Citizenship Bill: A blow to the secular republic

Subir Roy | Updated on December 12, 2019

The Bill aims to complement a pan-India NRC. But the two exercises could rupture the diverse fabric of the country

On the midnight hour of August 14, 1947, India set out on its post-colonial journey to build a sovereign secular democratic republic, sanctified in an elaborately-written Constitution, which became the pride of the nation.

Over seven decades later, when the republic should have mellowed with age and the wisdom that came with it, on the midnight of December 9, India took a step backward, seriously undermining the secular character of the republic. Parliament passed a Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) offering citizenship to refugees of all faiths, except Muslims, fleeing oppression in neighbouring countries.

Why has this happened? The RSS, the ruling BJP’s ideological elder, provides some answers through the action plan it lays down. According to a report in one leading business daily, quoting a person in the know, the RSS wants committed centrally-appointed facilitators and the rollout of the pan-Indian National Register of Citizens (NRC) monitored by the Centre on a day-to-day basis in non-BJP ruled States, particularly West Bengal, to prevent undercounting of Hindu immigrants because the State government wants to prove a point.

This is strange, because the State government has given enough indications recently that it is courting the Hindu vote as much as the Muslim vote (recall the move to allow Chhat Puja to be celebrated at Kolkata’s Rabindra Sarobar, despite the Pollution Control Board’s orders).

An RSS functionary also referred to Hindus in Bangladesh being unable to come to India because of the Nehru-Liaquat Ali pact, despite the fact that millions have done so post-Partition. By all accounts, those who have remained in Bangladesh are at peace and their proportion in the population has gone up in recent years, according to what Sushma Swaraj told Parliament. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has around herself a number of trusted Hindu civil servants in important positions.

Citizenship rights

A declared aim of the RSS is to confer citizenship rights to the Namashudras, who are referred to by the functionary as “our Dalit brothers” and are described as “suffering” in West Bengal. The treatment of Dalits and Muslims in Bengal needs to be put in historical perspective. Large numbers of lower caste Hindus in Bengal converted to Islam — not forcefully, but at their own volition — to escape the caste system’s oppression and in response to the love and affection extended by Sufi teachers.

Large numbers of mazaars (graves) of Sufi peers dot the two Bengals, which people of all faiths come to visit. Out of consideration for the sentiments of the Hindu visitors, many of these places of pilgrimage do not serve beef in the free meals they offer. Ideology apart, the decision to promptly bring in the CAB resulted from one unforeseen consequence of the final version of the Assam NRC. Many of the 1.9 million whose names were excluded were non-Muslims. To overcome this, the BJP government decided to amend the Citizenship Act first to confer citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants who have come in till 2014, and then roll out the NRC across the country. This will help include all those wrongly left out of the Assam NRC.

NRC rollout

The RSS wants the procedure for the pan-Indian NRC to be simple. This is a hard-learnt lesson from the fiasco in Assam, which has resulted in an electoral setback for the BJP. It recently lost all the three West Bengal by-elections. In one constituency , Kaliagunj, the Rajbangshis, an ethnic Hindu community who constituted a majority of the electorate, voted for the Trinamool as they were aggrieved by many of their brethren in Assam being left out of the NRC.

The procedure for the pan-Indian NRC rollout is likely to be fraught. Poor people who may have migrated from one part of the country to another will often not have the necessary paperwork to prove their citizenship. Even when they do, there is every chance that petty officialdom from across the counter will harass them. The whole exercise can become a source of corruption, where the poor paying for it.

The final contradiction is that there is an agitation by students across the North-East against the CAB, when they should be among its foremost proponents. The Bill and the NRC go hand in hand. But when the final result of the Assam NRC went haywire and was disowned by the students, as many non-Muslims found themselves missing from it, the Central government has tried to rectify the situation by amending the Citizenship Act.

The revised Citizenship Act offers citizenship to all non-Muslims who came in till 2014, while the NRC — a product of the Assam Accord — allowed citizenship to all those who came in up to 1971. This extension will confer citizenship to a whole section of Bengali Hindus, which will affect the linguistic and ethnic character of the State. So the Assam students who have played a role in both the NRC and the CAB, have disowned both!

The writer is a senior journalist

Published on December 12, 2019

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