Within hours of the release of the draft National Registry of Citizens (NRC) for Assam on July 30, BJP leaders in Delhi were sensing an issue that they could make political capital out of in the 2019 general election. It is not just Assam that they were viewing through their bifocal, but the dividend that can be reaped nationwide. They saw in the NRC list a handy tool to project the BJP as a muscular, nationalist party that prioritises national security, shows zero tolerance towards illegal migrants and as BJP President Amit Shah put it, “stands up for the rights of Indian citizens”.
It is a dangerous communal game that the Saffron party is playing. The NRC draft list, by excluding over 40 lakh people currently residing in Assam from its roster of legal citizens, has willy nilly helped the BJP’s cause. Party leaders will tell you that this mass of people, who constitute over 10 per cent of the state population, are illegal migrants (read Muslims) who have crossed the border from Bangladesh. They admit there may be genuine cases of Indian citizens being left out, but they have been given time till September 28 to prove their citizenship by the Supreme Court and the Registrar General of India (RGI) who compiled the registry through the Assam unit of the NRC.
The NRC list has generated much excitement in the BJP because it dovetails with the ‘infiltrators and illegal immigrants as a security threat’ theme that the Saffron dispensation has been espousing for years. According to sources in the BJP, the outsider issue is one that the party believes has resonance with the majority community across India and will polarise Hindus by alienating and “othering” Muslims.
It is no wonder then that the BJP wants to claim ownership of the updating exercise conducted by the RGI although the latter was only complying by a 2013 Supreme Court order to revise the roster of citizens in Assam. The NRC is exclusive to Assam and was started in 1951 to establish a list of genuine citizens. Those who do not make it to the list stand to be disenfranchised. The Election Commission has, however, clarified that voting rights of those not in the NRC’s draft list will not be “automatically” taken away.
They (BJP leaders) saw in the NRC list a handy tool to project the BJP as a muscular, nationalist party that prioritises national security and shows zero tolerance towards illegal migrants
Leading the effort to claim credit for the draft NRC list was BJP President Amit Shah. He told reporters at a press briefing that his party and the government had taken the initiative to see that the NRC was completed. “It was in 2005 that the Congress started the updating process of the NRC. How can they raise questions now for vote bank politics? You (the Congress) didn't have courage to drive out Bangladeshi migrants. The country's security was not the priority. The human rights of Indians were not important. You didn't have the courage, so you left it after starting it in 2005, but we had the courage,” said Shah.
Complaints and criticism
The Opposition has been critical of the entire exercise. According to the Congress the execution of the NRC was tardy going by the large number of complaints from all corners of Assam of applications of genuine citizens being rejected. Indeed, newspapers are full of touching accounts of families failing to make the list despite submitting adequate proof.
The Trinamool Congress was sharply critical with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee lashing out at the entire exercise: “I am Christian, that’s why I will be isolated. I am a Muslim, I am a Dalit, that’s why I will be isolated. If it goes on like this don’t you think it will create a civil war? Don’t you think it will create a blood war?” she wondered while speaking at an event organised in Delhi by the Catholic Church. The Chief Minister’s outburst was perhaps prompted by threats from state-level BJP leaders that after Assam, it would be Bengal’s turn to have an NRC compiled.
That the BJP sees an opportunity in the NRC is understandable. Many in the party are of the view that the party’s development plank may not work in 2019 since there is little progress to show on the ground. The problem of unemployment has not been solved despite tall claims. Neither have issues related to the farm sector been resolved. Also, allegations of corruption against the government seem to be building up by the day. Under these circumstances, polarisation of Hindu votes, many hope, will do the trick.
But in the politicisation of citizenship, what has been forgotten is the human side of the problem. It is often difficult for the poor and marginalised to produce valid documents to prove they belong to Assam or that their families have been living in the state since before 1971. Such persons stand to get excluded and there is no clarity about what will be their fate. Will they be deported, or will they become stateless refugees in their own country? Remember, we are not talking about a few thousand people but a population of 40 lakh, equivalent to the population of a country like Croatia.
It is amply clear that all political parties must sit down, forget vote bank politics, and think of a workable solution.