Citizenship: The shape of things to come

Citizenship: The shape of things to come

The case of a lady, Jabeda Begum, who was born in and lives in a village in Baksha district in Assam, illustrates the pitfalls of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process to ascertain citizenship. Though Jabeda Begum’s mother and sisters have been declared Indian citizens in last year’s NRC process in the state, she was left out, and later a foreigners tribunal and now the Gauhati High Court have rejected her appeals. The court ruled that none of the 15 documents that she submitted to prove her citizenship, including the voters’ list, PAN, ration card and parents’ NRC clearance, was enough to prove her citizenship. She is in a limbo now, with the prospect of being sent to a detention centre. The police have raided her house and she has gone into hiding.  

The fears expressed about the proposed NRC for the entire country have been proved right by the case of Jabeda Begum. The government has only stated that there is no NRC proposal right now before it, but various authorities have declared that it will be held in all states. The National Population Register (NPR) is considered to be a stepping stone to it, and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has attracted so much opposition and protests because it could, together with an NRC process, lead to the exclusion of millions of people from the citizens’ list. Advocates of the NRC have claimed that documents like the voters’ list and the passport are enough to prove citizenship, but the Jabeda Begum case proves that authorities could reject any and every document. The functioning of the foreigners’ tribunals in Assam, managed by government officials, has been shoddy, and even many people who have served in the government and in the armed forces —Hindus and non-Hindus —have been declared non-citizens. The court’s ruling now shows that judicial relief also may not be available for the people who will be left out. 

Jabeda Begum’s case is not an exception. All residents of Assam had to spend a lot of money and time to procure the documents considered necessary to prove citizenship. If those are not enough, what will citizens do? Most people cannot afford to go to the high court and then to the Supreme Court. The courts will not be able to handle the millions of cases that will land up in them. It is wrong to tell citizens to prove their bona fides because the government suspects there are illegal migrants in the country. Why should the citizens pay the price for the government’s failure to protect the country’s borders? It should identify illegal migrants using its agencies and methods, instead of shifting the onus onto citizens and harassing them. 

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