What we know, and don’t, about the National Register of Citizens
The National Register of Citizens exercise is among the most ambitious experiments the Indian state has undertaken. The census is, of course, conducted every decade, on a national level and gives the state a window into the size and nature of Indian population. But the NRC is a unique exercise for the onus to prove citizenship lies with the citizens. They have to, through tedious documentary evidence, show how they have come to be citizens of India living in Assam.
Last week, the final draft of the NRC in Assam emerged, provoking both passionate support and outrage. It has included over 28 million individuals, thus giving them a pride of place as citizens, while excluding four million residents of the state. This is, it must be emphasised, not a final list, for those left out have many avenues to assert their citizenship, and get on to the list.
There has been a muddled, often ideologically driven, and definitely politically partisan, debate on the issue so far. It is thus important to disentangle the various threads of the NRC debate, focus on what is known, and also lay out what we know is not known.
Here are the known knowns.
First, we know Assam has a history of being a recipient of large scale immigration from outside. The issue of Bengali-speaking outsiders, both Hindus and Muslims, first from East Pakistan, and then Bangladesh, is an emotive plank. Those who see themselves as indigenous to the state have been alarmed at the scale of this immigration, frightened at the loss of opportunities it may bring, and worried about how changes in demographic complexion will eventually affect state politics. There can be different views on whether these concerns are entirely justified or exaggerated. But it is the single most important issue of the politics of the state. It was to acknowledge this that various central governments have repeatedly assured Assam that steps would be taken, and various political forces within Assam have sought to claim they would deliver a solution. In this lies the roots of NRC.
Two, we know the NRC process, at the current juncture, is an outcome of both a judicial push and political balance of power. The Supreme Court has driven it, closely monitoring the entire process. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in power at the Centre and in the state, has been both excited and concerned — excited about leveraging it politically, and concerned because it knows that this is a complex administrative, security, and diplomatic issue.
Three, we know that the process has been both an exercise in human enterprise and extracted substantial humanitarian costs. It has not been easy for those at the helm of the NRC machine to have percolated down to each village, to have given opportunities to each individual, and been fair. But the much larger onus has been on citizens. To extract documents, show they have strong roots in the state, and prove one’s nationality is not easy. It has been tragic for those among the four million who may be genuine citizens but have been left out. And it has been most tragic for Muslims of the state who have had to bear the brunt of being perceived as the outsiders and thus deal with what can one safely assume to be an administration which would not be entirely empathetic.
Four, we know that each political actor has seen in this an opportunity to expand its own base.
Take the BJP. It has, with a degree of success, converted what was an insider-outsider debate in Assam into a Hindu-Muslim debate. Its political message in Assam revolves around how it is in the process of delivering on its promise of identifying illegal immigrants. Its political message nationally, articulated publicly sometimes, but through quiet whisper campaigns often, revolves around how it is minorities, Muslims, who had entered India and only the BJP had displayed the will to battle it. This will not be a straightforward task for the party, though, given well over one fourth of those left out are said to be Hindus. For a leader like West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who has spoken forcefully against it, the political opportunity lies in consolidating her support among both Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims in her own state by projecting NRC as an exercise that is meant to disenfranchise their ethnic, linguistic and religious brethren across the state border. The Congress remains caught in the middle. It wants to cater to the native Assamese sentiment, and is thus seeking credit for the exercise. But it also wants to be seen as speaking for the excluded, and is keen to blame the government for the human costs of the exercise. The party wants to be seen to be distancing itself from the exercise. Whether it is able to strike the balance or falls between competing objectives is yet to be seen.
But here is what we do not know.
We do not know the exact meaning of being excluded from the current list. The central and state governments, as well as the Supreme Court, have said this list cannot, and will not, be the basis of coercive action against anyone who is excluded. The Election Commission too has said their names will not be struck off voter rolls. But we have also heard the Attorney General in SC suggest there could be biometric profiling of the four million to ensure they do not move to other states. BJP president Amit Shah use the term ‘infiltrators’ for them. Does this mean that the four million will have to live with the burden of being perceived as non citizens? The gap that exists between institutional messaging and political messaging has created uncertainty.
Two, we do not know the timelines for the next step in the process. Those excluded will be able to make claims. There were indications earlier that the final list — after this process of revision and claims — will be out by the end of the year. But NRC authorities have now indicated this is not a sacrosanct deadline. So there may, or may not, be a final list before the 2019 elections. This makes it even more important to have clarity on the status of the excluded in the interim period. Once the final list is out, those excluded will have a right to go to the Foreigners Tribunal and subsequently to the courts. All of this suggests that it could even be a matter of years before a final resolution on citizenship for many.
And three, the biggest unknown remains what happens to those who are in this final, ultimate analysis, deemed as non citizens. Political campaign and rhetoric has been around deportation. But government and political functionaries are quick to admit that expelling them to Bangladesh is not an option at all. Dhaka has never accepted that they are its citizens or that there is a problem of illegal immigration. If deportation is not an option, some have suggested large scale detention camps. But locking in hundreds of thousands of people in camps or extensions of them is out of the question for a civilised democracy like India. Others have spoken of instituting work permits, which would give them limited legal rights to work but ensure they have no political voice. It is not clear how this will work for those who have worked for generations in India, or what will be the fate of children of such individuals.
All of this cannot but make one wonder if NRC is a process without an end.
Few issues have brought together law, citizenship, sovereignty, demography, religion, inter-state relations, administration as intricately as NRC. But across these very spheres, it has also perhaps exposed India’s political and institutional infirmities.