What exactly is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s position on a nation-wide National Register of Citizens? As it faces an ocean of protesters, the ruling party has offered no clarity.
Much depends on the answer to this question. For over a week now, protesters across the country have risen up against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which puts undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh on a fast track for Indian citizenship, and the National Register of Citizens, meant to identify “illegal immigrants”. Taken together, it is feared, the law and the register could become a tool to harass and dispossess Muslims. The protests have claimed at least 24 lives so far.
The BJP has stuck to its positions on the citizenship act, rounding up communities who ostensibly stand to gain from it for various rallies – Pakistani Hindus in Delhi, people from the Matua community in Kolkata. On the NRC, it prefers double speak.
At his rally in Delhi on December 22, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the BJP had never spoken about a nation-wide NRC and that detention centres for those declared foreigners were the stuff of rumour. Both claims are patently untrue. Apart from the existing detention centres in Assam, and the harrowing stories that emerge from it, new facilities are being built in other parts of India on the instructions of the Centre. A barrage of past speeches, interviews, social media posts, the party’s own 2019 Lok Sabha election manifesto, reveal the BJP’s year of grandstanding on the NRC.
Not only did enthusiasm for the NRC become a test of patriotism, it became a convenient scaffolding to construct a spectre of the “illegal immigrants” and keep an electorate in thrall to fear. The BJP, especially Home Minister Amit Shah, repeatedly linked the citizenship law to the nation-wide NRC. It assured Hindus that they need not worry, they would be covered by the law. The figure of the illegal migrant, as political scientist Niraja Gopal Jayal describes it, became “proxy for the Indian Muslim”.
Until very recently, the BJP was convinced of the electoral benefits of such rhetoric. Campaigning in Jharkhand before the state went to polls, Modi said those responsible for violence in the recent protests could be “identified by their clothes”, a barely veiled reference to their religious identity. In Jharkhand, it did not pay off. And a BJP rattled by widespread protests may be distancing itself from its previous championing of the NRC.
The BJP is loath to part with it entirely – a day after Modi disavowed the nationwide NRC, senior party leader Shivraj Singh Chouhan on Monday said it would conducted after detailed discussions. Days before Modi claimed at the Delhi rally rules for a pan-India NRC had not been framed, the government answered a set of frequently asked questions on the citizens’ register. There is even a website for a National Register of Indian Citizens.
But the apparent consensus which made the NRC a litmus test for patriotism, and other parties afraid to critique it, is fraying. The number of states that now refuse to implement the NRC is growing. These include Opposition-ruled states such as West Bengal and Kerala, but also those ruled by friendly parties – Odisha, governed by Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal, and Andhra Pradesh, currently under Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress. This could be a significant spanner in the works for the BJP’s NRC project. If Assam’s NRC is any indication, it will depend heavily on the states for implementation.
Meanwhile, the country is gripped with anxiety. Not only do 200 million Muslims fear becoming second-class citizens, thousands of Hindus worry they will not be able to produce the requisite documents to prove their Indian citizenship. Having brought matters to such a pitch, the BJP needs to come clean on its stand on a nation-wide NRC. The politics of fear can only yield dividends up to a point.