The forthcoming 2019 elections are taking over the entire political life in the country. It is as if no problem is urgent unless it can be twisted into pro- or anti-Modi rhetoric. We only care about lynchings to blame the BJP. Child abuse in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh and wherever next matters only to disrupt parliamentary proceedings. It is a strange sense of priority.
Even more depressing has been the behaviour of political leaders in the Assam National Register of Citizens (NRC) matter. Here is a problem which arose after some of the worst riots, involving large-scale murders, in Assam by Assamese of those they thought were not indigenous — Hindus or Muslims. Rajiv Gandhi signed a pact, itself a sign that the prime minister’s constitutional power was challenged. For 33 years nothing was done, except that the BJP complained of infiltration.
Now that the NRC has been conducted on the order of the Supreme Court and a draft NRC published, everyone is unhappy, impatient and antagonistic. In a country where documentation is constantly demanded (the British taught us never to trust Indians), it is nothing short of a miracle that out of the 33 million people, 28 million have been registered. This is around 86 per cent. The process is still ongoing. But in the meantime all hell has broken loose on the estimated 4 million who are left off. They will have a chance to rectify this situation. This is not enough for the critics from the opposition parties. Election beckons. Mamata Banerjee has threatened a civil war. From someone aspiring to be prime minister, this could be a serious statement. Who will kill whom? Whose army will fight which other army? Obviously it is hot air. Everyone is in election mode. As in love and war, everything is fair in elections to secure votes.
But even so, the more serious point has been missed in the debate. The issue were the possible illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the “ghoosepetiya” as Amit Shah called them. But in meeting this issue, which the Assamese have been complaining about and by Rajiv Gandhi conceding to it, a dangerous precedent has been set. We are admitting that each region can lay down criteria of citizenship for those resident within.
Once the idea of indigenous citizenship is embodied in Registers created under a Supreme Court order, there is no stopping other regions demanding the same. There is already a demand by some BJP members that Delhi/NCR have its own NRC. The Shiv Sena began fighting to secure jobs in Mumbai for Marathi-speaking citizens 50 years ago They did not succeed, at least in the case of better-paid jobs. Thus the prize of having their own state has not helped the Marathas, the vast majority of Marathi speakers. Hence their agitation. But what is there to prevent the Maratha agitation asking for NRC for Maharashtra? Every linguistic state will define the original citizens – born and bred on the soil — as the only legitimate residents. The rest will be ghoosepetiyas.
This is not fanciful. Just notice the battle over Cauvery waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu or between Punjab and Haryana over their rivers. If the political classes only see as far as the next election, India could be the loser.