The NRC Will Backfire. Here's Why

The NRC – a threat for Hindus as much for Muslims, with the moral hazard of proving one's religion – is likely to backfire and change how Indians approach the Hindutva nationalist discourse.

NRC was a gamble that the current regime under Modi-Shah leadership had come to represent for some time now. It was in one sense an extension of the ‘Gujarat Model’ that succeeded in polarising Hindus and Muslims in a way that would allow the BJP to milk its electoral dividends for four successive terms.

While the ‘Gujarat Model’ represented a mode of social polarisation through violence, cultural ‘othering’ and hatred, NRC is a legal-policy variant of institutionalising polarisation. It was assumed that Hindus would feel included and privileged to be assured of citizenship while Muslims would be excluded and made vulnerable to prove their legal status.

This mode of retributive empowerment of the majority community seems to have worked on previous occasions, but still necessitates an analysis as to why it may not pan out as it earlier did going by the kind of mass protests that we have been witnessing for the last couple of days. Most of these protests are being led by non-Muslims in large numbers and there seems to be disquiet even in rural hinterlands. Why is that so?

To begin with, much of the Northeast, including Assam, has squarely rejected the proposals of the CAA on the grounds that it includes settling ‘outsiders’ whether they are Hindus or Muslims. This, in a way, triggered and paved the way for a large number of protests across India.

It was amply clear that support for the NRC in Assam was more about linguistic and cultural issues of the native Assamese population and not about religious nationality. At the very first step, the strategy of polarisation failed to fructify and pan-Hindu sentiment took a back seat. Pushing through CAA in spite of stiff resistance has made the pro-Hindu claims even weaker.

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Second, NRC entails a certain level of uncertainty for Hindus – more so for the poor and less literate sections who may not possess the proper documentation. As the results of the NRC in Assam depicted, a greater number of Hindus turned out to be without documents and were thereby potentially more ‘illegal’ than Muslims.

The CAA was enacted to set this anxiety right, assuring the Hindus that even those without documents had nothing to worry about as India was their homeland irrespective of the documents they held. It was, perhaps, assumed that as a result of the anxiety, the CAA would find greater support, in the process displacing the question of ‘outsiders’ being resettled, and a new consensus would emerge for the NRC.

However, the NRC still leaves open the veracity of proving oneself as a Hindu, before the issue of documents becomes relevant. Given the low level of trust in institutions and the officials manning them, proving one’s religion, if their claim to being one is rejected in the first instance, could end up being a Herculean task.

The NRC thus became a threat for Hindus as much as it was for Muslims, in addition to the inconvenience and moral hazard of being put through the process of proving that one belongs to a land one is born into. Instead of polarising communities, the NRC seems to have brought religious communities together and a subtle process of othering power as against claims and rights of the citizens has set in.

It has become clearer than before that the current regime is centralising power and exercising arbitrary authority in the name of bringing order and providing security, where victimhood of the Hindus cannot be differentiated from that of other communities. Fear and uncertainty, not polarisation, has become the central issue.

Third, the ‘Gujarat Model’ succeeded in polarising the communities given its long history of animosity and social and spatial separation and ghettoisation. This is not true of the rest of India. Hindus resented the projected idea of Muslim appeasement and the everyday conflicts that communities found themselves in due to various socio-economic issues.

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This took the shape of hardened communalism but not generic Islamophobia of fear of Muslims and Islam as a religion. The discourse of Islamophobia has come a full circle in making those, who set it in motion, myopic to the reality on the ground. In many parts, Hindus continue to reside alongside Muslims, and the latter is not an unknown variable that is detested to the extent of completely obliterating its very existence as citizens. It is becoming clearer that the NRC and CAA will set in motion a condition of permanent conflict between communities that many feel is not worth it.

Demonstrators hold the national flag of India as they attend a protest against a new citizenship law, at Jama Masjid in the old quarters of Delhi, December 20, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Fourth, the nature of state brutality has exposed the purpose and intent of the process much more than what it did in previous instances. Yet again, going beyond religious identities it was violence against students that took precedence, bringing a large variety of social groups, including the middle class, social elites, Bollywood and others into the streets condemning violence against students.

The nature of violence, including hurting the unarmed – those who were not even a part of the protest and were pursuing their studies in the library were not spared – foregrounds a different kind of dynamic beyond the limits of communal polarisation. The attack on students involves the irretrievable damage to institutions of higher education and future prospects of students belonging to various communities.

Those hurt included Hindu students, and those Muslims who suffered grave injuries were students first and Muslims later. Last-minute damage control in terms of projecting them as ‘miscreants’ and ‘hooligans’ and later as ‘urban naxals’ could not offset the damage done.

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The NRC is likely to backfire and change the very basis of the narrative in Indian politics and the terms through which Indians could possibly approach the Hindutva nationalist discourse. The critique against Hindutva as being authoritarian and fascist that lay on the margins now has the potential to become mainstream.

The obverse and adverse implications of majoritarianism against the majority community have for the first time become clear, as had the need to think beyond a singular religious identity. Since caging imagination within the limits of a singular identity has been the key strategy of rightwing mobilisation in India, we might be witnessing an important turning point.

Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.