SC-directed NRC turned into divisive politics

A woman shows an acknowledgment receipt to check her name in the final draft of Assam's National Register of Citizens at an NRC Seva Kendra in Morigaon. PTI

Politics and rhetoric have dominated the discussion on the National Register of Citizens (NRC), compiled for Assam, and good sense and wisdom have been pushed back. The politics over it is divisive and incendiary, the rhetoric inflammatory. The leaders of the BJP are leading this political charge on an issue that is technically legal, essentially human, and historically irreversible. The NRC for Assam, which was published last month, is a Supreme Court-directed exercise to implement a clause in the 1985 Assam accord to identify the post-1971 Bangladeshi immigrants in the state through the creation of a citizens’ register. The names of over 40 lakh applicants have not found place in the draft document. The final register is to be prepared in the months to come after scrutinising the complaints and representations of those who have been left out. Production of proof of anything is not easy in a country not known for good documentation. It is clear that the NRC contains innumerable mistakes, and its coordinator, Prateek Hajela, has said that nobody who has been left out can be called an “infiltrator.’’

While the official process may be gone through, it is necessary to look at the historical precedents, past policies and the principles that should guide action on the issue of migrants. People from Bangladesh have been settlers in Assam for centuries. Migrants and refugees have been welcomed and accepted by India through the ages. Jews and Parsees, persecuted almost everywhere else, had made India their home centuries ago. Millions of refugees — Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and others — came to the country during Partition from Pakistan and the then East Pakistan, and later during the liberation of Bangladesh. The influx from Bangladesh is a continuation of that. Sri Lankan Tamils and Gorkhas from Nepal have also been given refuge in the country at various times. Decades ago, many thousands of Tibetan refugees, including the Dalai Lama, were given refuge in the country by the Jawaharlal Nehru government. Nehru considered it India’s humanitarian, moral and legal responsibility under international conventions to give shelter to refugees.

That policy should continue, and there should not be any double standards about it. The government has protested against the treatment of Indian emigrants, legal and illegal, to the US by the Trump administration. The same government’s policy on Bangladeshi immigrants cannot be different from its position on Indian emigrants to the US and Britain. The government has, in fact, tried to make a more unacceptable and objectionable distinction in the case of Bangladeshi migrants on the basis of religion. It has prepared a bill that would confer citizenship on Hindu migrants from neighbouring countries while it would be denied to Muslims. The proposal is not legal and constitutional. Indeed, it is ethically and morally wrong to make religion the basis of granting of citizenship.

The NRC is sought to be made into a divisive political issue with an eye on elections. The BJP has taken a most dangerous and sectarian view of it by declaring that the party is committed to “throwing out these people.’’ Party president Amit Shah has taken the lead in the disruptive campaign by already branding those who are not on the NRC as infiltrators and illegal migrants. In strident speeches made in the Rajya Sabha, at a function at the Mughalsarai raillway station in Bihar, and most recently at a rally in Kolkata, he has framed the issue in ultra-nationalistic, religious and racial terms. He has hinted that the party might want an NRC exercise in every state and made it a matter of the “other’’ and the ‘’outsider’’, to be exploited politically and electorally in the coming days. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence, usual in such situations, would be considered an endorsement of the party chief’s position.

There is a need for a saner outlook on migration and citizenship, based on principles and practical and human considerations. Assam and all other parts of the country have seen people from other places and countries arriving and settling down for economic, political and other reasons. Every region has actually gained by the interaction and intermingling of people of different races, languages and religions. Societies become richer economically, culturally and in other ways through co-habitation with and absorption of others, challenging nativist attitudes. The outsider then becomes part of the society and a new social dynamic emerges.

Whatever be the outcome of the NRC exercise, the country has only one right and viable option before it. India should take this as an opportunity to change its citizenship laws and make them more reasonable, sane and democratic. It is wrong and inhuman to declare people who have lived and worked in the country for many years stateless, non-persons and non-citizens. In countries like the US, the UK, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand children born there automatically become citizens of the respective countries. For example, there are many students, who became entitled to citizenship of the US or other countries because of their birth, studying in Bengaluru and other parts of India. The citizenship laws should be based on human and rational principles, not on prejudice. They should not be guided by considerations related to religion, race and language. Rather, it must be based on the willingness or otherwise of a person’s willingness to adhere to the letter and spirit of the Constitution of India.

Such an idea of citizenship, in sync with an enlightened idea of India, should entail that nobody should be sent back to Bangladesh, whatever his or her status is on the NRC. The story of migration cannot be retraced and reversed, and a migrant India is a stronger, saner and more humane India. The nation should see through the polarising and disruptive talk about the threat from the migrant and the outsider and press for an enlightened and sensible policy on residence and citizenship.

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SC-directed NRC turned into divisive politics

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