New Delhi: Reigniting the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign against supposed infiltrators yet again, Union home minister Amit Shah told Rajya Sabha on Wednesday that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process, along the same lines as the one conducted in Assam, will be carried out across India.
The NRC has been a matter of debate, with a significant section of Indians believing that it may be used as an instrument by the Narendra Modi government to snatch away citizenship rights from minority communities.
BJP leaders, including Shah, have fuelled such polarisation around the issue in their electoral campaigns. Shah, in fact, compared illegal immigrants to “termites”, dehumanising the problem of distress immigration of the poor further.
What he said in the upper house on Wednesday is a leap in many ways, as the issue is no longer something brought up at election rallies to stoke differences, as it has now been introduced in parliament as well.
In this regard, Shah carefully worded his statement in parliament. He assured members of parliament that a pan-India NRC is only a logbook exercise to get everyone under the citizen’s list, and not a crusade against any particular religion. “The Assam exercise was carried out under a Supreme Court order. NRC will be carried out across the country, will be done in Assam again at the time, no one from any religion should be worried,” he said, adding that it is “just a process”.
On the backfoot?
While how the NRC exercise spreads out in the days to come is still unclear, it appears that the BJP has been rather uncomfortable with the way the process was carried out in Assam. The final draft of Assam’s NRC that came out in August left out as many as 19 lakh people. Of these, many belonged to the Hindu communities and indigenous tribes too.
The commotion that ensued after that came back to hit the BJP hard, as the saffron party had projected the NRC as a process that was likely to exclude mostly Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants who came to Assam after the cut-off date, that is March 24, 1971, based on the 1985 Assam Accord.
As the backlash against BJP grew, the saffron party pushed for a Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which was clearly communal in nature. CAB, if approved, would allow the Union government to give shelter to refugees from all religions except Islam.
That is why the saffron party, much on the lines of its anti-Muslim politics, has been advocating successful passage of CAB in the parliament before carrying out a pan-India NRC exercise. The union government has listed passage of CAB as its priority in the ongoing winter session of the parliament. More than cementing its majoritarian image of the BJP, CAB would neutralise the chaos that a pan-India NRC is likely to create.
Thus, if CAB is passed, it would immediately make all the non-Muslim persons – thus far excluded from the NRC in Assam – eligible for citizenship with some conditions, while the Muslims will continue to be treated as illegal immigrants.
“I today want to assure Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees, you will not be forced to leave India by the government. Don’t believe rumours. Before NRC, we will bring the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which will ensure these people get Indian citizenship,” Shah had previously said in a rally in Kolkata while accusing chief minister Mamata Banerjee of spreading lies.
Banerjee has been a staunch opponent of NRC and her party Trinamool Congress has been campaigning that “millions of Hindus” have been excluded from the final list of Assam.
Precisely because of this, Shah treaded the sloppy terrain rather carefully in the parliament. He said that a pan-India NRC exercise would also mean that the whole process would be repeated in Assam again. Just to assure those who have been left out from the NRC in Assam, he said that the Assam government would set up “tribunals in all tehsils” for people to appeal against their wrongful exclusion. He added that those who do not have enough resources to appeal, the BJP-led Assam government would arrange for lawyers to take up their cases, as well as aid them financially.
Yet, Shah maintained that NRC is linked in no way to CAB, and that the sole purpose of the latter is, in his own words: “All refugees coming from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan on account of religious atrocities will get citizenship under the Bill.”
However, conducting a pan-India NRC will be easier said than done.
Firstly, across the north-eastern states, several political groups, including BJP’s own ally the Asom Gana Parishad, is virulently opposed to CAB, which would render NRC meaningless. For all these groups, the purpose of NRC is only to reclaim land and other resources away from the so-called illegal immigrants. Implementation of CAB would mean that the set cut-off date for settling the issue of citizenship in Assam will be automatically nullified.
Secondly, a pan-India NRC exercise has the potential to create a big social storm across the country. While the opposition is arguing that there is no need for a NRC as citizen registers like the census document already exists, the BJP has insisted on having this additional exercise with the sole objective of ousting Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants. As the political polarisation over it will likely intensify, the NRC may also create a communal rift between communities and precipitate a volatile on-ground situation.