You May Think You Are an Indian Citizen, but Can You Convince the State?

There have been large-scale protests against the US's drive against illegal immigrants. In India, the NRC has barely attracted any such attention, leave alone criticism.

President Donald Trump’s tweet, aimed at four minority Congresswomen, telling them to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came,” has been called ‘racist and xenophobic’ both in the mainstream media and online. Commentators have called him out pointing that the four women of colour can’t ‘go back’ because they are all American citizens – three of them born in the country – but more importantly, that he has no business hurling such invective at anyone, let alone elected politicians.

It’s water off a duck’s back of course, since Trump is not likely to pay the slightest attention to his critics, and presumably also because he knows this plays well with his core constituency. His party members are already either bludgeoned into submission or choose to remain silent because this kind of rhetoric wins votes, and his supporters love him for saying what they feel.

This is supposed to be a ‘backlash’ against ‘political correctness’, vox populi against the so-called elite, a genuine democratic upsurge of the neglected classes. They feel vindicated that they finally have a representative who does not beat about the bush and tells the minorities where they get off. It is no coincidence that the four elected Democrats are women of colour, and they are feisty and outspoken and thus a threat to the establishment in several ways.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

This episode, however, raises a bigger question: who is a citizen? The US, a land of immigrants – with the Statue of Liberty outside New York harbour that is supposed to welcome newcomers to the country – is in the midst of intense navel-gazing about this vexed question. Each country has its own definition, but to put it simply, someone can become a citizen by birth or naturalisation. The rights of both are the same and the law does not differentiate between the two.

But as we are seeing in the US – and now in India too – governments are not content with those conditions. In the US, raids by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to catch illegal immigrants and deport them are also netting citizens who have, in the past, voted and hold American documentation. The ICE drive is seen being mainly against people of colour, especially those from Latin America.

Also read | India’s Looming Crisis of Citizenship: A Paradox of Protection and Power

In India, the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) is said to be documenting illegal migrants in Assam and the onus is on the person named to prove she or he is a citizen. Lakhs of people have been named and have been going from pillar to post to show their bonafides. Then BJP president Amit Shah, had earlier this year called illegal migrants from Bangladesh “termites” and declared that they would be thrown out if the BJP came to power. This was no jumla. Shah is now the country’s home minister and the drive has picked up steam – the final list will be released on July 31.

Heart-rending stories have emerged about people who have lived in Assam for generations and hold all kinds of legal documents, being left out of the register – a clerical error could cost a person their citizenship. Not just Muslims, even Hindus have found their names missing. It is a fraught time for millions of people, who are starting at a bleak, perhaps stateless future.

People wait in a queue to check their names on the final draft of National Register of Citizens at an NRC Seva Kendra in Morigaon, Assam. Credit: PTI Photo

The NRC’s final list will be published on July 31. Credit: PTI

Assamese parties like the Ason Gana Parishad, which had earlier protested, have gone silent. The rest of the country has not yet reacted with horror and alarm at this human tragedy unfolding in a state seen as remote. But that would be a mistake; this is an experiment, and if it is successful, will move to other states too. In the name of throwing out Bangladeshi migrants, the Modi government will begin documenting citizens in other states too. Nor will it remain an under-the-radar exercise, affecting only the nameless masses – even a war hero in Assam found that he was no longer ‘Indian.’

Also read | For Bengali Muslims Whose Names Are in the NRC, the Struggle Isn’t Over Yet

Imagine, if a list randomly excludes your name and declares you a non-citizen of India – a country where you were born, lived your entire life, paid your taxes, voted, whose passport you hold and which you are proud of? Imagine that you have to now deal with petty bureaucrats behind an iron mesh who tell you that your passport, birth certificate and election card mean nothing and you have to somehow ‘prove’ to them that you are an Indian? And if you belong to the ‘wrong’ religion, then even divine intervention may be of little help. There is no saying where this could lead –anyone inconvenient could simply be declared a non-citizen.

“Go to Pakistan” is, of course, a regular cry and not just on social media but even among BJP legislators. Will it now become ‘go back to where you came from’, never mind if you came from Trivandrum, Patiala or indeed Guwahati? Will anyone who does not conform to the notion of the ‘Ideal Indian’ – Hindu and upper-caste – be made a non-person?

In a small state like Assam, four million names are missing from the list – it is not known how many more (or less) will be missing from the final list. Multiply that by the number of states in India and the menacing nature of this drive becomes clear.

There have been large-scale protests against ICE in the US. The powerful big media has criticised the aggressive drive of the agency. Celebrity stars and musicians have publicly come out against Trump’s immigration policy (which, by the way, will affect many Indians too). In India, the NRC has barely attracted any such attention, leave alone criticism. Sooner or later, this show is coming close to you. By then it could be too late.