The updated National Register of Citizens, a four-year-long exercise monitored by the Supreme Court, costing Rs 1,600 crore, appears to have been relegated for all practical purposes. Union Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament on Wednesday that the exercise will be undertaken across the country soon, including — afresh — in Assam. The updated Assam NRC, published on August 31, left 19 lakh people stateless and exposed to the prospect of being lodged in detention camps after exhausting appeals against their exclusion from the Register. The exercise turned the Northeast restive. With reports suggesting that a large part of those excluded are Hindus, the BJP rejected the Register, even after the Supreme Court endorsed it. By all accounts, the NRC in Assam has been a failure: It did not satisfy any section of the society, reopened faultlines of religion, language and ethnicity, and left millions of people on the edge. It is appalling that the government now wants to impose this divisive and tortuous exercise on the rest of the country.
Shah has been infatuated with the idea of the NRC for some time; he has threatened a nation-wide NRC in his election campaigns. Clearly, the BJP top brass seems ignorant of the history of the NRC, which was proposed in 1951 in the specific context of Assam witnessing a major demographic upheaval in the wake of Partition. The 1985 Assam Accord, signed between the Rajiv Gandhi government and the major players of the Assam Movement, gave it a new life. The Supreme Court directed the state government in 2013 to execute it and began monitoring it from December 2015. The point is that the NRC was a demand made by the state’s political leadership to address concerns specific to it. It was the product of a political imagination that privileged ethno-linguistic identity over more inclusive ideas of citizenship and rejected the notion that societies are shaped by the movement of people and capital. This resentful politics, centered on the fear of the Outsider, not surprisingly, resulted in violence and gave birth to an armed insurgency. The past few years have seen Assam emerge from this morass of violence and rebuild its economy. But the NRC, and its byproduct, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, have threatened a regression into a past that saw one section of society pitted against the other.
The NRC is a flawed idea and its limitations have been exposed in Assam. The exercise also bared the futility of pursuing a project of establishing identity through legacy in a country that has seen massive migrations, forced and voluntary. Shah and others must abandon their obsession, which, with its communal overtones, can only result in stoking new fears and anxieties.