Fascism is a political ideology that promotes the idea of an uniform and regimented nation under the control of a totalitarian ruler. Fascism decrees that anything that inhibits monolithism must be exterminated. Fascists, therefore, inherently abhor a freethinking civil society, political opponents, brave journalists, fearless academics and an independent judiciary. Fear, terror and intimidation are their weapons of choice. Misuse and abuse of intelligence and law enforcement mechanisms their norm. Inculcation of paranoia and insecurity among the majority their object. Villianising the minorities by emphasising the otherness of the other and holding them responsible for all the national ills their narrative. The use of violence against the innocent, unprotected and vulnerable their preferred tactic. This script has played itself out again and again in history with disastrous consequences. Its pioneers were the Italian Fascists and the German National Socialists in the previous century.
What was Hitler and Mussolini’s playbook? Emphasising the otherness of the other. Singling out a community to make it the object of xenophobia. How does this project commence? By conducting a census.
In Germany, the census process began in the first few weeks of Adolf Hitler seizing power on April 12, 1933. From 1871 onwards in the newly founded united German empire under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, systematic censuses every five years were the norm. However, the 1930 census was postponed due to the Great Depression. The Nazis actioned the postponed census immediately on usurping power.
The gameplan was simple: Germany could only be “cleansed” of Jews if they were pinpointed. Identifying them was not an easy undertaking as in the German fatherland of 67 million Jews were less than one per cent of the populace and integrated into the social milieu.
In those days the cataloguing of census data was a protracted affair that would normally take three to five years of manual categorisation. That rendered it redundant for instantaneous use. The Nazis mandated that data from their major prefecture of Prussia be processed and the product made available in 120 days. The regional regime was inept to conduct the entire exercise in the given time frame. A leading computer company of our times undertook the project. They recruited over 500,000 “nationalistically minded” census takers who went door to door collecting data. They further trained hundreds of personnel to process the data thereby tallying and grading citizens. A census army was formed. It was headed by SS officers supported by squads of stormtroopers in addition to the headcounters.
Such was the trepidation that this exercise produced that Jews stopped identifying themselves as Jewish. A few of them even renounced their Jewish ancestry attempting to underscore their Germanness. However, the Nazis were not impressed.
A number of bigoted policies were operationalised post the census. The Citizenship and Denaturalisation Law of July 1933 gave to the Nazi Reich powers to strip the citizenship of those it considered “undesirable”. Among the first to come under the cleaver were 150,000 Eastern Jews. The Nuremberg Laws then gave added form to Hitler’s vision of Germany. These edicts delineated people's creed not by how they perceived themselves but by the religious beliefs of their grandparents. All Jews in professional services, be it law or medicine, were debarred from their professions and their physical possessions were seized.
In May 1939, Germany was again besieged by the census army. Much larger in size, it now consisted of 750,000 census takers. By then it was utterly unequivocal to the entire world that this census was racial in intent. The headcount meticulously recorded information on religion, profession, material possessions, residence and ancestry of every resident. By the end of 1939 virtually every observing Jew had been identified, enumerated and classified methodically, twice over.
The object of both the 1933 and 1939 censuses was to isolate Jews both in the German heartland and the occupied territories before they were ghettoised, deported and eventually liquidated. The count was therefore an instrument to plan for a conflict on two fronts — one versus the whole of the European Continent and the other against the Jews of Germany and the occupied territories.
Hitler’s Fascist comrade Benito Mussolini too introduced a racial census for both the Jews and the Roma people of Italy. The headcount gave Mussolini the requisite statistics to initiate xenophobic laws. He did so in 1938. It snatched from both the Jews and the Roma people their rights and properties. Both groups later faced incarceration and eventually deportation to Nazi concentration camps.
In India we have been conducting a regular census every 10 years that has been fairly benign in nature. We even have had a socio-economic and caste census in 2011. The results of that caste census have been held back for some inexplicable reason. The general census while counting people on the basis of religion in addition to other indices has not stressed upon citizenship. Even the Aadhaar card/number was an exercise where the defining unit was a resident and not a citizen.
The National Register of Citizenship phenomena, therefore, looks different, smells different and feels different. It, therefore, begs a fundamental question — should a country not count its citizens? Those who are not able to prove their citizenship —what should then be done with them? The answer to the first may be in the affirmative though sovereignty itself is a complex issue these days. However, most important is the fact there has been no discussion much less consensus on what do you do with people who come up short in the process. Do you detain them in internment/concentration camps? Do you deport them? If so, to where? Which country will accept them? Do you disenfranchise them? If so for how long? Do you make them stateless people whereby making them amenable to the protection of the international covenants that India is a signatory to? There are no answers, much less easy ones. It is not as if the government would not be cognisant of these conundrums. What then possibly is the purpose of exporting the failed Assam NRC model to the rest of the country?
The answer is simple. Create anxiety among the 124 crore people about their very status as Indians. This mass disquiet insulates the government from any scrutiny of their failures while also amplifying the otherness of the other — the minorities through poisonous propaganda on unregulated social media — by labelling them as infiltrators who have monopolised social and economic opportunity that should have gone to the “Indians”. However Assam has exposed the inherent limitations of such a myopic endeavour. Nothing would come out of this pointless endeavor except a further rupture of our social fabric. As the proverb goes, when you sow the wind you shall reap the whirlwind.