Our country is currently aflame with continuing protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, and the as-yet-on-the-drawing-board National Register of Citizenship (NRC), concerning illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants are indisputably illegal. There remains a limit to which Indian society can manage to socially, economically and politically accommodate persons who come into India and claim a share of the diminishing “cake of development.” This, especially when such persons are in very large numbers. Therefore, granting citizenship to illegal immigrants has to necessarily be non-discriminatory, steering clear of the religion of the immigrant and the cause for immigration, since that is the nature and spirit of our Constitution.
A long-term view on such migration would not be out of place. The certain but as-yet-unpredictable rise in sea level due to global warming, will result in massive-scale migration of Indian people out of the coastal areas of India’s 7,000-km coastline to higher ground. This migration will inevitably also contain a substantial proportion of people from neighbouring Bangladesh. This legal and illegal migration will not happen in a month or a year. It will start with a trickle of barely noticeable numbers (has it already begun?) and build up into a steady stream of people moving for survival. They would all bargain that while they cannot defy the rising sea, they may still stand a chance against hostile host populations. But all that is in the darkening future.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, it is the present that matters today. The manner in which the CAA has been introduced, with little serious discussion (sound decibels, invective or accusations do not strengthen arguments) in legislature and no public consultation whatsoever, even though fears were clearly voiced when the Bill was proposed, leaves much to be desired.
The citizenship issue is inextricably linked with governments starting with the UPA, blundering with creating identity document databases like Aadhaar and National Population Register (NPR) –- which went into conflict on ownership and control over data. These brought matters of privacy and data security sharply into focus at executive, legislative and judicial levels. The citizenship issue is not a creation of the current dispensation.
But reverting to CAA-NRC, the problem with it is that it is plagued by characteristic unpreparedness on the part of government. Characteristic, because the same thing happened with demonetization and GST, which, meant to draw out black money and rationalize the taxation system, respectively, were both laudable ends in themselves. Preparation involves thinking-through the proposal, including wide consultation, creating infrastructure before launching the proposal, anticipating possible downstream problems and deciding how to handle them socially, economically and politically. In both DeMo and GST, preparation was notably lacking. Briefly, in the real world, the ends rarely, if ever, justify the means.
Claiming that 1.3 billion Indians are okay with all executive decisions is deeply fallacious. The actual numbers who may support them is reduced by the percentage of voting population, percentage of voter turn-out, and percentage of votes polled by the ruling party. When these percentages are multiplied, the actual numbers who may support the government on a particular issue are way fewer than that gratuitously claimed in political speeches.
As it stands today, the CAA names religious categories, names only three neighbouring countries (although we have no border with Afghanistan), and relates to immigrants who are persecuted because of religion. The exclusion of Muslims, exclusion of other neighbouring countries and exclusion of other causes for immigration, together make CAA exclusionary in character.
In the light of responsible members of the ruling party at the Centre repeatedly speaking openly about forming a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and ordering dissenters to “go to Pakistan”, these not being denied or refuted by official sources and the thundering silence by persons in positions in power, it is small wonder that fear of worse-to-come pervades society.
The linking of CAA with NRC and implementing NRC across India raises further fears, if the Assam “experiment” is considered as pilot. One reason is that a large proportion of persons unable to establish their place and date of birth due to defective (e.g., wrong English spelling) or no documentation, are Hindus. Further, there are innumerable cases of some members of a single family getting “cleared” while other members are not. These are real-life issues which are (unintended) infliction of administrative violence.
The NRC essentially assumes that the onus of proving citizenship lies on the person who is queried. Author Chetan Bhagat puts it neatly in his tweet (although he must have meant a parachute, rather than a life jacket, or maybe he meant a boat at sea rather than an airplane!): “CAA is a life jacket. NRC is everyone being pushed out of the plane as they have to prove themselves all over again. But Muslims don’t get the life jacket. Distributing life jackets is not the problem. Giving them only to a few and pushing everyone off the plane is.”
Protests are never without cause, but the scale of the ongoing protests is as unexpected as it is unprecedented. The protests are mostly peaceful, or at least begin peacefully. Of course, violence is sometimes spontaneous, but as often it is initiated by planted agents provocateurs to discredit the protest. The protests are clearly because of fear of the social and economic violence that the combination of CAA and NRC may inflict upon those who cannot prove their citizenship. It would appear that the government did not think-through the effects of lack of clarity regarding CAA-NRC.
The government needs to very urgently address the fears and apply a soothing balm to the people. Bashing on regardless can only heighten fears and fractiousness within society, and will do no good whatsoever. The statesmanship of inclusiveness should supervene over the politics of exclusion.
(The writer is a believer in the Constitution of India and very proud to be Indian. He will be part of the protest against the CAA-NRC at the Mysuru Town Hall at 11 am on Tuesday, December 24)