Remaking the idea of an Indian citizen
The controversy unfolding in Assam over the National Register of Citizens (NRC), published on August 31, has brought to the fore important fault lines in the construction of citizenship in contemporary India.
In particular, it places the spotlight on the role of key institutional actors – the bureaucracy and judiciary – in adjudicating citizenship. Crucially, the implementation of the NRC is illustrative of the ways in which the politics of religion has increasingly begun to intersect with institutional processes to shape understandings of who is a “legal” citizen. Against the backdrop of growing calls for a nationwide NRC, and the pending amendments to the citizenship law, Assam’s present quagmire could extend to many parts of the country. Its consequences on the making and remaking of citizenship in India are significant, and thus need careful interrogation.
Writing in these pages, when the draft NRC was published last August, I pointed to the central role played by bureaucratic procedures and documents in determining citizenship through the NRC. To be included in the NRC, the onus lay on Assamese residents to furnish official documents in their possession as proof of citizenship on or before 1971, leaving it to the powers of the State to certify their authenticity. But a combination of bureaucratic failure and vulnerability to corruption, typical of how bureaucracy operates in India, has made this an arbitrary and disempowering process.
Reportage from Assam on the NRC process brought out the many quality gaps in the government’s own documents – misspelt names, differences in dates and names recorded across documents belonging to the same individual, and data entry errors were all too frequent. This poor quality documentation, coupled with rampant corruption, which makes the purchase of fake documents easy, resulted in the government viewing its own documents with deep suspicion and forcing it to search for means to verify and authenticate its own paperwork. The bureaucracy’s suspicion (and resultant mishandling) of its own documents paved the way for arbitrary judicial intervention.
Throughout the process of the NRC, the Supreme Court intervened regularly on what ought to have been routine decisions made by those with a ground-level understanding of bureaucratic procedures. Instead, the courts busied themselves often passing conflicting orders on details, including the types and numbers of documents that could be furnished by applicants to prove their citizenship claims, creating chaos on the ground.
The human costs of this suspicion have been significant. Applicants have had to go through multiple forms of verification, being asked to submit new documents — including claims, objections and corrections — and have also had to appear for hearings at the very last minute. The irony is that, under the NRC, the government simply converted its own documentary failures into an instrument of coercion. The very fact that the number of applicants excluded from the NRC dropped from four million in August 2018 to 1.96 million one year later, after a new round of verification, is evidence of how poor the quality of government documentation is in the first place, and how arbitrary and disempowering the process of authentication can be.
But beyond bureaucratic failure, the communal overtones, visible throughout the NRC process and that are now shaping political responses to the final list, have made explicit the role of religious identity in mediating citizenship. As is well known, the roots of the NRC lie in anxieties over Assamese ethnic identity and culture. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) overlaid on to this its own construction of religious identity, on the assumption that the majority of those excluded from the NRC would be Bengali-Muslims. This was the sentiment behind much of the 2019 election campaign rhetoric and the repeated references to “infiltrators” and “termites”. Once it became clear, however, that many on the list, by some estimates more than half, may be Bengali Hindus, the BJP got caught in a bind. And in this debate, the documentary failures of the bureaucracy have proved to be an unexpectedly powerful political tool. “Suspicious” documents formed the basis of the political demand to review the NRC. Assam’s finance minister, Himanta Biswas Sarma, has gone on record with the claim that legacy papers have been “managed”, rendering the process of updating the NRC ineffective.
The lesson from the NRC is this: Where bureaucratic failure is rife, citizenship mediated through documents can serve as a powerful instrument of State coercion and legitimised exclusion. For the moment, even those whose names featured on the NRC remain vulnerable, if the demand for re-verification finds acceptance.
Finally, the flawed NRC process has provided the political fuel to accelerate the demand for enacting the citizenship amendment bill. The consequences of this on the constitutional idea of citizenship are significant, indeed definitive. As professor Niraja Jayal has shown in her work on the idea of Indian citizenship, the constitutional promise of a religion-neutral, inclusive citizenship has long sat in tension with the politics of religion, which has tended to frame the construction and experience of citizenship in its everyday sense through laws, rules and governmental action. However, the constitutional aspiration has remained fundamental to the idea of citizenship, and served as a check against the majoritarian instincts of the politics of religion. The Citizenship Amendment Bill will permanently upend this promise, and in doing so, fundamentally remake citizenship in India, with dangerous consequences.With the publication of the NRC, over 1.9 million Assamese residents face an uncertain future. So too does the constitutional idea of who is Indian.