Why the NRC could end up targeting all ‘outsiders’

After the NRC list in August 2019 eliminated over 19 lakh people in Assam, there is turmoil and fear within other states. (Reuters Photo)

Xenophobia appears to be the latest election tool in India and fuelled by electoral politics it is spreading faster than can be imagined. Emboldened by its 2019 Lok Sabha election victory, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Narendra Modi government wants to whip up a more polarised electorate using the ploy of implementing the National Register of Citizens (NCR) across India.

After the NRC list in August 2019 eliminated over 19 lakh people in Assam, there is turmoil and fear within other states – at this point mostly ruled by the BJP – also saying that they want to do it.

Many who were declared illegal settlers in Assam are Muslims. Consider that among those declared illegal were Mohammed Sanaullah, a retired and decorated army captain and four family members of the late President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Home Minister Amit Shah has assured Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees they will not be forced to leave India, promising to bring the Citizenship Amendment Bill before implementing the NRC across India. All other than Muslims presumably will be declared as Indians citizens and therefore will have nothing to fear from the NRC exercise, seems to be the import.

But while states like Assam have had the issue of migrants coming in from across the international border, one wonders what could be the logic of implementing it in inland states such as Karnataka. And how would the NRC play out in a number of states, Karnataka included, where regional and linguistic identity politics has come to play an increasingly bigger role?

The Karnataka case

In Karnataka as things stand, state home minister Basavaraj Bommai has said that he is consulting Shah on the process of implementing NRC. He has spoken of the need to identity people from “outside” who had come to Karnataka, both those who come from other states as well as foreigners. Three months ago, the Centre had in a written reply in the Lok Sabha said that a detention centre for illegal immigrants will come up in Bengaluru.

Bommai’s enthusiasm should not come as a surprise as the BJP in Karnataka has been voicing the charge that thousands of Bangladeshi migrants have illegally settled in Bengaluru and needed to be deported. However, it's not clear whether this claim is justified. There are only around 4,420 Bangladeshis in Karnataka according to the 2011 Census.

Moreover, there are around 44,000 foreigners living in Bengaluru populating scores of offices that deal with foreign clients and companies. Half of them are from Asian countries. Around 15 per cent of Bengaluru’s workforce is made up of migrants from other states.

The new clamour for NRC in Karnataka plays into the linguistic identity politics that flourishes in an atmosphere of fear, xenophobia, and communal polarisation. When the NCR process happens, what is the guarantee that the many who were not born in Karnataka or not considered as ‘sons of the soil’ will not find themselves being subjected to harassment just as it happened to Muslims in Assam.

Then consider further that it is not just Karnataka which wants the NRC implemented.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath has said that the NRC would be implemented if the need arose. Manoj Tiwari, a BJP leader who aspires to become the Delhi chief minister in 2020, wants NRC implementation in the Capital. Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar is also mulling over carrying out an NRC exercise. At an election rally in Haryana’s Kaithal district, Shah had said that by the time BJP goes back to the electorate in 2024, the government would have got rid of illegal migrants.

Will the NRC divide the population of different states along religious and community lines dimming the colourful diverse ethno-linguistic identities that have defined India? This is a question all of us need to ask.

It is now clear that in the election campaigns of the future, the BJP will push a Hindu nationalist agenda that will challenge pluralism and inclusiveness. Today, it is illegal migrants. Tomorrow, the xenophobia will metamorphose into migrants from other states with state leaders whipping up sentiment against them saying that they were clinching local jobs when it should be the preserve of the sons of the soil. If this happens, it will be something that most states will not be able to either resist or handle in the long run.

No one debates the fact that there are thousands of poor Bangladeshis who are illegally working or living in India but Muslims fear that the NRC is just a ruse to identify and isolate them. But, beyond that this could well become a tool to instil fear in the minds of all those who have been branded as ‘outsiders’.

Migrants have a role in any growing economy. They come with skills or abilities that the locals do not have or do not want to employ. They earn and spend locally. Besides, their diversity enriches the culture.

All over the world, migrants have helped societies evolve and prosper heralding a diverse culture. Over 180 million Indians today live and prosper in places where they were not born. In India, different communities have enriched states where they were not born by just migrating and working there. Think about West Bengal without Marwaris, north India without south Indians, Delhi or Bengaluru without those from the North East and so on. Take them out of this scenario and see how society crumbles like a cookie. In a modern world, can we afford to look inward and ignore or destroy the better and larger holistic picture? The NRC needs to be looked at from this perspective as well before going ahead with implementing it across the country.

(Ramesh Menon is an author, documentary film maker and journalist based in Delhi)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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