The National Register of Citizens in Assam has generated an intense unease across the country. For around two million people to suddenly lose their citizenship is catastrophic. The number is more than five percent of the population of Assam and in one fell swoop the exercise has threatened to not only drastically alter the demography of the state but also change its political landscape. Adding a sinister dimension to the development is that it is mostly the Muslims who have been omitted from the NRC. Also, lending a fraught dimension to the exercise is the fact that the Hindu migrants are being welcomed and considered eligible for citizenship while Muslims are seen as infiltrators. What is more, the onus of establishing citizenship rests with the people unlike the international conventions where it is the state that has to prove it. But in a country like India, millions of people are poor and uneducated and lack an understanding of acquiring papers. And in a politically motivated exercise like this, people like them will lose their citizenship.
According to reports in the media, there are many bonafide citizens who have not made it to the list. True, the issue of demography has been an inextricable part of the post-1947 politics of Assam. The state has witnessed movements and violent agitations against the migrants. The Assamese versus non-Assamese debate has roiled the politics from time to time. So, there is a wider support to the exercise in the state. In fact, not only in Assam, even in the rest of the country the fraught exercise slots snugly into the BJP’s pan-India Hindutva agenda. It also plays to the prevailing polarizing climate in the country where Muslims are seen as outsiders and hence unwelcome.
The move has also caused deep anxiety in Kashmir where currently the fear of a large-scale demographic change following revocation of the Article 370 has already generated a deep sense of siege. This approach towards nation-building is a dangerous exercise. When the state itself acts discriminatively against its own people, it threatens to tear apart the social fabric and puts peace in peril. It is difficult to imagine what will happen to Assam’s excluded citizens. Bangladesh where they are supposed to belong has refused to take them back. This renders the two million people as nowhere citizens. They have been deprived of the right to own property in what until a year or two earlier was their homeland. This has created a gigantic humanitarian problem. And the government needs to act with great care and sensitivity to address it.