If and when an all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC) is implemented, crores of citizens – including you and me – will have to stand in queues to prove their nationality, just as we had to line up outside ATMs after Demonetisation. Most of those in line will be Hindus.

by- Asgwin Tombat

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 or CAB – passed by the Lok Sabha on Monday, cleared by the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, and assented to by President Ram Nath Kovind on Thursday – has stirred great controversy. It has also led to massive protests in Assam and the North-East.

Thousands of people have defied curfews to block arterial roads, bringing the state to a standstill. Five people have died in police firing. Internet services are suspended in Assam and, as a result, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Twitter message – in both English and Assamese – saying he and his government “are totally committed to constitutionally safeguard the political, linguistic, cultural and land rights of the Assamese people as per the spirit of Clause 6 [of the 1985 Assam Accord]” could not be read by the people for whom it was intended.

Assam’s people – who carried on a massive agitation led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) from 1979 to 1985 against illegal immigrant ‘foreigners’ (mostly Bangladeshis) – believe that this nullifies Clause 6 the 1985 Assam Accord, which requires people in Assam to prove that either they or their ancestors were in India on or before 24 March 1971 to claim citizenship.

According to the CAB, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who came from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh to India till 31 December 2014 are eligible for citizenship, even if they have no papers to prove their origins.

That means lakhs of non-Muslims who came to Assam between 2001 and 2014 – who the Assamese have always considered as foreigners – now become Indian citizens. It makes the entire Assam Movement meaningless. Clearly, the CAB in no way respects Clause 6 of the Assam Accord.

Tribal areas in Assam and the NE have been exempted from the law, but the all-important Brahmaputra Valley and Barak Valley – the very heart of Assam – haven’t. People in Tripura and other NE states bordering Bangladesh, too, fear that they will be swamped by Bengali-speaking immigrants.

The CAB is problematic. It claims to give refuge to persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries. But it leaves out Shias and Ahmadiyyas from Pakistan, Tamils from Sri Lanka, Nepalis from Bhutan and Rohingyas from Myanmar. All these minority communities face terrible discrimination in their home countries.

Critics of the CAB say its objective is not to ‘right the wrongs of Partition’ as Home Minister Amit Shah claimed in the Lok Sabha. Instead, it is designed to create a vote bank for the BJP, as well as to lay the foundation for taking away the right to vote from crores of poor Muslims in this country.

Mr Shah said in the Lok Sabha that there’s “no need to connect” the CAB with the NRC. But there is a deep and sinister link. The NRC has nothing to do with religion; it only identifies foreigners. The CAB is based on religion – it excludes Muslims – and allows certain non-Muslim foreigners to become citizens.

A senior bureaucrat of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), had told the Joint Parliamentary Committee there was “great concern” that the CAB could be misused; that it could become a “legal framework” which foreign forces “inimical” to India could use to infiltrate the country. Regardless of RAW’s security concerns, Mr Modi and Mr Shah have gone ahead.

If and when an all-India National Register of Citizens is implemented, crores of citizens – including you and me – will have to stand in queues to prove their nationality, just as we had to line up outside ATMs after Demonetisation. Most of those in line will be Hindus.

Take the example of the Assam NRC. All 3.3 crore Assam residents were required to prove their citizenship. Over 3.2 crore people applied. If they were not in the 1951 NRC, they had to prove that they or their ancestors were on the electoral rolls, or had land / tenancy records, or citizenship / permanent resident / refugee certificate, or passport, government employment proof, bank/post office account proof, birth certificate or educational certificates from before 24 March 1971.

They had to fill an application form and stand in queue for hours. Many had to go through a verification process multiple times to validate their citizenship. Four years and Rs1,600 crore later, 40 lakh people were excluded from the NRC, including some retired Army veterans. After a huge outcry, there was a ‘re-verification’, and the number of ‘foreigners’ came down to 19 lakh.

In Goa, thanks to Portuguese-era rules, every birth, death and marriage has had to be registered since the 19th century. In the rest of India, registration of births and deaths is often not done outside of municipal areas even today. What documents do the poorest people possess?

Under the CAB-NRC, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians without documents will be able to get citizenship if they claim that they have come from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan. Muslims without documents won’t…

What happens to these people? Do we send them back to Bangladesh as Mr Amit Shah suggests? But Bangladesh has clearly refused to take in any deportees.

The second option is ‘detention centres’. Assam’s first detention centre is now being constructed over 25,000 sq metres at a cost of Rs46 crore. It will house 3,000 people. With 19 lakh people excluded from the final NRC, the cost of building detention centres – in Assam alone – will be upward of Rs27,000 crore. This doesn’t include the costs of manning, maintenance, food and upkeep of these centres.

Imagine the cost of building and operating detention centres all over India…

Since we cannot deport them and we clearly don’t have the huge funds required to detain them, it appears that the actual objective of the CAB-NRC is to declare Muslims without documents as non-citizens and ‘infiltrators’, and thereby take away their voting rights.

But Amit Shah ke Hasin Sapne may be shattered on the bedrock of Indian reality…

During Demonetisation, rich people easily converted black money into white at a commission. Thanks to corrupt bankers, nearly all the cash returned to the banking system.

The NRC is similar. Verification officers have the power to include or exclude someone. That some of them accepted bribes to randomly include or exclude people in Assam is obvious. Nearly everyone – on both sides of the divide – was disappointed with the final Assam NRC list. In fact, the Assam BJP has dismissed the final state NRC as an “unacceptable” document because it excludes more Hindus than Muslims.

Who’s to say an all-India NRC will be any different?