(This article was originally published on 21.11.19, and has been republished in light of the parliamentary debate on the Citizenship Bill.)
A lot has been said and written on Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) being extended to the whole country and redone for the second time in Assam, made in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday. All of it appears to have missed the context in which he made the statement, which was in response to a question from a member of his own party, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The question, by former editor and nominated BJP MP Swapan Dasgupta, was a complex one. Dasgupta asked, “Taking into account the gazette notification of 7 September 2015, is this gazette notification applicable to the whole of India? In that case sir, why I am asking this is, the NRC in Assam should make a fundamental distinction between those who are illegal immigrants and those who are non-citizens… has that distinction been made? If it has been made, various people who are categorised in the gazette notification, why are they being incarcerated?”
What the Passport Rules State
In order to understand the import of this question itself, a bit of background is necessary. The gazette notification that Dasgupta was referring to was on an amendment to the Passport (Entry into India) Rules, 1950. By the amendment, a clause was inserted in Rule 4 of the Passport Rules which says, “persons belonging to minority communities in Bangladesh and Pakistan, namely Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, who were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution and entered into India on or before 31 December 2014, without valid documents, including passports or other travel documents; or with valid travel documents and the validity of such documents has expired”.
Rule 4 of the Passport Rules is the list of exemptions. It lists those who are exempted from the requirement to enter India with a valid passport.
Basically, the September 2015 amendment to the Passport Rules had already done half the work that the Citizenship Amendment Bill promises it will do. It had removed non-Muslims from Bangladesh and Pakistan from the penal provisions of entering India without a passport and visa if they so much as feared religious persecution. Dasgupta was in effect asking Shah why, after this had already been done, were non-Muslims who entered India before 2015 still being incarcerated in Assam?
Two NRCs Held in Assam Have Been Under Two Different Acts
There have been no incarcerations due to the NRC yet, in which detail Dasgupta was mistaken, but he was right in pointing to the fact that there have indeed been incarcerations, in detention camps, of people of all faiths, because of a parallel process in Assam for the detection of foreigners via Foreigners Tribunals. Shah’s answer, which also mixed this up, was that “The NRC in Assam was undertaken under a Supreme Court order under a different Act. NRC will happen in the whole country, then in Assam also the process will be undertaken. People of no religion needs to fear anything…there are processes to accommodate all these people in the NRC… The gazette notification being mentioned by the honourable member is applicable in the whole country.”
The Home Minister rightly pointed out that the Assam NRC was undertaken under a different Act, the Citizenship Act 1955.
As historian Dr Binayak Dutta of the North East Hill University has pointed out in a paper titled ‘The illusive Indian’, the Assam NRC of 1951 was conducted under the Census Act of 1948.
Therefore, the two NRCs held so far in Assam have also been held under two different Acts. Their legal bases are different.
There is a proposal to create a National Population Register alongside the 2021 Census, based on which a National Register of Citizens can, in the future, be created. That will again be based on the Census Act. Thus, the Assam NRC just concluded under supervision of the Supreme Court under former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, will naturally have to be junked.
Even Combined Efforts of Assam BJP & Centre Couldn’t Prevent NRC ‘Mess’
Shah’s statement that ‘people of no religion need to fear anything’ may have been intended for Bengali Hindus rather than Muslims, given the identity of his interlocutor and the context of the question. The Assam NRC has excluded mainly Bengali Hindus, who comprise an estimated 10-12 lakh of the 19 lakhs left out. His statement that the gazette notification extends to all of India essentially means that non-Muslims who arrived before 2015 from Bangladesh or Pakistan, can no longer be held in detention camps.
The detention camps, in sum, are for Muslims and for those non-Muslims who arrived after 2015.
Politically, this is in line with BJP and RSS thinking. The BJP and RSS are clear that they aspire to seeing India as a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, and not as a secular republic. The NRC and its twin, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, are attempts at giving shape to this aspiration. The experience of the recent NRC in Assam would suggest that — questions of morality and propriety aside — crafting the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ through documentation is practically no easy task. Even the combined efforts of BJP governments in Assam and at the Centre, and a Supreme Court Chief Justice who took keen personal interest in the completion of the NRC, have resulted in a gigantic mess there.
One can only imagine the size of the mess when this exercise is extended to the whole country.
(Samrat is an author and journalist. He tweets at @MrSamratX. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)