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CAA–NRC and the Struggles to Save India’s Secular Polity

This Land Is Mine, I Am Not of This Land: CAA–NRC and the Manufacture of Statelessness edited by Harsh Mander and Navsharan Singh, New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2021; pp 421, `499.

The rightward shift in Indian politics has long been a subject of discussion in academia. For a very long time, the discussion was confined to the sphere of economic policies. Occ­asional and regional assertions of communal and sectarian groups, most often identified with a particular version of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), were dismissed as reactive outbursts. With the victory of Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 and 2019 general elections, the point of right wing’s reactive nature is no more convincing. It is obvious that the BJP government has an agenda of transforming the Indian society by using its hegemonic electoral presence in the country. The nature of the transformation is obviously regressive which goes fundamentally aga­inst the constituti­onal morality visua­lised by the founders of independent India. The BJP government in the centre has, through the choice of its policies, proved that it is waging a counter-revolution against the idea of ­India which emerged as hegemonic during the national movement. The book under review asserts that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) passed in Parliament in 2019 along with the proposed National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) are, till now, the most far-reaching assaults on country’s secular polity. It provides the rea­ders with a “toolkit” to resist the move. However, this reviewer believes that some of the fundamental aspects of the “toolkit” need thorough revisions.

Resistance Text

While the insistence on the CAA–NRC (National Register of Citizens) was not the first time that the BJP government thre­atened the country’s secular fabric, it rem­ains the most fundamental assault till date on the same. The book ­under review collects some pointed and timely interventions resisting that assault. The book, apart from providing detailed narrative of the policy and its implications, using the examples from Assam, provides ample reasoning for the rea­ders to choose a side. It is an ­important call for a united front in ­solidarity with the victims of narrow, religion-based nationalism and to stand up and defend the country’s secular ethos.

The book edited by Harsh Mander and Navsharan Singh has contributions from some of the most well-known academics of our times in the country—Neera Chandhoke, Anupama Roy, Niraja Gopal Jayal, Ashutosh Varshney, among others. It is a comprehensive examination of the BJP-led government’s attempts to rede­fine India’s citizenship laws and presents a varied and detailed analysis of both expressed and subtle intents behind the policy intervention. The speculations about what would happen to the rest of India if the NRC was implemented, are based on the reasoned examinations of the experiences from Assam. Going through the pages one can easily understand the anxieties which led millions of Indians from across its vast territory to come to the streets and oppose the CAA–NRC’s nationwide implementation in 2019–20.

Though to a limited extent, the book also adds to the growing literature on the rise of right-wing nationalisms fuelled by the question of refugees and migrants across the world.

Secularism: From Basic Principle to a ‘Drama’

In a liberal democracy, change in the majority brings changes in the fundamental principles of nation-building. Several chapters in the voluminous book contain thorough discussions around the theoretical aspects of citizenship with some invoking debates in India’s constituent assembly on the matter. These aut­hors try to understand the motive behind the post-independence leadership’s rejection of narrow religion-based criteria of providing citizenship rights to people living in India despite the trauma of partition. As is rightly pointed out, it would be a mistake to think that there was a consensus among the post-independence leadership in India on the issue of secularism. Articles 5 and 6 of the Indian Constitution were adopted after a long debate and despite objections raised by members such as P S Deshmukh and others. The majority in the Constituent Assembly was able to withstand the strong polarisation caused by the post-partition violence and opted for a secular citizenship in the country. It was a deliberate and well-thought-out move and not a “mistake” that needs to be corrected as has been hinted by the RSS/BJP-led government today.

The gradual changes brought by India’s citizenship laws since the commencement of the Constitution are definitive indications of the loss of the liberal values and the majority’s rightward shifts. The constitutional amendments carried out particularly in the context of historical circumstances created due to the Assam accords in the 1980s and the RSS-­dominated first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 2003 did pave the way for compromises in constitutional values. These were indicators ­towards the future where having absolute majority, they would force their narrow-sectarian understanding on Indian citizenship. The change in the fate of secularism from being a basic principle of the Constitution to a “drama,” as claimed by Prime Mini­ster Modi in several of his speeches (Bhattacharya 2019), was a gradual process which corresponded to the ideological shifts in Indian polity.

Though it was not the mandate of this particular book, it would have been inte­resting if it had attempted to provide some kind of explanation for the rightward shift in Indian polity which made the BJP strong enough to establish the narra­tive of “historical mistakes” around secul­arism, legitimising, for a majority of the electorate, its divisive and regressive agenda.

Troubles of Nationalism

It has been established by now that the NRC process in Assam was technically flawed. Several articles in the book, through the testimonies of victims and pointing out legal lacunas, the bureaucratic bypassing of basic rules convincingly ­argue the same. However, it is also well-accepted that flaws in a process undertaken at such a large scale are inevitable. The real question is, was it avoidable? Unfortunately, there seems to be a consensus on its necessity. Surprisingly, even Mander and Singh, albeit sans its political agenda, agree that the process was required (p 231). They also believe that Assamese subnation­alism was “not communal” (p 331) and “sovereign governments should have the right to identify those who have illegally ent­ered the borders and act against them” (p 287).

