The British had their Rt. Hon’ble Jim Hacker, Sir Humphrey Appleby and Barnard Wolley, and the latter two always said “Yes, minister” till Jim Hacker got promoted and they started saying “Yes, prime minister”. Sadly, we cannot do that because our (home) minister and the prime minister have expressed opposing opinions on the same issue. The issue is the proposed, according to the home minister, and not proposed, according to the prime minister, National Register of Citizens (NRC), also referred to as the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC).
Actually, there are two issues: (a) Is there going to be an NRC?, and (b) In case there is an NRC, then are the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the NRC connected with each other in any way or are they totally independent and unrelated?
First, the NRC. The home minister has been going around the country for almost one full year saying that the NRC will be implemented all over the country. There are many video clips showing him saying that the NRC will be implemented all over the country before the 2024 elections. One of the more recent statements was on November 20, 2019, when, while responding to a question in the Rajya Sabha, he said, “The NRC exercise which was undertaken in Assam was done on the orders of the Supreme Court and under a separate Act; when NRC process is taken up in the whole country, it will be taken up again in the natural course in Assam as well” (italics added)). A video clip was helpfully uploaded on the Twitter handle of the BJP.
He repeated this line as late as December 2, 2019. The most common refrain has been that first there will be CAB (as it was then called before becoming CAA) and then there will be NRC, and that the NRC will be applied to all states, and that too before 2024.
Then, on December 22, came the bombshell when Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “After my government came into power, since 2014 till today, I want to tell the 130 crore countrymen that NRC word has not been discussed anywhere.” Interestingly, soon after saying that “NRC word has not been discussed anywhere”, the prime minister said that “those Muslims whose forefathers were born here, they do not have even a distant relationship with CAA and NRC.”
This is what leaves the citizens in a state of utter confusion. Is there an NRC or not? Will there be an NRC or not? Do we believe the home minister or the prime minister?
How did we get here?
The NRC in Assam is a historical legacy. The Supreme Court thought it appropriate to give it a new life. As the court monitored implementation of the NRC proceeded in Assam, fresh possibilities and complications came to light. During this process, it seemed to have occurred to the party in power that it might be possible to use this to fulfil a promise made in its manifesto for the 1996 Lok Sabha election, and which has been carried forward since then. The promise was contained in a section of the manifesto titled “Illegal Immigration: Demographic Invasion — A Threat to Our Security”. The relevant portion read as follows:
“The BJP proposes to: …
Detect illegal immigrants, delete their names from voters’ lists and arrange for their deportation without any further delay;”
This became popular as the “’detection, deletion, and deportation’ of illegal immigrants”. This promise was the product of the party’s obsessive belief that Hindus in India are under some sort of demographic siege by Muslims from within and without.
Since the implementation of the NRC in Assam was on the assumption that this was an ideal tool for the detection of illegal immigrants, that is how the proposal for extending the NRC nationwide came about. The justification to do this was already present in a Vajpayee-era amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955, which entered into effect from December 3, 2004, which reads as under:
“14A. Issue of national identity cards.—(1) The Central Government may compulsorily register every citizen of India and issue national identity card to him.
(2) The Central Government may maintain a National Register of Indian Citizens and for that purpose establish as National Registration Authority.”
Once “illegal immigrants” were detected, some logic or justification was needed to decide who, among them, should be given citizenship and who should not. This is where the amendment of the Citizenship Act, 1955, came into the picture. Section 2 of the Citizenship Act, 1955, was amended by inserting the following:
“Provided that any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014…, shall not be treated as illegal migrant for the purposes of this Act;…” (italics added).
The significance of this amendment lies in the phrase “not be treated as illegal migrant”. Not being treated as “illegal migrant” makes one eligible and entitled to be granted Indian citizenship provided one has stayed in India for “not less than five years.”
The real significance of this amendment lies not in what it says but in what it does not say. While it mentions six communities – Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian – whose members have entered India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, it does not mention one community which is common to these three countries as well as India, the Muslim community.
The justification given for not including Muslims is that since all the three countries mentioned are officially Islamic countries, there is no question of Muslims being persecuted on religious grounds there. Whether this assumption of the impossibility of Muslims being persecuted in Islamic countries is correct or not, will, of course, be officially and legally decided by the Supreme Court but readers can also have their own views on this. In this context, it might be useful to remember that, just like many other faiths, Islam also has a number of sects some of which oppose one another rather vehemently.
Are the NRC and CAA linked?
It has been repeatedly said that there is no linkage between the NRC and the CAA, and that they have separate and independent objectives and purposes. The purpose of the CAA is said to be to grant citizenship of India to eligible persons coming into India from the three specified countries. It is stressed that “the CAA has nothing at all to do with anyone who is already a citizen of India.”The situation concerning the NRC is very curious. One view, which comes directly from the prime minister, is that since there has been no talk of NRC except in Assam – which also was done under orders of the Supreme Court – there can be, and is no, question of any linkage of CAA with something that does not even exist.
The home minister has, of course, not only linked the CAA and NRC every time he spoke on the issue of “infiltrators”, but has also explained the “chronology” of the two.
To understand whether there is any linkage or not, we need to see how these two might work. We will take the numbers from Assam.
- NRC is conducted. It determines how many, and who, qualify to be on the register, and who do not qualify. In Assam, these figures were approximately 3.3 crores and 19 Lakhs respectively.
- Of the 19 lakhs who were not found to be qualified to be included in the register, approximately 13 lakhs are estimated to be Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities (the exact breakup into these six communities is not available but it is considered a safe assumption that a majority of these are Hindus), and about 6 lakhs to be Muslims.
- Theoretically, all these 19 lakhs people will have to apply to Foreigners’ Tribunals to get their status clarified and corrected.
- This is where the CAA comes into play. According to the amended Section 2 of the Citizenship Act, everyone “belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014… shall not be treated as illegal migrant for the purposes of this Act.”
- The fact of “not (being) treated as illegal immigrant” is critical because it makes that person entitled to become an Indian citizen after five years of stay in India.
- The implication of item 4 above is that anyone NOT “belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan” shall be treated as an illegal migrant, making it compulsory for them to approach the Foreigners’ Tribunals to get their status clarified and corrected.
What this means in simple English is that (a) NRC will identify who are suspect, (b) CAA will enable all non-Muslims to become eligible for and get Indian citizenship, and (c) Muslims will have to go through the rigmarole of Foreigners’ Tribunals. This is how the NRC and CAA are interlinked, and in a way, this is what the home minister has been trying to hint at.
And this is what shows the bias against the Muslims.
Jagdeep S. Chhokar is a former professor, Dean, and Director In-charge of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Views are personal.