Citizen registry’s logic is unclear, but its mischief is clear to most Indians and foreigners who know the country
Mohammad Pervez Bilgrami
NEW DELHI — India’s Hindu nationalist government recently passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955, paving the way for granting Indian citizenship to religious minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. Those listed as eligible to become Indians in the new law are Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, and Christians. Only Muslims have been deliberately excluded, a move seen as part of the Indian government’s Hindu supremacist agenda in which ethnic and communal engineering play a key role.
Those opposing the new law have no objection to Indian citizenship being granted to asylum seekers from the three neighboring countries. Aside from that, the three countries mentioned in the Indian legislation may have their own views on how India treats its own religious minorities. There is strong opposition in India — particularly from the Muslim community — to the law because the exclusion of Muslims makes it discriminatory and creates suspicion about the real motive behind the amended law.
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Home Minister Amit Shah have made statements that are considered provocative and against the Muslim community. Though the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government through the Home Ministry fought a “misinformation campaign” and said the Citizenship Amendment Act does not affect any Indian citizen, including Muslims, who enjoy all the fundamental rights given to them by the Constitution, its opponents have demanded the law’s complete withdrawal. Associated with the new law is a bizarre citizenship test for India’s more than 1.3 billion people. Called the National Register of Citizens (NRC), it fills people with horror as they will be asked to prove their Indian citizenship.
In a normal country, the government knows who is a citizen and who is not and when it has doubts, it carries out the required checks on an individual. In India, the test involves the whole country. Such citizenship engineering is unheard of in human history. To complicate matters further, BJP leaders have made aggressive statements against Muslims, who fear that a failure to prove citizenship will lead to deletion from the citizenship rolls. India is already building detention centers in the northeastern state of Assam, where the NRC was implemented and produced horrific results. Both Hindus and Muslims numbering 1.9 million have been left out of the NRC in Assam, a volatile border state of various ethnicities, language groups, and religions.
India grants citizenship to any person who migrated before July 19, 1948, except in Assam, where the cutoff date is March 25, 1971. Assam’s NRC was intended to identify illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The process was full of discrepancies and has been criticized for its arbitrariness and the incompetence of those responsible for conducting it.
The Pandora’s Box was opened after the results of the NRC were declared and it became known that many Hindus were also excluded from the NRC final list. With the help of the new Citizenship Act, Hindus in Assam will automatically get nationality while Muslims will remain stateless and will be put in detention camps in inhuman conditions. The new citizenship law has been compared to Nazi Germany’s racist laws against Jews. The ruling BJP says it will launch the NRC across the country. The scale of the NRC’s ambition is amazing, considering India is a poor country where hundreds of millions lack adequate access to education, healthcare, proper housing, and food. Most people lack proper personal documents, and in rural areas births and deaths are barely ever officially registered. Due to multiple languages, spellings of names change when written in English, clerks and officials lack training, and most of them mispronounce words even in their mother tongue.
Some even suggest that most Indian lawmakers would not be able to furnish proper documents about their families, education, and property ownership. Yet, India under Hindu nationalist control wants to undertake a national citizenship test that may produce global horror stories. Those who oppose the CAA and nationwide NRC believe that most Indians would not be able to produce the required documents of their pedigree to prove their nationality. Plus, you never know when the Indian government will introduce new rules and change the goalposts. One thing looks clear, namely that the government will find various ways to give citizenship to Hindus and adopt a discriminatory approach in document screening towards Muslims. It is natural that Muslims fear the NRC and consider it a BJP tool to harass the community and deny them even their basic rights under the Constitution.
The images of police brutality against protesters across the country, especially in BJP-ruled states where dozens of protestors were reportedly killed in police gunfire, do not show India as a pluralist democracy. Naturally, India’s international image and reputation have been battered beyond repair. Pretty much every foreign publication worth its salt has reported the horror going on in India. Statements from the UN, United States, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) are a clear indication that people outside have not bought the Indian government’s narrative. India’s tools of soft power cannot douse the flames of hatred, and the government cannot project the image of India being an investment hub when social and economic indicators point in the wrong direction. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s comments are worth noting. He told India how his country achieved prosperity and stability by accepting Indian and Chinese religious minorities as equal citizens rather than creating chaos by seeking conflict.
In response to what happened in Assam, the government of Bangladesh has announced that it would take in genuine Bangladeshi citizens but has demanded that the Indian government must prove that those whom it labels as foreigners are not Bengali-speaking citizens of the Indian state of West Bengal. There is a lot of migration within India, and Bengali-speaking people have migrated to different places in the eastern and northeastern regions. The Indian government’s approach to the issue is dubious, as it says one thing officially to the Bangladeshi government and has another message for the local audience. It will be a next-to-impossible task for the BJP government to prove that the Bengali-speaking Muslims are indeed Bangladeshis. There is a strong possibility that these alleged Bangladeshis will ultimately end up as stateless persons and condemned to languish in detention centers.
The next national census is due in 2021, and the government on Tuesday allocated around $5.5 billion for a National Population Register (NPR) against the backdrop of nationwide protests over the CAA and NCR. Many civil right activists oppose the collection of demographic and biometric data for updating the NPR as the first step towards the NCR. The government has included the NPR with a census exercise. For various reasons, millions of Indians belonging to various religious groups will fail to produce requisite documents to prove their Indian citizenship. Due to the CAA, non-Muslims are already eligible to get Indian citizenship but millions of Muslims may end up stateless, deprived of all fundamental rights.
It is possible to prove that the Bengali-speaking Muslims have come from Bangladesh, but what will happen after the nationwide NRC is implemented and some Urdu or Punjabi-speaking Muslims fail to produce documents to prove their citizenship? They are likely to be condemned for having come from Pakistan, and this will sow new tensions with Pakistan. There are Muslims in every part of India, with their population numbering almost 200 million. They speak all sorts of languages and belong to various ethnic groups, just like the Hindus. Most of these languages do not even exist in Pakistan or Afghanistan. So, how will the Hindu nationalist government treat these Muslims? The NRC’s logic is unclear, but its mischief is apparent to most Indians and foreigners who are knowledgeable about India. — AA
(The writer is an international affairs analyst who has written for the Asia Times, Daily Sabah, and Hurriyet Daily News and think tanks ORSAM, IRAM, and GASAM. The views expressed are author’s personal).