On the face of it, compiling a National Register of Citizens (NRC) sounds like a good idea. After all, every modern country, by which we, of course, mean the western democracies, has such a register. Why shouldn’t we as a modern democracy too? That is the “follow our colonial masters” rabbit that the Narendra Modi government, for all of its Hindutva pretensions and avowed determination to recreate ‘Ram Rajya’, has suddenly pulled out of its hat in Assam.
The result, as all can see, is chaos. Four million people who have been living, working and even voting as Indian citizens for the past 40 years are suddenly no longer Indians.
Of course, as the state coordinator of the NRC project Prateek Hajela has been at pains to emphasise, all of them will have a chance to seek administrative and judicial redress. An elaborate process of appeal has been spelt out. Every one will have a fair chance to set the record straight. Hajela has assured people that none of their present rights will be affected till the entire appeals process has been exhausted. Other commentators have pointed out that even if a certain proportion of these four million do cease to be Indian citizens, they will not – cannot – be deported. For it takes two to dance the deportation tango and Bangladesh is not prepared to enter the dance floor.
It all looks very democratic and it will almost certainly turn out to be a storm in a teacup, we keep reassuring ourselves. But it is at this point that India’s grandiose pretensions of modernity, and the cosy self delusion in which we, the English speaking and reading middle class live, meets the reality of the corrupt banana republic that India actually is. For the first demand by the adjudicators will be to provide some proof that they or their parents, or grandparents, were living in Assam before 1971.
What can a villager in a remote Assamese village produce as proof? The most solid proof would be ownership of land, for this is one record, perhaps the only one, that has been maintained continuously since the days of the British. But then what about the landless, who make up at least a third of the rural population?
What other proof can a deregistered person furnish? A birth certificate? That would require the ancestor to have been born in a hospital, but in the 50s and 60s, at least two-thirds of all rural births, not only in Assam but most of north and central India, took place at home with only the village midwife in attendance. How many of these midwives have kept records and how many of them, if any, have survived for half a century and more?
Then what about a school attendance certificate of an ancestor issued before 1971? Did any government village school even keep records in those days, let alone dish out certificates? And have we forgotten that till the 80s, half of all rural children dropped out of school after the first year?
Shorn of documentary proof, the victim has to turn for proof of residence to the village headman, or the local police thana. Even if these worthies kept records, which is doubtful, one wonders how many will have survived half a century in a state where one third of the land area is routinely submerged by floods. So we are back at the conundrum that citizens of India have to appeal for the restoration of civic rights to the very agency that has taken these rights away from them – the state. The very quintessence of powerlessness.
The final recourse will be to turn to the courts, but this is where the devil truly hides. For quite apart from the fact that lower courts in particular seldom go against the government, the judges there too will require some of the same kinds of proof that the administrative tribunals require. And then there is the colossal expense of litigation – not only court fees and lawyers’ fees, but the innumerable visits the appellants have to make to the district centre. Then there will be the appeals.
Finally, how will a judiciary that has already pretty much broken down under the weight of more than 33 million cases in arrears handle anything up to four million more? The only thing that that the NCR will create is a new underclass open to extortion by every state employee, from a municipal inspector to the police thanedar and the head of any private institution from whom she or he is seeking a job or school or college admission.
The bane of public discourse is the tendency of participants to get bogged down in specifics. This is a trap that politicians have used with great skill, to hide the larger issues – of political motivation and impact – that lie behind their actions. Everything I, and others who belong to the public sphere, have written is something they already know. So why has the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo chosen this time to release the final draft of the NRC?
Perhaps because they assume – or hope – almost every one of its four million victims will be Muslim. This is the last, poisonous throw of the communal dice by a government that knows it is facing defeat at the next general elections. It knows that the country’s modern intelligentsia will react with horror. It knows that the increasingly united opposition will have no option but to do so too. So it hopes that their reaction on the issue of nationality will aid communal polarisation at the national level. The aim is to make ordinary Hindus rise above the economic misery they are facing and vote the BJP back to power once again.
Now that the cat is out of the bag, it will be impossible to push it back in again. But there is one thing civil society can do to limit the harm that the NRC in its present from will do. This is to ask the Supreme Court to issue two directives that will restate two fundamental principles already enshrined in the constitution of India – that will achieve the purpose of creating a National Register of Citizens, without creating a permanent class of victims to be preyed upon by extortionist petty officials and the police, in Assam and elsewhere.
The first is that citizenship is based upon birth. This is a fundamental right that can be circumscribed in various ways to prevent abuse, but cannot be taken away altogether. The second is that any law that attempts to impose an obligation retroactively is bad law and must be modified to apply only from the time of its enactment.
Together, these will ensure that only residents of Assam who were born in East Pakistan or Bangladesh will not be considered citizens, and not their children. What is more, the law must apply equally to all refugees regardless of their religion. So, if any Muslims are to be considered non-citizens because they came in 1971 or later, the same must also be true for Hindu migrants.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author of several books.