NRC: An idea turned into a political slugfest

Citizens' Register

Activists of Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) shout slogans during a protest against what they say is the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the northeastern state of Assam, in Ahmedabad, India, September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Amit

Genocides often emerge out of ideas that look noble when initially presented as ideas. For instance, the complete desiccation of the indigenous on the American continent was a result of Europe’s idea of ‘discovering new worlds and civilising them.’ They emerge when a large mass of people surrender their sense of justice to the spellbinding charm of a leader. The Holocaust brought about by Nazi rule in Germany was one such.

Genocides also emerge out of a people’s sense of loyalty to some difficult-to-define ideas such as ‘nation’ or ‘religion or ‘progress.’ The gruesome history of mass punishment given to several nomadic castes and communities during the colonial era belong to this genre. In all of these instances, the front runners of violence are not necessarily some wicked characters or murderous criminals. In most cases, they are perfectly normal humans diligently engaged in their given duty. What makes their individual acts of normal duty amount to a ghastly collective violence is not the ideas they think they are serving — science, nation, religion, progress — but the orientation of hatred guiding their acts.  Even good ideas, if driven by hatred, invariably result in crimes against humanity. The National Register of Citizens in India has started treading that path now.    

The roots of the NRC go back to the time India became independent. The Census of India prepared it in 1951 during the first census exercise after Partition. It was an excellent idea at that time. It helped the country get at least a preliminary voters’ list. To have the State Register of Citizens made for Assam subsumed in the NRC was a good idea. But it comes with the caveat that one needs to have been resident in Assam prior to March 1971 or be able to establish blood kinship with such a person. But half a century later, the implications of that idea have changed radically, even if the updating of the NRC is being monitored by the Supreme Court. 2019 is not 1951. Both India and the world have profoundly changed over the last seven decades.

Primary among the changes has been the phenomenon of international migration. The latest World Migration Report (2018) goes on to state that nearly 244 million persons now live outside the country of their birth. In 1971, the cut-off year for Assam, this number was only a third of that. The data shows that the highest number of international migrants are out of India (16 million), followed by Mexico (12.5 million), Russian Federation (10.5 million), China (9.5 million), Bangladesh (7 million) and Pakistan (5.5 million). These figures include legal as well as the detected illegal migrants. If these figures are reliable, the claims by political parties in India that the number of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh now resident in Assam and West Bengal is close to five million or more—out of the total seven million Bangladeshi migrants to all continents--is preposterous. It needs to be dismissed at once.

The entire exercise of ‘scrutiny’ has come up with a figure of 1.9 million cases of ‘not-registered’ individuals; and, after more rounds of scrutiny, it is likely to be dramatically reduced. The yawning gap between the mischievous claims and verified data is exactly as it was in the case of ‘black’ money before and after demonetisation. That act dug the grave for small and informal businesses without tracing any black money. Similarly, the NRC verification exercise may eventually destroy the citizen’s faith in the State without actually reducing illegal migration at all.

The conceptual framework that the terms ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’ had in 1951 were heavily influenced by the contemporary history of freedom struggles in Asia and Africa. Over the last seven decades, those ideas have changed too. ‘Opening up’ and not ‘closing down’ is now at the heart of national economies and, to that extent, national polities, too. The international movement of capital, knowledge, technology and workforce are now seen as positive features of a nation’s economy. Obviously, international migration is now a necessary and irreversible condition for the growth and economic security of every nation.

India’s economy, too, has benefited enormously by contributions made by the Indian diaspora. Given this new economic reality, to put millions of hardworking residents of any state through humiliating scrutiny for verifying their citizenship is an exercise in futility.

We cannot overlook the fact that long-distance migration, particularly in the region that is known for frequent flooding of the Brahmaputra, has been a common phenomenon throughout the known history of our civilisation. The history of Buddhism is a testimony to the incessant mobility of people in the region. The region, the ecology and the people have been the same though now they are distributed between countries like India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. To improve the economic profile of Assam and the other North-Eastern states, the rest of India should understand that permeable borders are intimately related to the livelihood practices of the communities in Assam and the surrounding areas. Therefore, the NRC exercise should ideally have been more than empathetic.

However, the current dispensation in the Union home ministry has a different view of things. It is driven by a passion to prove that Hindus from Bangladesh have migrated due to religious persecution but the Muslims from Bangladesh have migrated without much reason and have come and settled in ‘our’ country as ‘illegal’ migrants. The emotively charged language—“chun-chunke marenge”, “gharme ghuskar marenge”—coming from the prime minister has fired the imagination of the home ministry. As a result, what would have been otherwise an inane Census exercise has now turned into a political slugfest and patriotic competitiveness.

In the process, India is being pushed into an act that will drive millions of families into desperation. The amount of hatred generated in the process between citizen and citizen, between religion and religion, will be enough to keep the region as a live tinder-box ready to go into flames year after year. Besides, the process will also drive a nail deep in India’s already fractured relations with our eastern neighbours. The economic and diplomatic-relations losses entailed for us and human rights violations staring millions of people in the face, on one side, and the absolutely negligible gains coming out of the NRC process, on the other, need to be seen in balance if India has to stake a claim to being a great nation.     

(The writer is a literary critic, cultural activist and Chairman, The People's Linguistic Survey of India. He leads the Dakshinayan movement of writers) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)

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