The Parliamentary debate on the passing of the recent Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) showed that the current Bharatiya Janata Party government does not have enough statistics on immigrants from neighbouring countries or the number of persecuted people seeking citizenship in India. There was no perceptible movement on the demand of granting citizenship to such people either. Then what possibly explains the urgency behind this Act?
This article argues that first, it was the result of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, and second, it is the long term agenda of establishing a Hindu Rashtra by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)/Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This has its linkages with European fascism and Zionist movement of Israel. While NRC updation has its roots in the Assam Movement and subsequent Assam Accord, its experience in the state has given us a glimpse as to what would entail in the wake of a pan-India NRC.
The CAA completely ignores the concerns of the Northeastern states and does little to address the complex issues of migration and citizenship. With the CAA-NRC combine, a deeper problem of citizenship would follow wherein not only Muslims but large sections of the country’s population too would face the burden of proving their citizenship and risk disruption in their lives and statelessness.
Assam NRC and Hindu Rashtra: Rationale behind CAA-NRC combine
The urgency of bringing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) again by the BJP government and passing it soon into its second term possibly stems from the unexpected outcome of the NRC in Assam for the government. The process to update the register began following a Supreme Court order in December 2013, with the state’s nearly 3.29 crore people having to prove that they were Indian nationals prior to March 24, 1971. While nearly 41 lakh people were left out of the complete draft published on July 30, 2018, the names of 19, 06,657 people were not included in the updated final NRC which was published under the Supreme Court’s watch on August 31, 2019. The BJP had hoped that the Muslims of East Bengal origin would be excluded in large numbers. However, it has been widely reported that out of the 19 lakh people exclud from the NRC in Assam, as many as 14 lakh are non-Muslims and persons from indigenous groups. This came as a complete surprise for the BJP. This was evident from the statement of cabinet minister and BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma who announced that the final results were unacceptable to the state government. He said, “The NRC has names of people which should not be in it and has left out names of people which should have been in it”. Thus, came the CAA into the picture whose provisions would mean that all those excluded from the NRC—except the Muslims—would not be rendered stateless if they are able to provide admissible documentation.
Secondly, the ideological justification for bringing CAA and a pan-India NRC stems from the larger Hindutva agenda and the vision of a Hindu Rashtra espoused by the RSS/BJP. This vision has its linkages with the Hitlerite fascism and Zionist movement of Israel. The CAA-NRC combine is a reflection of the citizenship law passed by Nazi Germany in 1939 and the ‘nation-state’ law passed by Israel in 2018.
The theory of India as a ‘Hindu nation’ propounded by the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS, M S Golwalkar, was one where other religious communities would have no rights of citizenship. By distorting both history and science, and relying on the experience of Hitlerite fascism, Golwalkar in his We or Our Nationhood Defined tried to establish that India was always a Hindu nation and continues to be one. He wrote, “All those not belonging to the national, i.e., Hindu Race, Religion, Culture and Language naturally fall out of the pale of real ‘National’ life” (p. 99). He added, “All those, who fall out, can have no place in the national life, unless they abandon their differences, adopt the religion, culture and language of the Nation and completely merge themselves in the National Race. So long, however, as they maintain their racial, religious and cultural differences, they cannot but be only foreigners, who may be either friendly or inimical to the Nation” (p.101). As for citizenship rights for the minorities that have “chosen to live in this country”, Golwalkar declares, “the foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment -not even citizen's rights.” (p. 105).
Like Golwalkar, V D Savarkar—who coined the term ‘Hindutva”—too echoed a similar sentiment and held that the only people who qualified as Indians were those whose birth and faith originate in India. Creation of a concept of ‘internal enemy’ was fundamental to both Golwalkar and Savarkar. Both admired Adolf Hitler for his treatment of the Jews. Golwalkar wrote, “Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races—the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by” (Golwalkar 1939: p. 88). Savarkar publicly criticised the Jews for failing to absorb into the German national fabric and compared them to Muslims in India. He delivered several speeches in the late 1930s supporting Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy (Cazolari 2000). Archival research of Cazolari (2000) has shown that Hindutva leaders in the 1930s repeatedly expressed their admiration for authoritarian leaders such as Mussolini and Hitler, and for the fascist model of society. This influence continues to the present day.
