Assam’s National Register of Citizens final list has opened up serious questions about India’s constitutional guarantees and obligations under international law. Reactions of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party leadership have exposed the partisan political motivations behind the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Assam at the moment.
The NRC process cost the public exchequer Rs 1,220.93 crore and the economic costs on applicants and those excluded are substantially higher. Despite claims by Home Minister Amit Shah of 40 lakh ‘ghuspaithiye’, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal clarified that the legal status of those excluded from the NRC list is not ‘foreigner’. Furthermore, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment to Bangladesh makes it clear that India would not be deporting the excluded to the neighbouring country. In other words, the 19.07 lakh NRC-excluded individuals are more likely to be detained, disenfranchised and deprived of basic liberties.
Religion, the driving force
The NRC process was accompanied by a vitriolic political campaign run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The NRC final list has disproved claims that Assam was overrun with ‘millions’ of illegal migrants. By itself, 19.07 lakh is a large enough number of people who have been identified as ‘undocumented’ by the NRC process. However, it is nowhere close to the demographic fear-mongering that the BJP leadership had indulged in. While the BJP’s manifesto promised a nationwide NRC, its state leadership started singing a different tune even before the final list was out.
Assam Finance Minister and senior state BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, complained that an insufficient number of people were excluded from “Hailakandi, Karimganj, Dhubri, Goalpara” and, therefore, the whole process “has become futile”. If one was wondering why these specific districts were mentioned, Sarma would clarify a few days later in an interview: “The government of India and (the) government of Assam through Foreigners Tribunal and Citizenship Amendment Bill is going to take care of Hindu migrants.”
While the promise of the Citizenship Amendment Bill is not new, Sarma’s open admission of using the Foreigners Tribunal as a political tool is extremely troubling. Of course, on the Citizenship Amendment Bill, Sarma was only expressing his party’s frequent stand: the bill will ensure that those undocumented non-Muslims who were excluded from the NRC will be made citizens. The bill proposes to provide non-Muslims from neighbouring Muslim majority countries Indian citizenship.
In other words, between the NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Bill, only undocumented Muslims will be excluded from full Indian citizenship. In an exchange with me on Twitter, Sarma justified the bill by asking “If India does not protect Hindus who will protect them? Pakistan?” and went on to state an old Hindutva talking point, “India shall forever remain a home for persecuted Hindus”.
India has a Constitution, too
The persecution faced by minorities in neighbouring countries must not be ignored. India’s record in hosting various persecuted communities and recognising their rights as refugees has been consistent. However, the Bill makes two distortions to the existing framework. First, India’s approach to refugees was never based on the faith of asylum-seekers. Second, refugees did not have a statutory guarantee to citizenship. These distortions are obviously not justifiable under the existing Indian legal framework.
Therefore, Sarma depended on Hindutva semantic gymnastics: apparently, India is not a country but ‘a civilisation’ that is a ‘homeland’ for Hindus. While the BJP may be driven by ideological needs, a law based on the fantasy that India has a civilisational obligation to Hindus of the world is unlikely to stand the test of constitutional principles of equality and right to life.
The bill not only violates the Constitution’s framework on citizenship, but also gravely attacks the guarantees enshrined in the Constitution. While one has to be a citizen in order to access certain Fundamental Rights, the right to life (Article 21) and protection against discrimination (Article 14) are available to everyone. Depriving or denying citizenship solely on the grounds of religion runs contrary to the basic principles of the constitutional framework.
The bill is an alarming departure from the original conception of Indian citizenship as based on birth, rather than lineage, faith or race. As JNU professor Niraja Gopal explains, the Constitution-makers consciously chose to avoid the ‘racial principle’ that was followed in then-apartheid South Africa. Vallabhbhai Patel remarked, ‘It is important to remember that the provision about citizenship will be scrutinized all over the world.’
As more than 19 lakh people stare at an uncertain future in Assam, Sardar Patel’s reminder must not be ignored. It was in this spirit that the Supreme Court of India directed the central government to give citizenship to Chakma refugees from the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It would be helpful to remember what the Supreme Court said in NHRC v. State of Arunachal Pradesh:
Thus the State is bound to protect the life and liberty of every human-being, be he a citizen or otherwise, and it cannot permit any body or group of persons, e.g., the AAPSU, to threaten the Chakmas to leave the State, failing which they would be forced to do so.
Asaduddin Owaisi is a Member of Parliament from Hyderabad, and president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). Views are personal.