In its hurry to reject the National Register of Citizens, a political hot potato in Assam, the BJP has now been pulling out a largely unconstitutional Citizenship Amendment Bill as a new magic pill. But there are many aspects of the Bill that fail to resolve problems inherent in the management of the NRC issue, rendering this exercise as yet another hollow promise. Home Minister Amit Shah has upped the ante on the Citizenship Amendment Bill with the hope of taking away the pressure the BJP is facing from the people excluded from Assam’s final NRC.
Shah has publicly said that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christian “refugees” from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan will have nothing to worry about even as the Narendra Modi government plans to extend the NRC exercise to the rest of the country. But the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) is silent on the rights of the Gorkha community, which allegedly faced more than one lakh exclusions due to minor errors in their identity verification documents. It is especially these communities that have been at the receiving end because the ruling party, which is concerned with gau raksha (cow protection) is not bothered about the actual gau rakshaks of northeast India — the Gorkhas. A similar fate awaits indigenous tribes like the Koch Rajbongshi or the Bodos who have lived in Assam since time immemorial but many of their members were still excluded from the final NRC published on 31 August.
Among the direct beneficiaries of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, there is a growing sense of mistrust over the state’s capacity to deliver. The guidelines set in the Bill are unclear, and experts say that in order to prove their citizenship, individuals may need documents proving their country of origin like Bangladesh or Pakistan, as well as documents that contain details of their entry in India. For many poor marginalised families, these documents are likely to be even more challenging to gather than the documents required for the NRC. They will have no option but to shell out more money in government offices to be able to obtain these documents.
Time for SC intervention
Amid this turmoil, it is impossible not to hear the deafening silence of the Supreme Court, which has been monitoring the NRC exercise since 2013. It is imperative now for the Supreme Court to re-energise its role as the facilitator and the arbitrator in Assam’s NRC matter.
The top court must take serious cognisance of the fact that the BJP government in Assam is blaming the Supreme Court-appointed officer Prateek Hajela for the wrongful implementation of the NRC. It must also take note of the communal overtones in the recent speeches of Amit Shah, and ensure that an unconstitutional Bill does not enter the law books.
Citizenship in India has never been granted on the basis of religion and this proposed legislation aims at overturning that fundamental secular principle. Finally, the Supreme Court must adjudicate upon the fact that the Citizenship Amendment Bill will render the NRC virtually redundant because both exercises establish different cut-off years for granting Indian citizenship.
The inconvenience of NRC outcome
Ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre and in the state, the exercise to update the NRC became a tool of communal propaganda instead of a response to the historically-neglected demands of the Assamese populace. During the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign, the BJP appropriated the NRC issue, solely crediting itself for completing the exercise.
After the second draft of the NRC was released in July 2018, Amit Shah, still only BJP president back then, wasted no time in taking credit for the entire exercise. He later branded the excluded as “ghuspethiye” and also labelled them “termites”. This euphoria quickly simmered down, as the realisation dawned upon the BJP that among those excluded, many belonged to the Hindu majority community. Now, it no longer wants to touch it. The outcome is too inconvenient for its communal politics. It wants to heal the wounds with the Citizenship Amendment Bill, with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat emphasising that Hindu immigrants excluded from the final list will not be forced to leave the country.
Killing the Constitution’s spirit
The BJP has offered little to no clarity on the problem of immigration and citizenship in Assam.
Now more than ever, the BJP’s politics is systematically eroding the spirit of the Constitution, while polarising India’s socio-political landscape. This Citizenship Amendment Bill is just another step in this regard.
However, history gives lessons that we must remember — when political leaders focus more on selling dreams rather than promising development, the poor suffer the most, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, and race.
The author is a Member of Parliament [Lok Sabha] and Member of the Indian National Congress. Views are personal.