Staying the course


Having long suffered political dispensations tweaking citizenship laws for narrow electoral gain, India is up against external and internal forces desperately trying to scuttle a major citizenship exercise.

Updating the national register of citizens (NRC) in Assam would not have gotten underway without the firm directive of the highest court of the land. But the Supreme Court administered NRC exercise is being mischievously opposed by various actors precisely because it seeks to do what it must — which is to keep citizens in and non-citizens out.

If the shrill claim of each vested interest is given credence to, no one can be legitimately excluded from NRC because everyone is a citizen! Public meets are being held at West Bengal by some platforms to whip up opposition to NRC update, wild allegations are being thrown about that Bengali speaking linguistic and religious minorities in Assam have been excluded in the final draft to be published on July end.

Broadly, this is very much in line with the strategy Trinamool leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has taken. She has to posture as a pan Bengali leader and use the Assam imbroglio cynically towards that end, considering the manner Tripura has turned saffron and the BJP’s continuing inroads into her State. Meanwhile, pan Islamic forces are threatening dire consequences if the names of Muslims are cut out from NRC, warning of “Myanmar-like injustices”.

Keeping a wary eye so as not to be caught for contempt of court, they begin with the disclaimer that they have nothing if foreigners are excluded, “but no genuine Indian must be harassed”.

Then they proceed to cast doubts upon, if not discredit, each and every test of citizenship being administered. For example, the Supreme Court in December last year while setting aside a Gauhati High Court order, had ruled that panchayat certificates can be used as a ‘supporting document’ to claim linkage (though it would not by itself be a proof of citizenship) — provided that “the contents of the certificate are found to be established on due and proper enquiry and verification.”

But like the proverbial belling of the cat, who will ensure ‘due and proper enquiry and verification’? Surely the officials tasked to do so in the NRC exercise, under the watchful supervision of the apex court. Out of 29 lakh panchayat certificates furnished as linkage documents, a significant percentage may well be rejected if found not to be genuine.

However, the Assam Congress has now alleged that papers like panchayat certificates are not being accepted so as “to exclude as much as possible members of a particular minority community”, ostensibly to polarise the State on religious lines and thereby “benefit the BJP”. This can only mean the State NRC authority is working at the behest of the State government while disobeying the apex court — a serious slur indeed. The question can also be asked whether parties like the Congress are playing their own communal card to discredit an entire citizenship exercise for political ends.

Meanwhile, an online campaign has begun from foreign soil to vilify the NRC update. Based in New York, the ‘Avaaz’ portal has let loose a petition titled ‘India: Stop deleting Muslims’ in social media. This misinformation ploy is clearly designed to put the NRC authority in Assam squarely on the defensive with the weight of world opinion. Let us however remember that in Donald Trump’s America itself, citizenship is not something a migrant can demand as a matter of right.

European Union too, considered the most powerful trading and diplomatic bloc ever, is in turmoil over immigration — particularly after Britain raised the banner of revolt by choosing to go its own way. Human rights as applied to refugees and migrants along with claims to citizenship are complicated issues that strike at the very core of social cohesion and national identity.

Injustices can happen both ways, which only rule of law can prevent. On these issues, Assam has suffered more than its share compared to other States in India. The State NRC authority is putting the facts in social media to counter Avaaz, but there is no need to be defensive. The need rather is to stay the course firmly and fulfil its mandate.