The updating of the National Register of Citizens in Assam has landed us in a frightful mess and the fact it’s happened under Supreme Court supervision doesn’t make a jot of difference. Not only has the future of 4.007 million been thrown into utter confusion but the international media is hearing echoes of the Rohingya situation in the potential outcome. We have lost out every which way.
Ab initio this was a misconceived and foolish task. First, we knew it wouldn’t be easy for millions of rural poor to prove their citizenship. How many have credible documents that stretch back 50 years? Apparently even Aadhaar cards and passports are not sufficient. Today, as a result, you have situations where three out of eight brothers, who presented the same documentation, are not on the Register. Wives and children have made it but husbands have not. Even MLAs have been kept out.
The vast majority are, of course, Muslims but a fair number of Hindus have also found their names missing. These are not influential people. They are among the most poor and deprived. Now we’ve added the disadvantage of helplessness.
What is to become of them? As they struggle to prove they’re Indian citizens – and that, presumably, will be difficult because so far they’ve failed to do so – the prospect they face is bleak. Will they still enjoy the right to work, to healthcare and education and housing? Or is that in doubt? And what about their right to vote in 2019? If their status is not satisfactorily resolved in the next nine months, they could end up disenfranchised.
To start a process that you knew could condemn millions to this limbo was not just thoughtless but mean hearted. It’s one of the worst decisions the Indian state has taken.
Now the state has difficult questions to answer. What will it do with those who, at the end of the process, cannot prove their citizenship? At that point they will have been rendered stateless. Will they be taken to detention centres? As people suddenly deemed to be unwanted aliens that, presumably, would have to be the case.
But what then? India may wish to deport them but will Bangladesh agree? Almost certainly not. Dhaka does not accept there has been illegal immigration after 1971. So are these people then condemned to live their lives in detention centres?
Meanwhile, what of the children born in India? Do they not have a claim to Indian citizenship? Is this to be ignored? Or will we end up splitting families?
The world believes this process is targeted against Bengali Muslims. After all, the government calls them “infiltrators”. When western democracies realise this government’s Citizenship Amendment Bill guarantees citizenship to illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who are Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain or Parsi but excludes those who are Muslim, it won’t simply underline their suspicions but prove them. Once passed, the bill guarantees that those declared stateless in Assam who are Hindu are free to stay as full citizens. Muslims, on the other hand, could face the door.
The grim truth is we’ve stumbled into this situation with our eyes wide open. Promised by Rajiv Gandhi, the Manmohan Singh government initiated the Register, the Supreme Court monitored it and the present government seems only too willing to implement its grotesque logic. None of them care that this cruel process is undermining the idea of India. We’re becoming a very different country to the one I was born in and brought up to love.