It must be remembered that the Reich Citizenship Law, part of the Nuremberg Laws passed by the Nazi Germany on September 15, 1935, declared that only those of German or related blood were eligible to be Reich citizens. The remainder were classified as state subjects without any political or citizenship rights. The status of a citizen was acquired by the granting of citizenship papers by the government of the Third Reich and it saw people scrambling to government offices and churches in order to establish their relationship with German (Christian) grandparents. The passing of the Nuremberg Laws is known to mark the beginning of the series of events now known as the ‘holocaust’.
Not only European fascism, but Hindutva icons, V D Savarkar and M S Golwalkar, as well as the BJP have been known to profess a deep affinity for Israel’s Zionist movement. This seems ironical because both Savarkar and Golwalkar were in awe of Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews. But in this case Jewish and Zionist hegemony and the structural subordination of the Arab minority is what the Hindutva brigade looks up to as inspiration. The argument that the CAA re-imagines India on the lines of Israel is buttressed if we look at the provisions of Israel’s ‘nation state’ law passed by its Parliament in July 2018. The law states that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to self-determination in it”. It establishes Hebrew as Israel’s official language, and strips Arabic of its national language status. It also establishes “Jewish settlement as a national value”. In sum, it is a racist and undemocratic law and undermines the country’s Arab minority. Israel’s treatment of Arabs in Israel as well as in Palestine (subjecting them to an extreme, genocidal form of apartheid) is the model that the Hindutva brigade would like to adopt for India’s minorities in its vision of a Hindu Nation.
Pan-India NRC and CAA: A deeper problem
With the recent announcement of Home Minister Amit Shah in Parliament for a pan-India NRC, CAA cannot be seen in isolation from the NRC. In his discussion on migration and citizenship, Harris (2010) has written that the ‘identity card’ has been an important and a recurring feature in regimes with authoritarian tendencies. Likewise, the NRC experience in Assam is reflective of how the costs of state policies are disproportionately borne by the poorest segments of the population. The periodic violence of exclusion of certain communities only seeks to establish a parochial-identitarian conception of citizenship; a conception that not only defies a modern and universally accepted notion of citizenship and the nation-state, but that which is also defined by an exclusivist Hindutva political project espoused by the current ruling party.
The narrative of the “illegal immigrant,” particularly from Bangladesh, is rooted in the RSS’s aspirations for ‘Akhand Bharat’ (unified India) pronounced by the racial underpinnings of Hindutva ideology. The construction of the “other” draws upon Sangh Parivar’s attempts to first consolidate the territorial space of Akhand Bharat, and then to “cleanse” the space of the “other” (Mehta 2018). Hence, the construction of the recalcitrant “other” and the burden of proving one’s “Indianness” has been the bedrock of both the NRC and the CAA in different ways. Both these exercises have also been instrumental in igniting nationalisms of various hues and in varying degrees.
The NRC, a legally supported procedure, was not simply an administrative exercise that aimed at determining who qualified to be a genuine citizen in Assam, but its intent and consequences were deeper. By tapping into the sublime notion of the Bangladeshi as the “other”, the BJP wielded the NRC card triumphantly in Assam to augment the latent reserve of emotions of angst and hatred against the “outsider”. This was achieved by repeatedly constructing Muslim immigrants as the regressive “other” or the “infiltrator” posing a threat to the existential notion of the nation-state at large and development, particularly in Assam. Mentionable here is the fact that it is the implementation of Assam NRC model that emboldened the government’s current project of emulating the same exercise across the country.
At the outset, both CAA and NRC when read together appear discriminatory towards Muslims alone because all non-Muslims excluded from an all-India NRC would get the cushion of CAA. However, the complexity of the problem is much deeper. While the new law in principle intends to award citizenship rather than take it from anyone as the central government claims, in practice the administrative and bureaucratic procedures of the foreigner determination process is much more complex and difficult than it is simplistically read and understood.
As per the new law, the CAA is set to accept as citizens all those stateless people who are of different religious distinctions (except Islam) and have fled to India from the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. However, all those who might get excluded from the all-India NRC rolls would be required to provide ‘burden of proof’ before a Foreigner’s Tribunal, irrespective of religious affiliations and their citizenship, and will then be recognised if they fall within the purview of the new law. Such an exercise would cost heavily to the poor (across religions) because the ‘burden’ of producing valid documents and proving one’s ‘Indianness’ would fall on the landless, homeless, tribal people and other marginalised groups. The NRC process in Assam, that led to widespread misery, anxiety and panic amongst such sections of population, is being set to be replicated nation-wide.
