In a development that has caught everybody by surprise, protests have broken out all across India against Citizenship Amendment Act. It began with protests at Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia. Later police action against students Jamia triggered a wider reaction. Now state after state people are coming out to lodge their protest against the CAA and proposed all India NRC. Though largely peaceful, the protests have turned violent in some parts. Some groups of protesters have burned public and private property. However, in interviews to media, most protesters have dissociated from the violence and blamed it on unknown elements.
Both the CAA and NRC have triggered paranoia among people, particularly Muslim community. They think both measures are essentially designed to target them. And they do have a reason to fear. The implementation of the NRC in Assam shows that its execution at all India level may lead to exclusion of Muslims. Though the ruling BJP has tried to assuage fears by saying that Muslims had nothing to fear from the law, it has failed to soothe the frayed nerves. This is because similar assurances extended by the leaders in Assam to minorities and the alleged immigrants prior to conduct of the NRC in the state came to nought. In 2018, a day before the release of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had said that a “person whose name does not appear in the document will not be treated as a foreigner”. But the fact that later 40 lakh people, more than 10 per cent of the state’s population, did not make it to the NRC list only added to the miasma of suspicion and anxiety around the citizenship issue in the state. Further review of the list subsequently reduced the number to nineteen lakh, a significant number of whom is Hindu.
True, issues of migration and demographic change have been permanent fixtures in post-Independence politics in the country, particularly in Assam even though the state government published an NRC as early as 1951, along with the first National Census. In the 1970s and 1980s, the state was thrown into turmoil by a student agitation which demanded the detection and deportation of illegal migrants. The Assam Accord of 1985 promised to address these concerns and the updation of the 1951 NRC is a part of this process. However, unlike international conventions on establishing citizenship, the burden of proof rests with the NRC applicant. To be registered in the list, people have to prove that they are descendants of Indian citizens by providing documents dating back to 1951 or 1971. That is an onerous pre-condition in a country with a none-too-good record of maintaining documents. Now if the NRC is done at the national level as proposed by home minister Amit Shah, it has the potential to wreak havoc and trigger a wider unrest in the country. It is thus time for the BJP to step back and rethink the dangerous project.