Even as Assam grapples with the infirmities and uncertainties of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process, Nagaland has initiated its own equivalent. The Register of Indigenous Inhabitants (RIN) of Nagaland is meant to be a master list of all indigenous inhabitants of the state and, according to the government, is aimed at preventing people from acquiring fake indigenous inhabitant certificates. While the preparation of Assam’s NRC is a Supreme Court-mandated process, the RIN in Nagaland is an initiative of the state government. The RIN takes a cue from the NRC in Assam and will be overhung by the attendant identity concerns. Mizoram and Meghalaya, too, have proposed their own NRCs and a similar sentiment to erect barriers against people perceived as outsiders/foreigners is on the upswing across the region. The proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act aimed at making acquisition of Indian citizenship easier for non-Muslims from select countries in India’s neighbourhood, has further polarised the identity debate. These developments do not augur well for the region, or for the country.
The NRC in Assam is an updating of the 1951 census document and draws justification from the exceptional demographic upheavals in the state. Over 40 lakh people have been left out of the draft NRC. There is no clarity about the fate of these non-citizens, who face the prospect of living as stateless people in special camps. However, BJP leaders, particularly the party chief and now Union home minister, Amit Shah, have said that the NRC may be extended to the rest of India. The NRC is an especially polarising spectre in states like West Bengal, which is home to a large number of migrants, Hindus and Muslims, from across the border. Politicians wield the NRC as a threat to disenfranchise inconvenient populations and the conversation, clearly, has triggered anxieties across communities. In the Northeast, which has a long history of identity politics, the NRC and the citizenship law have triggered new insecurities about social, cultural, political and economic capital. Most of the Northeast is already covered by protectionist laws and rules — for example, the inner-line permit — to prevent any potential demographic overrun. But that has not stopped politicians from exploring new ways to make their societies even more exclusive and insular.
Modern economies gain from the seamless movement of labour and capital. Building a discourse against open borders may bring gains for politicians in the short run, but nativist politics will only hurt the economic prospects of the region in the long run. Worse, it can trigger reactions elsewhere and hurt the idea of an inclusive India.
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