A Common Thread in the Centre's Plans on the Brewing Citizenship Question

From Kashmir to Assam to the halls of parliament, it is clear that one particular community has come under attack as the ruling party inches forward with its agenda.

The first 100 days of the Central government have been remarkable for a number of initiatives. While these various initiatives might appear to be disparate at first glance, a closer look and connecting the dots shows a common underlying thread.

Consider the scrapping of Article 370 and the break-up of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories. On the face of it, it is the fulfilment of a long-pending promise of the BJP  to do away with the ‘special status’ of J&K.

Then there is the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, optically under the pressure and direct supervision of the Supreme Court. Then there are statements by almost the highest political executive about the government’s firm resolve to get the amendment to the Citizenship Act passed and to implement it not only in Assam or the north-east, but all across the country. Lest anyone entertain any doubt over the firmness of the government’s resolve and to reiterate that it means business, the ministry of home affairs has prepared guidelines for setting up ‘model detention centre/holding centre/camp’ and has circulated them to all states and union territories.

To decipher the underlying thread, one has to unpack some of these initiatives. Take the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB). It was passed by the Lok Sabha on January 8, 2019 but lapsed before it could be passed by the Rajya Sabha and become law. Now, the home minister is on record saying repeatedly that the CAB will be passed. The significance of the CAB lies not entirely in what it says but actually in what it does not say.

Also read: If India Wants to Remain Secular, the New Citizenship Bill Isn’t the Way to Go

For the record, the CAB says, inter alia, that “persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan … shall not be treated as illegal migrants for the purposes of this Act”.

What it means, in simple English, is that any Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, or Christian from the three neighbouring countries is eligible for the grant of Indian citizenship without any conditions. What it implies, without specifically saying so, is that Muslims from these three countries will not be eligible for the grant of Indian citizenship automatically and they would have to satisfy certain conditions to qualify for Indian citizenship. So, all those Muslims who may have been India for whatever number of years will have to prove that they have not come from any of the neighbouring countries.

The burden of proof is on the individual.

Now, combine it with the NRC. The roots of NRC are in the Assam Accord signed by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985. The salient feature of this Accord was classification of the persons who came into Assam from neighbouring countries into three categories. The first category is those who came in prior to January 1, 1966. These were to be “regularised” as Indian citizens with full rights. The second category are those who came in “after 1.1.1966 (inclusive) and up to March 24, 1971”, who will be treated as ‘foreigners’ and their names will be deleted from the electoral rolls for ten years. In effect, they will be Indian citizens without voting rights for a limited period.

The third category is those who came into Assam after March 24, 1971, and they “shall continue to be detected, deleted and expelled in accordance with law”. If effect, they will be deported, presumably to wherever they came from – though this bit is not clearly specified.

Also read: In the Idea of an ‘All India NRC’, Echoes of Reich Citizenship Law

The combined effect of the CAB and NRC, thus, is that all Muslims who came into Assam after January 1, 1966 will be presumed to be illegal migrants unless they can prove otherwise to the satisfaction of ‘authorities’ according to the NRC regulations. What happens during the process of NRC verifications has been too widely reported to be recounted here. When former security forces officers and the family of a former president are not able to satisfy the ‘authorities’ about their bona fides, what the poor and the illiterate would have to go through should not be hard to imagine.

Now bring Kashmir into the equation. Yes, the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir has ceased to exist and has been transformed into two union territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. But why are residents not allowed to move around freely, and what is the dominant community or religion of those who are not allowed free movement?

There is no prize for answering these questions, and therein lies the common thread in the seemingly disparate initiatives taken by the central government.

Jagdeep S. Chhokar is former professor, dean and director in-charge of IIM, Ahmedabad. Views are personal.