Quick Take

NRC is set for a quiet burial, and that’s for the good

| Updated on November 22, 2019

As a face-saver, the Centre has mooted the Citizenship Amendment Bill, whose bias against Muslims is likely to run into legal issues

Assam’s massive citizen-counting exercise may, de facto, already be history. Both Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi and Assam BJP power-broker Himanta Biswa Sarma seem to have developed cold feet about the outcome of the just-concluded National Register of Citizens (NRC). Shah threw a bombshell in Parliament on Tuesday, by stating the costly NRC exercise would be conducted throughout the country and then slid in the fact it would also be staged again in Assam. Right afterward, Sarma held a news conference where he pronounced ‘unacceptable’ the NRC results, which have led to 1.9 million people in Assam — many believed to be Hindus — unable to prove their Indian citizenship. Sarma’s strong statement reflects deep unhappiness in Assam about the NRC results, which have even been criticised by groups like AASU (the All-Assam Students Union).

Also, the BJP’s found itself facing a fusillade of international criticism about the NRC. The timing of Shah’s and Sarma’s statements was particularly significant, as they came only days after the retirement of CJI Ranjan Gogoi, who spearheaded Assam’s NRC. Both statements make it likely the BJP’s backing away from the NRC, which has cost at least ₹1,600 crore and possibly much more, because the full expense — like detention camps to house and care for the “non-citizens” — hasn’t been totted up. The State government also strongly signalled its unhappiness with the NRC results when it asked the Supreme Court in August for reverification of the numbers. In addition, it hasn’t sent out letters informing people they didn’t make the cut for citizenship.

In his statement, Shah insisted the NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), about to be presented before Parliament, are separate and can’t be linked. But Shah’s assertion may well be a BJP fudge as the Assam NRC fiasco has created an urgent need for the CAB. It’s the only way the BJP can bail out Hindus declared ‘illegal’ immigrants in Assam. Now, the CAB suffers from obvious defects because it stipulates Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and Parsi refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh can all claim Indian citizenship within six years, even if they entered India illegally. Glaringly, though, Muslims are excluded from this new amendment, which appears to fall foul of Article 14 of the Constitution that mandates equality and equal protection under the law. It appears virtually certain the proposed provision will come up before a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in the not-too-distant future.

There are other questions. Afghanistan was never a part of British India so why has it been included? Also, why have Indian-origin people from Myanmar, Malaysia or Singapore been left out? The Bill doesn’t offer a statement of Objects and Reasons and that could be held against it in coming years. There are other unusual provisions in the Bill. For instance, an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) who commits even a minor traffic offence could have his OCI status withdrawn. But that contradicts another provision of the Citizenship Act, 1955 which lays down citizenship can only be withdrawn in the first five years after it’s been granted. Are these signs of hasty draftsmanship because the Bill was needed quickly? We don’t know for certain. But it’s very possible the amended Citizenship Bill could be tied up in court challenges for a long time to come. Such challenges could seriously delay passage of the Bill or ultimately sink the legislation, which would be all for the good, given the Assam debacle and what would be the humongous cost of a nationwide NRC.

Published on November 22, 2019

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