Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has called for the National Register of Citizens to be extended to other states. There is no logical basis for broadening its scope, since the demographic change and social and political effects of large-scale migration across a porous border are not as keenly felt elsewhere.
If taken seriously, the only effect of CM Sonowal’s appeal, which he made at a seminar in Delhi, might be to turn a regional matter into a national issue for the general elections. Moreover, his was not a standalone intervention. In the span of 48 hours, this was the third notable statement highlighting the NRC with a view to elections. The day before, at the BJP national executive, party president Amit Shah had reportedly praised the work done by the Assam government and the Centre towards implementing the NRC.
He followed that up with a statement in Rajasthan, where he is campaigning in the run-up to the forthcoming assembly elections, in which he promised, or threatened, that every illegal immigrant would be singled out and deported. This is, of course, the diametric opposite of the soothing noises emanating from the government, promising ample scope for citizens to establish their bona fides.
The people of Assam have just cause to be sensitive to illegal immigration, and its government has a duty to address their concerns. However, the exercise is being conducted in an insensitive manner, and the extension of the NRC to other states, where the public have not articulated anxieties about immigrants, would amplify a local embarrassment into a national disgrace.
A tragedy in Assam’s Baksa district, the day after Sonowal recommended extension of the NRC, showed why the assurances against being wrongfully identified as a foreigner ring hollow. A 32-year-old wage labourer hanged himself, and his relatives were convinced that he had committed suicide owing to the legal costs of defending his mother’s case before a Foreigners’ Tribunal. Giving people the right to prove their citizenship is not as large-hearted as it sounds, since they are presumed guilty until they can make their case. Not everyone has the ability or the wherewithal to do that.
Apart from humanising the appeal process, the BJP must also try to be of one mind on the matter. It cannot have the chief minister of Assam giving assurances against summary deportation while office-bearers in Delhi threaten to deport ruthlessly. Assam has many other problems besides illegal immigration, which the chief minister may wish to apply himself to, instead of offering the NRC to the rest of India. And the nation has a surfeit of election issues, which demand the attention of the voters. There is really no need to inflict yet another issue on them, especially one that has little meaning outside Assam.