House of cards

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on September 20, 2019 Published on September 20, 2019

Uncertainties: A slip showing the Acquirer Reference Numbers is necessary for a family to find a place in the final list of the NRC   -  THE HINDU / RITU RAJ KONWAR

Should documents — so easily lost or rendered invalid — be the sole claim to citizenship?

Raghav* is a young man who makes his living by driving a car. His parents are the traditional ‘presswalas’, working in the street close to my house, ironing clothes for people in the neighbourhood.

Long years ago, when they moved to Delhi from Bulandshahr district, Uttar Pradesh, and found themselves a spot in which to set up their small table, my mother, a social worker, helped them obtain a document that established their identity as members of a scheduled caste (SC).

With the help of the card, Raghav’s parents were able to provide subsidised education to their children. Determined to not carry on the family profession, Raghav worked hard to make a different life for himself. Concessions in school fees and for the purchase of textbooks proved useful in that regard.

However, by the time it came to Raghav’s children, the world had changed. The old government document, still intact but a bit frayed at the edges, did not work any more. School authorities refused to accept it — they wanted something digital, something resembling a more “modern” identity proof.

The parents and the grandparents struggled; they went to office after office, holding the original document, and it was rejected — by the same authority that had issued it. They scoffed at the cyclostyled sheet and held it to be a fake document. “You’ve made it up,” they were told. “Who issues documents like this today?”

As I write, yet another rejection has come in and the family is fast losing hope. If money is a constraint — which is the case — it is possible that they will pull the children out of school, and whatever progress has been made generationally from parents to children, could be lost in the process. They might also take the predictable step of leaving the son in the school and pulling the girl out — and that will be a small contribution to another evil that plagues the country. Or, if the demands are “reasonable”, they will end up paying a bribe and secure the document they need.

None of these choices is easy.

Raghav’s problem may seem like a small, individual story. But coincidentally, the events panned out while Delhi was hosting a two-day conclave and public hearing on the subject of the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) issue in Assam. It is well known by now that 19 lakh people in the state have been left out of this net of “legitimate” citizenship.

As person after person spoke at the hearing and as victims of the NRC exercise provided testimonies, some key questions came up: How does one define citizenship? Does it flow from birth? From descent? From religion? From money? From documents? And the second big question: How important is it to hold on to documents and the “evidence” of legitimacy?

If I’m asked to prove citizenship through documents that somehow prove my origins, what do I have? There was a time my parents had a birth certificate. I remember seeing it. But now I have no idea what happened to it.

Both my parents were Partition refugees. They brought nothing. And they’re both gone. What proof do we have that we belong here? And I thought of the thousands of people in Assam who spent days and weeks, with fragile documents, trying to prove they belonged.

Why should the document be the beginning and end of everything? Assam, for example, is subject to periodic floods. When your village is flooded and life is at stake, do you rush back to pick up your identity documents, or do you save your life?

There’s no doubt that documents are important, but do they need to be everything? There’s also history — how many Partition refugees had documents? There’s also context. Your documents may have been lost or stolen. The application for an ID proof can be rejected, and, as in Raghav’s case, also be declared invalid. Raghav’s problem is not exactly an issue of citizenship. The family has every other document that legitimises this — Aadhaar, voter ID, PAN and so on. What they don’t have is the SC certificate — rather, they do have it, but the authorities refuse to recognise their own document. There are further questions here: The SC certificate surely flows from the question of citizenship. You are a citizen from a certain caste, which the State recognises as having a claim to affirmative action. But does the claim have to be revalidated periodically? Must each generation seek that revalidation? If yes, why not simply change old documents into new forms?

Forty years ago, when the first certificate was issued to Raghav’s father, there was only cyclostyling and signatures. Today there are smart cards. Will the smart card then decide our citizenship claims?

(*Name has been changed to protect identity)

Urvashi Butalia   -  BUSINESS LINE


Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan


Published on September 20, 2019
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