The civic death of nearly two million in Assam has been met with an odd response from the rest of the country. How does one describe it? Ennui? Apathy? Acquiescence? Denial? Considering its ramifications, there has been surprisingly little public action or even conversation on it. A People’s Tribunal on “Contested Citizenship in Assam”, held recently in New Delhi, which unpacked the enormous human suffering and chaos unleashed by NRC procedures, was a rare initiative of its kind.
Could this indifference be because Assam has always stood on the periphery of the mainland’s consciousness, and the fate of its newly declared “non-citizens” even more so? Could it be because there is some cold comfort in the fact that those left out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) were not quite so many as initially projected? The argument has been raised, after all, that the final NRC result has been somehow “fair”; that the very fact that nobody is happy over its outcome; that there are both Hindus and Muslims among those now deprived of citizenship, should buttress faith in the system.
Could it also reflect a certain relief that the “Bangladeshi” spectre will finally get to be exorcised? It’s been three decades now since Shiv Sena-led governments in Maharashtra drew political capital out of much publicised “deportation” drives involving the rounding up of terrified Bangla-speaking slum-dwellers, and packing them into trains headed for Kolkata. From election speech to election speech, their numbers were bumped up exponentially, growing from a few thousands to unstoppable millions. With religion as their main marker, they were profiled as job-stealers, bomb planters, destroyers of local cultures, grabbers of land.
The militarised terminology used to refer to people in search of better lives as “Muslim infiltrators”, marked not just the first information reports of the police. It permeated the language of the highest judiciary. The Supreme Court verdict in Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union Of India & Anr, delivered by the bench of R C Lahoti, G P Mathur and P K Balasubramanyan in 2005, quoted approvingly and without context, the communally coloured observations of a British official in the 1931 Census report, which saw migration as an “invasion” of “land-hungry immigrants, mostly Muslims”. The bench observed that the state of Assam is facing “external aggression and internal disturbance” on account of “large scale illegal migration of Bangladeshi nationals”. Such a communal framing has dominated the narrative on the issue over decades. But today, with a party committed to Hindutva in power both at the Centre and in Assam, such a framing has become politically weaponised.
The irony is that this seeming indifference to the NRC process and the possibility that it could alter forever the constitutional notion of citizenship, is taking place against a steel-like political resolve to extend it to the rest of India. Union Minister of Home Amit Shah has not just termed “illegal immigrants” as “termites”, he has continuously and emphatically iterated that his government will not allow “one single immigrant” to stay in India.
President Ram Nath Kovind was only reflecting this in his address to Parliament in July when he affirmed that his government “has decided to implement the process of National Register of Citizens on priority basis in areas affected by infiltration”. Baby steps in this regard have already been undertaken. On the very day it was sworn back to power on May 30, the Modi government moved to decentralise decision-making on foreigners’ tribunals. State governments and even lowly district collectors now have the power to set them up without a formal nod from the Centre. Another significant notification, involving the National Population Register, followed three months later. It is to be updated in 2020 and will allow the government to aggregate the personal data of people living across the country as a first step towards mapping, marking and classifying the population, should it choose to do so.
There is a curious paradox in all of this. At a time when India is searching for a top slot in the global order and possibly a seat in the Security Council, obligations undertaken by India vis-a-vis a slew of international treaties have either been discarded or trampled upon in NRC procedures. For instance, the right to the protection of the family as the “natural and fundamental group unit of society”, guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, has been violated extensively. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989, to cite another example, a child “shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents”. Yet, among the most searing testimonies during the recent people’s tribunal, were the impacts on children. In innumerable cases, parents are in the NRC but their children’s names don’t figure in it, and vice versa. A mother, who had lost her newborn while she stood under the sun without water to get her certification, wanted to know who had killed her baby.
Those who argue that India is under no obligation to conform to the letter and spirit of international treaties, need to be reminded that Article 51(c) of the Indian Constitution enjoins the fostering of respect for treaty obligations and many of these principles now inform national law today.
We understand citizenship as state-guaranteed right to have rights. We now need to become more conscious of statelessness as state-directed stripping of rights, and what it entails for the lives of those who are rendered alien and inaudible.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 13, 2019 under the title ‘Orphaned by State’. Philipose is author of ‘Media’s Shifting Terrain: Five Years that Transformed the Way India Communicates’.