NRC, Assam and the Northeast
As we have seen, the entire NRC exercise in Assam generated huge amount of social and economic pain and psychological trauma for a substantial portion of Assam’s population, particularly for those from the most vulnerable and marginalised groups. The process took a heavy toll on the mental health of those excluded from the initial drafts and the final register. There have also been reported cases of suicide as a consequence of extreme mental torture and the fear of exclusion. Most of the victims who committed suicides belonged to extremely poor families. All these only point to a humanitarian crisis that the state is facing today. It is important to note that the NRC process in Assam not only rendered a significant number of the state’s population ‘stateless’, but differentiation and the resulting exclusion based on religious and linguistic backgrounds emerged as one of the most insensitive injustices meted out to them.
The NRC draws upon the ‘foreigner conundrum’ which has its roots in the Assam movement (1979-1985) and the subsequent Assam Accord, an immediate consolation by the Centre to end the Assam agitation at that time. While the underlying principle of the Assam Accord was skewed against anyone not recognised as ‘indigenous’ to Assam irrespective of religion, and the Assam movement began on a secular note, it always ran the risk of turning communal because of the religious tinge given to it since most Bangladeshi immigrants were Muslims. The Nellie Massacre of 1983 as well as those at Chaulkhowa in which alleged Bangladeshis and Bengali-speaking Muslims were massacred did give the movement a communal overtone. It has been widely reported that a large number of Bengali Hindus have also been excluded from the final list of NRC, but greater proportion of Muslims have been declared foreigners than Hindus by Foreigners Tribunals in Assam.
This clearly points to the fact that the NRC has not been equal for everyone and has religious undertones that created a rift between Muslim and non-Muslim immigrants. Roy (2019) argues that both CAA and the NRC, in its current form, originate from the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003, and are rooted in the category of “illegal migrants”, which the 2003 amendment inserted by constraining citizenship by birth. This division was taken further by Citizenship Rules (2003) which put in place bureaucratic procedures for creating the NRC and issuing national identity cards to citizens.
The issue of migration is complex, even more so when questions of indigeneity are involved in establishing one’s claims to citizenship. The notion of ‘indigenous’ versus ‘outsider’ needs to be more critically analysed and historically formulated to define the idea of citizenship and the rights associated with it. It is true that the immigration problem of Assam is incomparable to other states in India demanding immediate attention, but to say that huge influx of illegal Bangladeshis post 1971 changed the social demography of the state is uncalled for. India Today’s Data Intelligence Unit (DIU) analysed Census 2011 data and found that India has hardly 0.4% foreign-born population. Over the past 30 years, the number of Bangladeshi immigrants coming into India has been declining. In fact, of over 23 lakh Bangladeshi immigrants in India, 76% came before 1991. In 2011, roughly 22,000 Bangladeshis had come to India which is around 1% of the total Bangladeshi immigrant population in India.
Questions of migration, demography and citizenship have been a part of the post-independence history of most of the Northeast, particularly Assam and Tripura. However, instead of addressing genuine concerns, CAA and NRC have increased the anxieties of the people of the region. Massive protests in the region, particularly against CAB since it was first passed in the Lok Sabha in January 2019 are its proof. Though exemption has been provided to Sixth Schedule and Inner Line Permit (ILP) areas after concerns were raised by the Northeastern states, it is questionable if it would be adequate to protect the rights of the people of the region.
The urgency behind the CAA and all-India NRC can be explained from the results of Assam NRC as well as towards the agenda of Hindu Rashtra by the RSS/BJP. The CAA-NRC combine is a reflection of the citizenship law of Nazi Germany and the nation-state law of Israel. It is a hardcore political and ideological agenda of the RSS/BJP and not merely an attempt to divert attention from other issues in the country- as some have pointed out. This combine is essentially divisive and anti-minority. When implemented, it would mean that not only Muslims but large sections of people—particularly the poor and marginalised—would have to bear the cost of proving their citizenship and face statelessness.
Whatever the government may claim, the CAA has nothing to do with addressing the genuine grievances of refugees. If that was the case, the government would have come up with a national refugee policy or become a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. Instead of addressing the complex issue of migration, it ignores the federal structure and disregards the history and grievances of the people of northeast. The CAA-NRC combine is one more step towards the making of Hindu Rashtra.
The authors are PhD candidates, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The views are personal.