The NRC signals a deeper crisis of citizenship
Humanity, institutions, culture, and the terms of being Indian are at stake. It is time to embrace differences
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a graveyard of citizenship in India. In the NRC final list published on August 31, over 1.9 million people were left out of the citizenship register. The Indian State and the ethno-nationalists of Assam in Northeast India are in favour of pushing that number up, and have expressed sadness and dissatisfaction that the number is too little.
Excessive population growth has become grounds for xenophobia, and is a commonplace characteristic and experience of migrants across the world. More often than not, small minority group of migrants are portrayed as threats to a majority. For instance, the “Bangladeshis” of Assam are shown as a threat to the “indigenous” communities of Assam. Similarly, the minority Chakmas receive the same treatment in Mizoram. This excess of population and relative higher growth rate among migrants also drives anxiety and anti-immigrant sentiments in European countries.
However, a more nuanced way to think sociologically about the problem of population excess is to turn our attention to the inadequacy of our institutions and government to accommodate more people. In other words, it is not a question of who gives birth to how many, or if such an ethos is implicit in a particular culture. On the contrary, the inability to provide for, and adjust with, a growing population is a failure on the part of our leaders, our State and its institutions to absorb the numbers. This inadequacy is highlighted by scholars such as Zygmunt Bauman and Barrington Moore Jr.
About 100 Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT) are functional in Assam, and 200 new FTs are expected to come up this month. In June, the Centre had decided that it would will increase the number of FTs to 1,000, and also create e-FTs. How are these FTs supposed to resister 1.9 million cases in a period of 120 days? Despite being aware of the number of excluded, and lack of FTs, why is the application window so narrow? Does it indicate a motive to include people or exclude them?
Population growth rates and other statistical measures are used to create anxiety among the larger public. Reports of governors such as S K Sinha, groups of student leaders, intellectuals, cultural and literary bodies, insurgents, along with every leader in the organised political scene in Assam, unanimously hold the view that illegal people, the ‘Bangladeshis’, should be deported to Bangladesh or at the very least, expelled from Assam. These same groups do not bat an eyelid when people are languishing in detention camps, and when the very idea of detention camps is being floated as a solution to the “illegal” migrants that the NRC claims it has identified.
This is also not to say we do not have a responsibility as a people and as a culture to embrace difference. Perhaps, a symbiosis of both will give us a counter-public, a kind of public emotion that drives us to worlds that accommodate differences and manage to love despite being different.
With NRC, we are invariably looking at a major crisis. It is a crisis of humanity, of our institutions and culture that also changes the terms of being Indian. People are being made to wait to become citizens, not to mention that they are expected to wait patiently. The manner in which one waits also becomes a test of your civility and patience at the same time. The quest goes on. This waiting symbolises a social order of no more than a queue of people waiting to board a bus. The supposed order hides the anxieties and pain that one undergoes.
The crisis can be seen through the lens of loneliness. Hannah Arendt reminded us that loneliness encompasses the whole of human life. Hence, Arendt rightly says, that loneliness is one of the “most radical and desperate experiences of man”, and is a sufficient ground for terror. The anxiety manufactured through the NRC process invariably takes people to a world of loneliness. The suicide of a 60-year-old Sayer Begum from Sonitpur district in Assam recently only reiterates this. Over 50 people have committed suicide after not finding their names in the NRC list. They must have been driven to such loneliness that they couldn’t bear to live anymore.
The NRC forces each individual to participate in the citizenship process and become active agents of history. It harnesses the social hatred against the “Bangladeshis” among the “sons of the soil”. The NRC not only integrates the dominant culture and class, but also legitimises social hierarchies. It also signals at an impending deeper crisis of citizenship in India.
Suraj Gogoi is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the National University of Singapore.
The views expressed are personal.