Who is a citizen? Going down a dangerous path

The publication of the list of citizens on August 31 was the day when India arrived at the crossroads.

India is at the crossroads. If the way forward is down the route the BJP is preparing to go in Assam, India will go through the horrors of politically-initiated communal cleansing that will forever destroy its reputation and the respect it gets as a secular state that guarantees its citizens the freedom of worship.

There are several parts to this problem. A politically negotiated and ratified process was initiated in 1985 to detect illegal migrants. The Registrar-General of India was charged to produce a list through a process of verification. The list’s final version was produced under the supervision of the Supreme Court.

That was a thinly veiled process of ethnic cleansing. It was an outcome of the violent agitation by Assam’s “sons of the soil”, claiming the state’s ethnic composition was in danger due to the huge influx of illegal migrants, the overwhelming majority of whom were from Bangladesh. Therefore, the cut-off date was set at March 24, 1971 midnight, after which people who migrated to Assam were suspect as illegals. Under the terms of the Assam Accord, the first part ended August 31, when the final version of the much revised National Register of Citizens was published.

The publication of the list of citizens on August 31 was the day when India arrived at the crossroads. It was the day 19 lakh people, or approximately two million individuals, were declared non-citizens. The process that found them to be non-citizens was an administrative exercise supervised by the Supreme Court.

The BJP’s response to the NRC’s publication is the moment when the process departs from the issue of citizenship, and turns into a hunt for Muslims, whose right to be citizens is challenged. After August 31, religion is the only criterion for detecting illegal migrants. The Muslim citizen is suspect. And those who are suspect must be ejected from Assam.

The crude distinction, the blatant communalisation of the problem is evident in voices like Shiladitya Dev, MLA from Hojai, encouraged and supported by other voices, like Himanta Biswa Sarma, who said the “war is not over”. What Mr Dev, Mr Sarma and chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal want to do is reopen the issue of who can be permitted to be a citizen, in the BJP’s reckoning.

The distress of Hojai’s MLA is on the record. His anguish is all that matters. As a legislator from a district bordering Bangladesh, Mr Dev is vociferous that the number of illegals detected by the NRC process falls far short of the BJP’s estimates. The party in Assam is considering setting up a review of the process so that the numbers of illegals, especially among Muslims, in the districts bordering Bangladesh match its calculations.

There is no way the NRC process of verification was fault-free. The process went horribly wrong. Besides shocking errors like decorated Army veteran Mohammad Sanaullah’s listing as an illegal, or family members of India’s fifth President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, there are painful omissions of children whose names are missing, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers whose status as citizens have been dismissed.

The errors in verification by the Registrar-General make it easier for subsequent verifications to turn into a targeted exclusion, no matter how legally dodgy the process may be. The BJP has made it easier for itself by challenging the process over and over again. Whether this was done by design or was a spontaneous reaction to the Supreme Court-supervised process is unclear.

There are Hindus and Muslims in Assam who no longer know where they belong. Gorkha Janamukti Morcha leader Binay Tamang is upset that one lakh Gorkhas have been denied recognition as citizens. Voters of Bengali origin in Assam’s border districts are angry that many of them have been excluded, because the terms on which they voted for the BJP included guarantees of inclusion.

Identities, religious and ethnic, are complicated social and political constructions. Identities are contingent; there are many things that go into the process of identity formation. Identities in India are particularly complicated, because very few people have a single identity. Each identity contains within it layers and exceptions. The same is true of the people of Assam. There is no one community that can claim itself to be indigenous and Assamese. There are among others Bodos, Karbis, Ahoms, Morans, Mishings, all indigenous, but also subsets of the Assamese identity that is a new construct. And then there are all the others who moved in and stayed put, including Hindi-speaking populations, Bengali-speaking populations, Buddhists and Muslims and Christians.

Citizenship as a legally defined status should have been easier to pin down. The problem is that the process of verification of citizenship has been turned into a political war by the BJP against its predecessors in power. The BJP has attacked previous governments, in Assam, and in West Bengal, accusing them of creating vote banks by legalising the status of illegal migrants; “termites” that Union home minister Amit Shah is determined to exterminate or deport to Bangladesh.

The BJP’s legislators in Delhi have raised the bogey of illegal migrants from Bangladesh inundating the city. It’s a matter of time before other metros with BJP majorities repeat the demand. In the 1990s, Mumbai went on a Bangladeshi detection spree. It spread to Gujarat and ever since, it has remained on the BJP’s agenda.

The Sangh Parivar’s obsession with the Hindu identity, as though it was the only identity that mattered for a citizen of India, is politically expedient even as it is dangerously divisive. If it succeeds in Assam through the Foreigners Tribunals and the review of citizenship documents to exclude Muslims because of a religious identity, and include Hindus for exactly the same reason, the definition of a citizen in India will have changed.

Constitutional democracy will have been overpowered by majoritarian democracy. The BJP’s triumph is as much a product of its patient endeavours as it is a gift from India’s fragmented and rudderless Opposition. The inability of the parties listed as “national” by the Election Commission to get a handle on the problem of who is a citizen and how is a citizen to be identified is a shocking betrayal of the people who voted for them and those who trusted them to defend their interests. If Assam succeeds in categorising some Muslims as non-citizens, the likelihood of such exclusion spreading wherever the BJP finds it politically expedient is axiomatic.

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