Almost immediately after the release of the final draft of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) on Monday, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh sought to reach out to the 40 lakh people left out of the list. They will be given the full opportunity to file claims and objections as per the provisions in the law, he said. “Only after the disposal of claims and objections will be decided, the final NRC will be published,” he said. Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has also maintained “that a person whose name does not appear in the NRC will not be treated as a foreigner”. Such voices of caution, necessary to calm the anxieties that the NRC process has generated, are, however, outnumbered by those that seek to play on the insecurities of those excluded from Monday’s list.
If Opposition leaders like West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee spoke of “civil war”, ruling party members have not taken up the home minister’s lead either. BJP president Amit Shah talked about giving another chance to those who did not make it to the list but if the home minister laid store on the playing out of the NRC’s due processes, Shah made no bones about the need for implementing the register’s exclusions aggressively. “Only those who haven’t been able to present proof of their citizenship have been excluded from the draft,” he said. The tone of reassurance struck by the home minister has been significantly attenuated by Shah’s repeated invocation of the now-familiar and deeply problematic trope of the “illegal immigrant” as a security threat. “By encouraging infiltrators how can we ensure security at the borders and internal security of the nation?” asked Shah.
The idea of the “other” has been built into much of the discourse on citizenship in Assam. The student movement in the 1970s and 1980s was built around ethnic anxieties — it posited an Assamese versus non-Assamese divide. The BJP’s chant of national security and a muscular nationalism could stoke more mistrust and aggravate the climate of uncertainty in the border state. The objective of the NRC was to arrive at a resolution of questions raised for more than six decades around ethnicity, culture, and religion. These, as the NRC process has shown, are fraught issues and need to be handled with sensitivity and care. There is still time. The political class must step up to the challenge.