As 2020 begins with the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, led by students, still echoing in our hearts, our minds must turn to the next stage of the Bharatiya Janata Party‘s Hindu Rashtra project — the National Registry of Citizens. Together with the CAA, the NRC is intended to further the BJP’s goal of disenfranchising India’s Muslims.
In spite of the harrowing ordeal our country has been through in the last month — with the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duopoly steamrolling the CAA through Parliament, the incidents at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), the detention of thousands of Indian citizens exercising their democratic right to protest, the imposition of Section 144 and internet shutdowns to prevent this exercise, and the ultimate cost paid by more than two dozen people who lost their lives in the process — I believe the New Year is being ushered in by Indians with steely belief and hard-fought hope.
That is because when the ruling BJP dispensation embarked on legalising its brazen contempt for the pluralistic and constitutional ethos of India through a breathtakingly communal legislation, it is hard to believe that it accounted for the almost instantaneous and nationwide furore that sprung up in response to the Modi government’s malfeasance.
But the fire that began in the northeastern states spread rapidly across India and today, the Modi government finds itself on the back foot and without a competent response to the present agitations. Even politically, the BJP stands alone, with almost all its allies and partners — from the Shiromani Akali Dal to the Lok Janshakti Party (both of which enjoy ministerial positions in the cabinet), and the habitual BJP-leaning fence-sitters who voted with the government in Parliament — voicing their concern over the CAA and refusing to cooperate with the NRC process.
Disenfranchising Indian Muslims
But this is a fight that is far from over. The more lethal aspect of this entire ordeal lays in wait in the form of the National Register of Citizens. Despite Prime Minister Modi’s claim that a nationwide NRC was not being considered (a claim belied no less than by his own colleague, Home Minister Amit Shah’s previous admission in Parliament, and the promises within the BJP’s own widely circulated manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha election), the trajectory of the Modi government’s priorities, legislative and administrative decisions suggest that it is serious about its intent to conduct the NRC in all states across India. Remember the promises made about demonetisation? We have already seen the announcement of the National Population Register (NPR), which, in all likelihood, could be the first step towards a nationwide NRC, since it asks about one’s parents’ place of birth and its rules specify that people of “dubious citizenship” will be identified.
The danger is evident: Through the CAA, which considers all Muslim immigrants as illegal by summarily excluding them, and the NRC, the BJP government could further disenfranchise any Indian Muslim who is unable to prove his or her citizenship in India. Many Indians, especially the poor, lack documentary evidence of when and where they were born; even birth certificates have become widespread only in recent decades. While non-Muslims would, thanks to the CAA, get a free pass, similarly undocumented Muslims would suddenly bear the onus of proving that they are Indian. Such an act would not just be deeply and communally biased; it would further disenfranchise Indian Muslims and generate a strong sense of fear among the people.
I shudder to imagine what will happen if such an exercise is carried out at the national level. The NRC in Assam was deeply flawed and proved administratively and politically disastrous. Replicating those flaws nationwide is both unwise and dangerous. Even the smallest error could be fatal — as researcher Shruti Rajagopalan reminds us, a mere 1 per cent error rate could lead to the displacement of 13.5 million Indians, similar to the Partition.
The hopes of India
The good news is that this exercise cannot be done without the cooperation of the state governments, and I believe that the vast majority of the non-BJP state governments will not cooperate with such a divisive exercise. In addition to the non-cooperation of opposition-led state governments, an interjection by the Supreme Court on the validity and the necessity of the NRC may also prevent its implementation across the nation.
But perhaps the biggest hope in 2020 to put the brakes on this sinister project rests on the shoulders of the youth of India. Admittedly, it has become a cliché for politicians to often speak about young people as the engine of tomorrow’s India, but if the last month has taught us anything, it is that the young people in our country are indeed prepared to assume this mantle and to serve as the dynamic motor of democratic India. Enraged at the brutality unleashed upon their peers in universities, the protests that emerged in the aftermath of the CAA were not just spontaneous and organic, but a sharp message from the youth that they would not take the divisive politics from the Modi government lying down. In a magnitude that we haven’t seen in recent memory, the youth have taken to the streets to defend the ethos of liberalism, secularism, and equality that our forefathers enshrined in the Constitution.
A university-gold medallist returning her recognition in protest; individuals forming a human chain at their gathering so that their Muslim friends could break for their afternoon namaz; students speaking eloquently in defence of their protests to police and the media; and, above all, their determination to stand up and continue, day after day, in the face of all the forces of intimidation arrayed against them by the state – this is something more than the routine protests, short-lived agitations, and “relay fasts” we have got used to seeing from the political class.
This is young India rising up to take back control of their own country. And it is a great note on which to usher in a hopeful New Year.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 19 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.