New Delhi: As mass democratic upsurges against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act and proposed implementation of the National Register of Citizens continue to escalate across the country, the responses of BJP leaders over the last two days indicate that the saffron party-led Union government has been caught on the backfoot.
Over Friday, the Union home ministry attempted hard to allay the deep fears regarding the CAA and NRC among a large section of the Indian population.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Union minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said that there “has so far been no discussion on the (NRC) matter at any level of government” as of now and that there is “no plan for a nationwide NRC” yet.
“NRC is limited to Assam. There is no plan of NRC in any other part of the country. You are talking about an unborn baby…Spreading rumours about it.”
“Who is NRC for? It is for Indian nationals. Does it say it is only about Indian Muslims? No, it does not. NRC, if it at all happens…no government can do it surreptitiously. That is why the government has clarified, issued advertisements and said that there is no process on that yet, no discussion at any level in the government so far on a nationwide NRC.”
Naqvi may have exceeded his brief in saying so as the Union home minister Amit Shah has been declaring in almost all of his election rallies and recent interviews that a nationwide NRC is in the works and the government will drive out “ghuspaithiyas” (illegal immigrants) “one by one”.
Nonetheless, Naqvi’s statements, which sounded more like the government’s u-turn on the issue, was repeated by BJP’s national general secretary Ram Madhav. “It’s premature to talk about NRC as the government has not yet made any details about it available, Madhav told the national daily.
“Right now, the focus is on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. NRC is a proposed activity the home minister has announced to be taken up in 2021. No details have been made available to us…There are no details available about it.”
When the national daily asked him about senior BJP leaders, including the party’s working president J.P. Nadda, making public declarations about implementing a nationwide NRC, Madhav said, “…It’s an announcement made by the home minister. Since it has to happen two years down the line and no details have yet been made known to the country, this is not the time to talk about the NRC.”
Home ministry’s changing stance?
As protesters see a clear link between CAA and NRC, the Union home ministry in a series of tweets has sought to debunk the claim.
Here are 12 key take-aways from the Acthttps://t.co/qFfCp74sF7
— PIB India (@PIB_India) December 19, 2019
It released an unsigned document that emphasised that the CAA will neither affect any Indian citizen nor does it “stop any foreigner of any country from applying for Indian citizenship under the Citizenship Act, 1955.”
While this is true, the underlying current of the protests has been that the CAA has enabled all but Muslims to find a way in if they are excluded from the proposed nationwide NRC exercise. That question still remains unanswered by the ministry as it has stuck to its position that CAA should not be linked with NRC.
The document attempting to allay people’s fears was first leaked by unknown ‘sources’ to the news agency ANI. When FactChecker.in, a dedicated fact-checking website, asked the ministry about the authenticity of the document, the home ministry denied on record that it had anything to do with it.
However, within hours, government-run Press Information Bureau owned up to the document by publishing it on its website.
The flip-flop not only indicates a confused state of affairs in the government but also a sort of indecisiveness about how to deal with the escalating protests.
Nonetheless, the question remains as to how the document gives concrete answers when senior BJP leaders have said that NRC has not been discussed in the government at all.
For instance, the document says that NRC exercise in Assam and the rest of India will be different. It also says that “NRC is merely a normal process to register your name in the Citizens’ Register” but doesn’t say how different it would be from the census exercise that we already have.
On a question, “What if a person is illiterate and does not have relevant documents”, the document says that “the authorities will allow that person to bring a witness. Also, other evidence and community verification etc. will also be allowed.”
For all those who do not have any of these identity cards or own any land or are homeless, it says that they will be identified on the basis of welfare schemes that they may have received from the government.
The document has fuelled further suspicions about government’s intentions rather than giving more clarity. Yet, it shows that the government was willing to address people’s concerns.
That in itself is a change.
Until only a few days ago, senior BJP leaders and ministers had been unrelenting. They defended police action and threatened the protesters with dire consequences if they do not stop protesting. The home minister Shah had said that “come what may”, the government will not backtrack on CAA and that it was firm like a rock on the issue.
In what was a brazen communal dare, Shah said at an event:
“Can the Congress say that all the Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh should be given citizenship here? Let Sonia Gandhi make such a statement tomorrow and see!… I have a challenge for all those opposing the law – Tell the people of the country openly that we would welcome all the Muslims of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh to India. Let them say this! And if they can’t say so, they should stop opposing the law”.
It was Shah who fuelled the debate by making provocative statements while he campaigned to implement CAA and NRC. In all his speeches through the last one year, he has circuitously sought to draw parallels between illegal infiltrators and Indian Muslims, with the sole intention to polarise the electorate on religious lines.
Sample this tweet which was deleted by the BJP on December 19 as unrest spiralled across the country.
What the government faces today is its own making. Even as agitations and social unrest continue to spread, as many as 10 chief ministers, including BJP’s ally Nitish Kumar, have opposed NRC’s implementation. The saffron party allies like the Shiromani Akali Dal, Lok Janshakti Party, and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) are building pressure on the government to back down.
Political pressure is building up on the government. And that may be the principal reason behind government’s perceptible climbdown.