enough? The NRC process has opened a can of worms in Assam. Imagine this permeating across the country.

As it is, communal and social tensions have been on the rise since 2014 with cow vigilante groups and love jihad mobs quick to take action against minorities. These have exposed the ugly face of Indian democracy to the world. Instead of fixing its ideological agenda, the government would do well to settle the economy, the plight of farmers and the environment.

From the time the final list of the revised NRC was released on August 31, the main stakeholders were unhappy. The Asom Gana Parishad, the regional party which grew out of the anti-foreigners movement, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) as well as the Assam Public Works, the NGO which petitioned the Supreme Court for getting the NRC underway, had problems with the numbers. These sections believed that the 19 lakhs excluded from the NRC was too small a number, and wanted re-verification. All through 1978-1985, the period when the AASU stirred the Assamese into protest mode, their supporters came out with exaggerated figures of illegal migrants. Some said there were as many as 10 million illegal Bangladeshis who would soon turn Assam into a Muslim majority state. The numbers were conjured up, based on exaggerated fears of Assamese identity being wiped off by foreigners. This is not to say that there are no illegal migrants. There are, but the figures vary according to the level of xenophobia perceived by the person one is talking to.

The local BJP is angry because the updated list had more Hindu refugees than Muslims. The state BJP had protested from day one and assured Bengali Hindus that their interests would not be harmed. Assam’s strongman Himanta Biswa Sarma echoed Amit Shah and said that the state cannot accept the current NRC. He called for a fresh one as the current list was filled with errors with “wrongful exclusions and inclusions’’. To put it simply, Bengali-speaking Muslims were in, while Bengali Hindus were out. Soon after the August 31 NRC list was released, Sarma wanted 20 percent re-verification of names appearing in districts bordering Bangladesh and 15 percent in other districts. This was echoed by the AGP and the AASU.

The BJP’s central leadership was upset that its Bengali Hindu support-base was affected. With the West Bengal polls scheduled next year, Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress would make this a poll issue, and paint the BJP as an anti-Bengali Hindu party.

BJP leaders, including organisations such as the RSS, assured Hindus in Assam that they would never be turned away from India. When the Supreme Court-supervised NRC was underway, the BJP supported the move. It did not imagine that the complicated process would not fall in with its Hindutva line. The process is still on and most Hindu refugees are expected to get their names back on the list. But the BJP is not taking a chance. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which is being brought into Parliament this session, is a back-up plan to bail out Hindus left out.

The amendment suggested by the government is to make certain that Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and Christians from neighbouring Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan can be given citizenship after just seven years’ stay in the country. The fact that religion was never a factor in granting Indian citizenship is now being discarded.

Ironically, the BJPs coalition partner, the AGP, is against the amendment to the Citizenship Act. Not because CAB goes against the constitutional values laid down by our founding fathers, but because they are afraid that Bengali Hindu refugees will get citizenship and continue to live in Assam. The idea is to let them stay, but not in Assam.

At a US Congress hearing on human rights in South Asia, not just Kashmir, that has become a talking point because of the shutdown of communication channels, but Assam’s NRC also came up. In a globalised world, can India ignore its traditional values of freedom and diversity and be responsible for creating a section of non-citizens? India’s image is that of a nation that has warmly enfolded people across the world. Does the government want to change all this and become a muscular one-dimensional Hindutva country? Perhaps all the talk of the NRC across the country is a political ploy for its voter base. That is the best one can hope for, considering how easily India can be ripped apart by communal and social tensions.

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