Responding to the discussion in the House on the communal violence in Delhi in Rajya Sabha on Thursday, Union Home Minister Amit Shah seemed to be taking a step back from his government’s unyielding line on the NPR-NRC issue that forms its backdrop. No one would be marked “doubtful” in case he or she is unable to provide the information sought in the impending National Population Register process, he said, all information is voluntary, no document would be sought and nobody should fear the NPR. He assured members of the Opposition that he was open and ready for discussions with them on the matter. In effect, Minister Shah seemed to be reaching out, for the first time, to meet the criticism and apprehensions that data collected under the NPR would be weaponised subsequently by the NRC, that the former was a prelude to the latter, which would result, due to state malevolence or incapacity or both, as in Assam, in vulnerable citizens losing their citizenship. Minister Shah’s assurance is welcome, but it isn’t enough. In the House on Thursday, he could have gone further, taken another step back. He could have said that there will be no NRC.
The Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens, and the National Population Register are governed by separate processes and purposes. Yet they have come to be linked with each other, in popular fear and imagination — and, before that, in the politics of the BJP. In fact, the citizenship law gives, doesn’t take away, citizenship. But in tandem with the proposed nation-wide NRC, it is seen to be holding out a legal safety net to Hindus caught on the wrong foot by the NRC, while underlining the helplessness of Muslims in the same predicament. In fact, the NPR only collects data. But in the verification process of the NRC that follows, it could hand the power to decide who is a citizen, and who isn’t, to a local official. In other words, the NRC is the nub of the fears and doubts that have collected around both the CAA and NPR.
The CAA is now in the Supreme Court, which will decide on its constitutionality. But it is in the government’s hands to strike out the idea of the nationwide NRC. At Ramlila maidan in December, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that a nationwide NRC was not being discussed in government circles. President Ram Nath Kovind’s address that flagged off the Budget session made no mention of the NRC. Now, the Home Minister, who has on several occasions spoken of the NRC and CAA in the same breath, has sought to allay the fears sparked by them ahead of the NPR. But both the PM and the home minister should recognise that in the climate of their party and government’s making, in which those who have genuine questions about being left out of the NRC are called “anti-national” or painted as “misled”, nothing less than a recall of the idea of a nationwide NRC will do. Admittedly, it is in the BJP’s election manifesto but, surely, the prime minister’s commitment of sabka vishwas should over-ride that.
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