I worked for India’s UID (unique identification) project in 2009-10 when the decision was made to rename it ‘Aadhaar.’ That word stands for foundation, support, etc. in several Indian languages, and aptly conveyed the project’s spirit of inclusion.
It is during that tenure that I came face to face with the extreme sensitivity of the Northeast, Assam in particular, to illegal migrants from Bangladesh. I also became familiar with the proposed The National Register of Citizens (NRC) project, which planned to place the burden on every resident to prove his/her claim to citizenship.
I was shocked when I read on the Registrar General of India’s (RGI) website that the project would actually rely on neighbors challenging one another’s citizenship, which was disturbingly reminiscent of how fascist and communist states controlled their people.
I never thought that such an ill-conceived project would ever get off the ground. The decision of the Manmohan Singh government to sideline NPR in favor of Aadhaar had only raised that hope. But, unfortunately, my worst fears have now come to pass and have translated into widespread protests, killings, and police brutality. Today, with its sole objective of excluding people, the CAA/NPR/NRC have become the anti-thesis of Aadhaar’s intent.
Given that backdrop, as beneficiaries of this inclusive and immigrant-friendly America, we owe it to ourselves to examine a few basic questions before we weigh in on India’s citizenship laws:
To begin with, I don’t think anyone would oppose the right of a nation to control illegal immigration. But, at the same time, most of us would want state policies that do not put legitimate citizens at undue risk of becoming stateless. And that is precisely what the NRC in Assam appears to have done.
Second, when the NRC project in Assam required everyone to produce legacy documents to prove their long-term residency in India, the government of India was in effect saying that there was no other way to determine one’s citizenship without documentary evidence. So, the idea inherent in NPR 2020/NRC that a local bureaucrat can pass judgment on one’s citizenship status (marking “Doubtful Citizens”) without ever asking for documents, is deeply flawed and is fraught with risks of arbitrariness and discrimination.
Third, if those marked “Doubtful Citizens” are then required to produce documents similar to those in Assam, how many Indians are likely to possess them? If we ask even our own family and friends if they have birth certificates, land records, or voter IDs going back to, say 1971, the response will be telling: Even among the middle class, millions of Indians simply don’t have them. This is the very reason that Aadhaar was never designed as a test of citizenship.
Fourth, no one, including the BJP, are doubting that among the 19-lakh people excluded from the NRC in Assam, there must be thousands who are genuine citizens. How would we feel if members of your own family or friends, who have lived for generations in India, are at risk of becoming stateless due to lack of documents like in Assam? Given the failure of NRC in Assam, should we not ask the Home Minister on what basis was he planning to roll out a nation-wide NRC -- before the wide-spread protests nixed that plan?
Fifth, the Home Minister has now reportedly stated in the Rajya Sabha that NPR will not mark anyone as “Doubtful Citizens.” If that is indeed the case, then the only way he can overcome the skepticism that he himself has sowed over the last few months is to expeditiously amend the Citizenship Act and Rules to reflect his statement. I would go one step further and say that it makes the entire NPR project superfluous and it ought to be dropped.
Sixth, coming to the CAA, if it is a humanitarian project, as the government P.R. claims, should we not wonder why it does not cover Sri Lankan Hindus and why it does not even mention the word ‘persecution’? The fact of the matter is that it was the Home Minister who had told the people of Assam that the immediate objective of the CAA was to impose a religious litmus test to re-filter the results of the NRC: To wit, if you are Hindu, YOU ARE IN and if you are Muslim, TOUGH LUCK! Isn’t it natural then for people to ask themselves how they would feel if an undocumented Hindu neighbor is promised a path to citizenship, while an undocumented Muslim neighbor faces the threat of detention and deportation?
Seventh, the government and its allies have gone to great lengths to portray the anti-CAA resistance as an over-reaction by ‘unpatriotic’ Muslims. The truth is that it is the government that chose to make it a Hindu-Muslim issue by adding the religious test in the CAA. Also, Assam showed that the CAA/NPR/NRC is as an existential threat not just to Muslims, but to adivasis and other poorer communities as well. Under these circumstances, mere assurances that Muslim Citizens have nothing to worry sound hollow. For a chronology of how CAA is integrally tied to NPR/NRC, please see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5Btf04sT0Q&feature=youtu.be)
Eighth, many defenders of the Indian government are accusing the anti-CAA resistance in the U.S. as interfering in India’s internal affairs and/or of betraying India. The reality is that, unlike the mob lynchings or the Kashmir lock-down, the CAA/NPR/NRC are much more likely to unpleasantly touch someone among family and friends. So, the argument that it is an internal affair of India is completely bogus. Also, if advancing India’s business interests in the U.S. is seen as patriotic, then to call out India when it’s headed on a disastrous path to majoritarianism is even more patriotic.
Finally, we must ask ourselves why, if we truly value the right to free speech and right to dissent in America, many of us seem to turn the other way when similar freedoms are under serious threat in India. In my view, it’s high time that we, especially Hindu-Americans, face our double standards. Else the Indian government will interpret our silence as tacit support for its brutal crackdowns on minorities and activists and for muzzling the media with archaic sedition laws.
At the end of the day, if the government is serious about addressing the real concerns of all the people of India, it must urgently consider dropping the religious test in the CAA, drop the NPR altogether, and amend all the citizenship laws and rules to remove any linkages between CAA, NPR, and NRC. Even more urgently, the government must seriously reconsider the calendar for the decennial census to mitigate the danger of spreading the Corona Virus, not to speak of the immediate risk to lakhs of enumerators and to the households that they plan to call on.
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Raju Rajagopal is co-founder of ‘Hindus for Human Rights – USA.’ He has been working on development and communal harmony issues in India for over two decades and shares his time between Chennai and Berkeley, Calif.