NPR may unleash regional chauvinism

Narendar Pani | Updated on January 26, 2020

Identity crisis: Scope for regionalism

The NPR database may help States to play up son-of-the-soil politics, which can ironically erode BJP’s ‘Hindu identity’ plank

It is by now quite obvious that the Citizenship Amendment Act is dividing our cities, and indeed, the whole of the country. Virtually every major city, and several smaller ones, have seen substantial protests against the Act followed by counter protests in its favour. The Act and the mobilisation in its favour are undoubtedly being fed by a particular political agenda. But what is, somewhat surprisingly, not recognised is that this particular pursuit of Hindu nationalism is sowing the seeds of a ‘regionalism’ that the unitary idea of nationalism will find difficult to control.

Given the cynicism that rules our body politic, it does not take great insight to recognise the political agenda of those who have framed the Act. Its anti-Muslim character is evident in the fact that the humanitarian case that is being made out for discriminated minorities does not extend to Muslims. They are specifically excluded from the religion-based list of minorities that the Act seeks to protect. This is despite the fact that the minorities in our neighbouring countries that have faced the greatest oppression, and are in fact being driven out, are the Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. Clearly, those who formulated the Act believed that it would create a politically-suitable ‘Muslim versus non-Muslim’ divide.

Regional agitation

That things have not gone according to plan is quite obvious. The non-Muslim minorities have seen this as an indication that they could be the next targets, and have rallied behind the Muslims. What has apparently surprised the government more is the rallying of young Hindus, in campuses and elsewhere, against the discrimination. The more intellectual elements in the ruling party have tended to dismiss this as no more than the response of the Left and secular groups.

But the numbers and resilience of the protesters indicate that this mobilisation goes far beyond the organised Left. Nowhere was this clearer than when the Bharat Bandh called by the organised Left flopped in the midst of a spontaneous movement against the government. Indeed, by targeting universities like JNU, the ruling party may have given the Left a fresh lease of life.

What is politically more significant is that in its single-minded pursuit of the CAA, the ruling party may in fact be providing the first statistical documents that can be used for the regional division of the country. It is now becoming increasingly clear that the challenge to the BJP will come more from regional parties rather than the Congress. The regional parties themselves have smelt power and are less inclined to line up behind the Congress. This can be expected to lead to greater regional demands, such as reservations for the sons-of-the-soil. Several States, and their regional movements, have already raised these demands, but are constrained by how to define a ‘son of the soil’.

The current practice of defining it in terms of how long a person has been resident in a region allows some leeway for those who belong to language groups not associated with that region. This leeway can be quite extensive in States with a liberal cut-off year.

But once the CAA, and its sister document the National Population Register (NPR), provide details of where each individual’s parents were born, this situation can change dramatically. There is nothing to stop the sons-of-the-soil politicians from arguing that individuals whose parents have been born in another State should go back there. They have, so far, not had the ability to identify individuals to target on that basis. The NPR will give them precisely that information.

Statistical identification

Such a change in the primary focus of the NPR, and the yet-to-be-implemented National Register of Citizens (NRC), is not as difficult as it may first appear. There is already a change in the political discourse around the CAA. Faced with the possibility of a Dalit and Muslim alliance against the CAA, Home Minister Amit Shah has launched a campaign saying that the primary beneficiaries of the Act would be Dalit Hindu refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. There is little to substantiate this claim. Those countries do not carry out surveys of Dalits among their Hindus. And even if most of their Hindus are Dalits, the same pattern need not be repeated among those who choose to move to India.

In contrast, the NPR will identify those whose parents were not born in the State in which they now reside. Thus, an aggressive sons-of-the-soil activist will have a statistical basis for a campaign of extreme regionalism. Such a campaign would pit the individual’s regional identity against her Hindu identity.

The BJP may yet find that in its short-sighted dislike of Muslims, it has created a Frankenstein that will eat into its pet project of Hindu nationalism.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Published on January 26, 2020

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