What was considered a wild and delusional complaint of the extreme saffron fringe is in the process of becoming a mainstream issue—the demand for a countrywide National Register of Citizens (NRC). Home Minister Amit Shah himself has been leading the charge asserting that there is need for a countrywide NRC for which his government has got a mandate in the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year. Earlier, he had repeatedly said that foreigners will be thrown out of West Bengal through the NRC process.
But after what was a fiasco for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam—several lakh Hindus were reportedly in the list of 19 lakh people who were excluded—Shah has tied the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) to his support for the NRC. Remember: the CAB was brought in by the previous Modi government, but lapsed because it was not passed by the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha term ended. It is a Bill to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, that lays down who can be considered India’s citizen.
Why link CAB to NRC? Because it is the CAB that specifies that illegal immigrants from three neighbouring countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan) of all religions except Muslims will be allowed to become citizens of India after a stay of six years (instead of the earlier 11 years). It is an openly anti-Constitutional law, discriminating against members of one religious community and thus violating Article 14 which guarantees the right to equality. The home minister is asserting that they have the mandate to get it passed.
For Shah, and for the Sangh Parivar, this connection between the NRC and the CAB is essential. What it will boil down to is this: immigrants from other countries just have to show that they are not Muslim, and they have been staying in India for 6+ years, and they will become citizens. On the other hand, Muslims will have to show that they have resided in India for 11 years.
One thing is almost forgotten when CAB is discussed. The first Modi government has already amended other laws relating to illegal immigrants to accommodate this discrimination! The Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 empower the central government to regulate the entry, exit and residence of foreigners within India. In 2015 and 2016, the central government issued two notifications exempting certain groups of illegal migrants from provisions of the 1946 and the 1920 Acts. These groups are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who arrived in India on or before December 31, 2014. This implies that these groups of illegal migrants will not be deported or imprisoned for being in India without valid documents.
What the CAB does is to take one more step and grant citizenship to these illegal immigrants from the three indicated countries belonging to the six religious communities (except Muslims).
Once this is in place, any NRC exercise (like the one in Assam) will not lead to Hindus getting included in illegal migrants’ list and facing deportation etc.
Chorus of NRC
Following the lead given by Shah, BJP leaders (including chief ministers) from at least 10 states have immediately started demanding an NRC in their respective states. Such demands have come from the BJP president of Delhi, Karnataka’s BJP Home Minister Bommai, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath (where the BJP-led state government has already started ‘identifying’ Bangladeshi ‘infiltrators’ through the state police), Haryana, Rajasthan, Odisha, Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das, Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, Bihar, while detention centres are being set up in Maharashtra and Goa, both ruled by BJP.
And Shah himself has declared that BJP will implement NRC in Bengal to throw out infiltrators. He, of course, insisted that this will be done after CAB is passed so that only Muslims will be affected, making no bones about the communal pitch.
Are these states experiencing a lot of immigration from, say, Bangladesh? According to Census 2011 data, at the all-India level, there are only 190 Bangladeshi immigrants for every one lakh population in the country. Of these immigrants, almost 87% are in W Bengal and Tripura. And they are staying in India since long, much more than the 11 years specified for naturalisation in the Citizenship Act 1955. Moreover, they belong to all communities.
So, the ostensible fear and outrage being expressed by the BJP leaders about flood of illegal immigrants, and explosive growth of Muslim community are just figments of their saffron imagination.
What is the real intent of NRC demand?
If the actual numbers are so few, why this chorus of demands for NRC and CAB? The answer lies in one short-term objective, and one long-term dream. The immediate objective, especially in Bengal, is to win the forthcoming Assembly elections in 2021 by sharply polarising the voters in that state along religious lines. This strategy was in evidence during the violent run-up to the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year. The BJP wants to put it on a much firmer footing. And, the ruling Mamata-led Trinamool Congress in Bengal appears to be playing right into their hands.
But it is the long-term objective of the NRC that is the most worrisome. Because, the demand for throwing out “foreign infiltrators” is meant to whip up a xenophobia that need not be confined to Bangladeshi Muslims alone. In fact, it segues seamlessly into the larger RSS narrative of viewing all Muslims as foreigners. The demand for identification and deporting of Muslim “infiltrators” can be extended all round and become a rallying cry for the Hindu fundamentalist cause.
Simultaneously, the NRC chorus is also playing a very important role in diverting attention from the severe economic crisis that the Modi government has landed the country into. In fact, many of the BJP leaders demanding countrywide NRC are openly saying that jobs are being gobbled up by foreigners, or land is under occupation of foreigners. In fact there is also a rumour—completely baseless—that onion trade is controlled by Muslims and that’s why onion prices have gone up!
As the discontent against growing joblessness, and loss of jobs due to the slowdown, mounts, and as the government’s own inability to deal with the crisis becomes exposed, demands such as the NRC or others (Mandir, Pakistan, etc.) will become the crutches on which Modi’s government will have to support itself. Whether this will work, and for how long, time will tell. But it is a destructive dangerous policy that will undermine the Constitution, the country’s integrity and people’s unity.