CAA-NRC: Lessons from the Assam experience
Over the past week, what had so far been confined to expressions of deep anxiety in limited sections of print media and on websites by concerned citizens has spilled on to the streets, with injuries sustained, blood drawn, and properties damaged across India. An atmosphere of siege, fear, and anger pervades many universities and large areas of some states. This is only the initial toll of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
The CAA appears to be ultra vires of the Constitution of India, specifically Articles 14, 21 and 25. While legal and constitutional issues will eventually be adjudicated upon by the Supreme Court, there are fundamental issues with regard to the CAA and the allied National Register of Citizens (NRC), affecting the very future of India, which merit urgent consideration by all citizens.
First, whatever the protestations of the government, the NRC and CAA function jointly. When the results of the Assam NRC did not fulfil expectations, the government assured that those left out would be covered by the CAB (now CAA). What is now in position is the CAA, to deal with the fall out of the nationwide NRC which, it has been reiterated, is soon to be imposed.
Consequently, it is essential to recall the lessons of the Assam NRC. It is also important to recall that the NRC was suggested many decades ago with regard to the particular situation in Assam. Its pursuit by the Supreme Court in later years was Assam-specific.
At a public tribunal held in Delhi on September 8-9, 2019, victims of the NRC process in Assam testified in gripping detail to the long-lasting and extreme hardships to which they had been exposed. Families were separated, and either incarcerated or put in detention centres, by an entirely arbitrary quasi-judicial process, leading to deprivation, deaths, and even suicides.
A seven-member jury of eminent citizens, including former justices of the Supreme Court and a retired Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, heard the presentations at the tribunal. They noted, inter alia, “It is not just mental distress which is killing people; there are inhuman processes involved in the whole NRC which is forcing people to die in most unfortunate ways. Literally millions of people were asked to appear before the verification officers in faraway places multiple times to prove their citizenship credentials. In most cases, the verifications were held outside the home district...People died in the NRC queues, in vehicle accidents attending arbitrary long-distance hearings on very short notice, and of heat strokes.”
They added, “In sum, the jury would like to emphasise that in the context of Assam as well as in the country, citizenship, as the right to have rights, is one of the most basic, fundamental human rights in modern societies. Deprivation of citizenship must follow the most rigorous procedure available; the overriding concern must be fairness, not quickness or efficiency.”
These words were not lightly spoken and it is this brutal experience that is now sought to be extended across India. As implemented in Assam, the NRC considered each individual to be a presumed non-citizen who had the responsibility to prove otherwise. The government has declared the NRC and CAA to be discrete processes, unconnected to each other. Putting sophistry aside, all evidence would point to a different intent. The NRC, with its tortuous, long drawn out processes, with the State, or even a remote individual, authorized to question the citizenship of any individual at any time, and even reopen settled cases, would serve as a permanent Sword of Damocles over all Muslim citizens of India. As already being touted in public speeches, the CAA, providing for Indian citizenship to non-Muslim ‘refugees’ from India’s Muslim majority neighbours, is to reassure Hindus of their future. The NRC and the CAA are to work in tandem, one to intimidate and the other to reassure. The objective would be to treat Muslims as a different class of citizen. From citizenship by birth — jus soli — of our founding days we would move seamlessly to ethnic democracy and, eventually, ethnocracy. And one must wonder at the proposed use of the projected vast detention centres in many states.
The proposed moves also have serious international repercussions. The State Department of the United States has conveyed caution on the course we have adopted. So have several governments of the European Union. There is a uniformity in criticism of India abroad, not seen in recent times. We have violated our binding obligations under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. The Bangladesh government has been under justifiable pressure to speak out against the slurs being cast on its treatment of minorities. Even more important, no one seems to have considered that treating the Hindus in Bangladesh as prospective Indian citizens does immense harm to their laudable efforts to find an honoured place as citizens of Bangladesh.
India stands today on the cusp not of history, but disaster. Future months will decide if we descend into permanent domestic strife and face increasing international opprobrium, or attempt to regain our inherent strengths of inclusiveness, diversity and pluralism.
Deb Mukharji is former high commissioner to Bangladesh, and ambassador to Nepal
The views expressed are personal