The unwritten rule is that people in high positions should exercise reserve, and speak and act with restraint, so that the positions they espouse doesn’t muddy the waters or unleash passions. Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi might have done well to heed this when, at a book release recently, he tried to defend the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as it pertains to his home state, Assam. It’s a little unfortunate that the CJI’s observations came just a fortnight before he’s due to retire.
It would have been different if Mr Gogoi stated his positions on the deeply contentious issue, which got mixed up with communal politics in the country, after he left office. That would have helped distance the office of CJI from a matter that is being fiercely debated in India and abroad.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has recently voiced wariness about the NRC. Others have commented on the subject from international forums.
Criticising “armchair commentators” for being uncharitable to the NRC, whose final draft was submitted to the Supreme Court — under whose supervision and guidance it was compiled — on August 31 this year, the CJI called the NRC a “base document for the future” that will allow little room for conjecture.
Presumably in support of his perception of the fairness of the process, the CJI held that the document was prepared after a considerable passage of time since putatively illegal migrants from Bangladesh came to Assam, meaning there was no rush and tumble and calm reflection was possible.
If the CJI was of a more historical bent of mind, he might have considered going back a few centuries before weighing the claims of native versus foreigner. How his judicial mind would have processed the conundrum may have been of some interest.
In his reported remarks, the CJI also appears to have made a favourable reference to the introduction of Section 6A in the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which is now before Parliament. It is from this section that the quasi-judicial Foreigners Tribunals — whose Gestapo-like functioning in weeding out so-called foreigners has drawn the ire of every section of opinion in Assam, to say nothing of the rest of the country — receive sanction.
The CAB itself, as proposed by this government, has the intended effect of determining citizenship on the basis of religion, which is the antithesis of the civic basis of citizenship that is synonymous with the evolution of the modern state. In recent months, top guns of the ruling party have threatened people of a certain faith with cancellation of their citizenship.
The CJI has chosen to make no observation on the CAB itself. But since he seems to approve a newly-introduced section in it, the inference that the bill enjoys his endorsement is not far-fetched.