Assam’s National Register of Citizens may not have turned out as the Bharatiya Janata Party wanted it to. The contentious bureaucratic process conducted over the last few years aimed to identify those who cannot prove their ancestry based on a narrow set of documents. From the party leaders’ reactions, it is evident that they expected more Muslims and fewer Hindus to be declared stateless. As a consequence, the BJP has insisted that it will find other ways to correct this apparent distortion.
Yet the idea of the NRC has worked perfectly for India’s ruling party. BJP President Amit Shah, who took over as home minister after general elections earlier this year, repeatedly used xenophobic rhetoric during the campaign. He called migrants from Bangladesh “termites” and promised to remove them from every inch of Indian land. His party has spoken of a national NRC, mimicking the one in Assam, which would quite blatantly be used to target Muslims around the country.
The NRC makes it difficult for people to prove their citizenship and can often be arbitrary. It has effectively become a process in which the Indian state creates foreigners out of its own citizens – as the many stories in Scroll.in’s Humans of Assam series make evident. While the Assam process, flawed as it may be, emerged out of the complexity of an accord signed following a large-scale agitation in the 1980s, a national version of the same would be a government-created disaster.
What makes it even more daunting is the clear sense that – as has been the case on a number of other policies from this government – the BJP has only thought through the bits that are politically lucrative. Resorting to anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim hysteria has been a potent element worldwide, and Shah has been more than happy to take advantage of this. What the Indian state will do with all the people it has declared stateless or foreigners remains unconscionably unclear.
Over the last few days, there have been disturbing reports of detention centres being built. A Reuters story drove home the complexity of this situation: workers building one detention centre are themselves uncertain if they can prove their citizenship, and so might end up being detained there. But even these centres, which bring up uncomfortable 20th-century parallels, cannot possibly hold the millions of people who are likely to end up being declared non-citizens.
A BJP leader drove home just how uncertain the party is about what it expects to do following the conclusion of this process. Shah had promised to throw them out of the country, a claim that is both inhumane and unviable. Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has now said that India will have to convince Bangladesh to take back its citizens. Bangladesh, on its part, has remained completely silent about the process, and can hardly be expected to accept a population transfer numbering in the millions.
In Mumbai, thousands of kilometres away from Assam, the Maharashtra state government appears to have identified land to build a detention centre of its own for “illegal immigrants”. It has been reported that the the Union Government wrote to states earlier in the year asking every state to set a detention cetnre in a city that is a major centre for immigration. Unsurprisingly Maharashtra, which seems to have moved on this, has elections coming up and BJP politicians as well as their allies raising the migrant bogey.
Above all, it is important to note that the data makes it abundantly clear: India is not being overrun by immigrants. The rate, per extrapolation from official data, has been steadily falling, making it clear that undocumented immigration is simply not one of the country’s chief problems.
Let us be clear: The BJP’s willingness to play with fire and attempt to create foreigners out of citizens has little to do with improving the lives of those who do live in this country, as the party’s stewardship of the economy has made clear. Instead, it has much more to do with a Hindutva project aimed at showing Muslims their place in India. Couching it in terms of citizenship cannot obscure this fact. Those in public life engaging with the idea must see the process for what it is – and what that means for India.