The Government asks the people to believe it when it says that the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is not discriminatory, that the unsettling National Register of Citizens (NRC) process has nothing to do with the CAA and the National Population Register is not a precursor to the NRC. But even as the government asks for the trust of its citizens, it simultaneously makes clear that it does not trust them. And that the onus of proving trustworthiness is, primarily, not on government, but on the people. This shifting of the burden of proof lies behind many of the statements and assertions emanating from the top echelons of government in recent days. In Lucknow this week, for instance, in a state which has seen the maximum number of incidents of brutal police action and the heaviest death toll during the anti-CAA mobilisations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke only of the alleged damage to public property by protesters. He exhorted those responsible for it to “ask themselves if their path was right”. And described citizens as bearers not of rights, but duties — “kartavya” and “dayitva” over “adhikar”. Rights are bounded and constrained, “Haq ki ek maryada hai, ek dayra hai, seema hai”, he said, but duties are not, “lekin dayitva, kartavya ki bhavna bahut vyapak hai”.
This change of emphasis, this inversion, is significant and consequential. With the burden of accountability placed squarely on the shoulders of the citizen, it lets the government off the hook. While the citizen squirms in the spotlight, the government, quite literally, gets away with it. For, it is the citizen who must be always on test, who must prove herself constantly. If in the current moment, she is being asked not about her anxieties and apprehensions about the government’s new law, but to account for the purported damage to public property instead, she has been similarly challenged to prove good citizenship and patriotism in earlier times — by demonstrating she is not a hoarder of black money (demonetisation), by despite-it-all compliance with tangled tax laws (GST), or by showy solidarity with the Indian army, no questions asked (Balakot). The National Register of Citizens process, which demands proof of belonging from citizens, is a culmination of this larger paradigm shift.
As citizens scramble to make the cut, present documents, do their duty, the government evades the questions on a deepening economic slowdown, on the dwindling of jobs, on the rise of anxiety and waning of optimism, or on a law that violates the letter and spirit of the Constitution by introducing religion as a criterion for citizenship. It was another country and a different time, but the last regime that sought to talk up fundamental duties over and above fundamental rights, was the one that inserted the former in the Constitution as an attempt to subdue citizens and distract attention from its own attempts to curb their rights and freedoms — the government of Indira Gandhi, during the Emergency.
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