It does not occur to the authors that nationalism of any kind, at one level or the other, is based on the idea of exclusion. Except, perhaps the anti-colonial movements based on the idea of self-­determination, most other forms of nati­onalisms strongly wish to narrow down to some basis and devise tools and ways to find out “others” who are not welcome. Assamese sub-nationalism is no exception. The fear and, in some cases, hatred towards “others,” has been motivating millions in Assam to support even a clearly self-inflicting process. The majority of those who lost their lands, had meagre savings and suffered prolonged mental trauma during the NRC process found it necessary to churn out the ­“infiltrators.”

Almost a million people are still unc­ertain about their status after the final NRC list was published in August 2019. The suffering of Assamese is not over yet. Calling the 2019 list flawed, the current BJP government wants the people to go through the trauma again. Most importantly, millions are willing to go through the pain once again in order to establish their patriotism and their loyalties to Assamese nationalism. Those who want to avoid obvious traumas are scared to record it so that they are not seen as “infiltrators” and “Bangladeshis.”

Mander’s belief that the Assamese nationalism is not communal can easily be contested on the basis of how one ­defines communal or how the question of “miya” and “Bangladeshi” are dealt with. If he takes the opposition to the CAA as some sort of proof of secularism in Assamese nationalism, he fails to see how the maj­ority still voted for the BJP which brought the law, and those who opposed its implementation in the state were relegated to the margins as rightly pointed by Singh in the afterword of the book (p 404).

Statelessness, Exploitation, and Refugees

The 0.9 million people in Assam were in limbo after the publication of the final list of the NRC. Since Bangladesh or no other nation had any role in the process and most probably will never accept people who are “proved” to be non-­citizens in India, it was rightly speculated that if the process is undertaken, millions will be “stateless.” After the BJP promising the citizenship to Hindus, what would be the fate of the rest? It will be logistically impossible and legally ­absurd to put all these people in so-called detention centres. Will that amount to ethnic clea­nsing? Will it leave millions to be exp­loited in whatever ways possible by the authorities and private
players? Does this replicate the United States (US) migration crisis where millions of Latinos face similar situation? Unlike in the US where there is a relative prospect of a betterment in existing conditions which pulls hundreds of thousands every year “legally” or otherwise, India does not offer such hope. Though the book does not dwell into it, it is increasingly becoming clear that “Bangladeshi migrants” is a myth (BBC 2020). Still, millions are in danger of losing all their legal rights and whatever little they possess and are set to be pushed back to worst economic and social status with little or no opportunities. This is what the RSS has been campai­gning and Indian corporate houses are eyeing for decades. The cheap labour may help them compete with other producers elsewhere in the world as it did in various European countries after the wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan.

In the context of CAA–NRIC and its possible repercussions, as some writers have rightly pointed out in the book, there is a need of a real refugee-related legislation in the country. This may create clarity about the status of millions living as such in the country for decades. The present arbitrary and racial policies tow­ards the refugees in the country, where some are welcome and some are not, puts a great question mark on India’s claims to be a leading democracy in the world. However, the real question in the present circumstance would be, what kind of refugee law will the BJP-led government enact? Given its complete disregard to the existing international laws related to refugees and lack of deference to the values of democracy, its subjective pre­ferences based on the religion, it is not wise to press this government to ­enact a law that will have long-term implications. This is a very difficult situation for the human rights defenders in the country. But at least there is an ackn­owledgement of such a dilemma thanks to the CAA–NRC movement in the country.

Critical Reflections

The greatest problem with the book is its approach. The trust in legal regimes which is highly compromised now def­eats the purpose of the book. While exp­ressing consent to the need of the NRC as mentioned above the authors confuse the readers. By hoping that any process of exclusion such as the NRC can be “lawful, transparent, free from bias, just and in the end, humane” (p 287), they show some level of naivety or perhaps hopelessness.

A law, even if one does not agree with John Austin’s empiricist approach, is at the end nothing but an “aggregate of rules set by men.” Laws are made to institutionalise realities, existing or manufactured. Hence, the real fight against the CAA–NRC cannot be a mere “legal” one fought within the permitted sphere of courts. It cannot be based on the expe­cted benevolence of the ruling dispensation appealing to their “humanity.” The defeat of anti-Aadhaar movement should provide a lesson to those who are opposed to the NRIC. It is a fight to delegitimise the process and those “realities” created to justify it. It needs to question the fundamental premise of nationalism and the idea that people can be “illegal” based on some “documents.” Once the people are convinced that this is a legal process, they will not resist it as we have seen in Assam and in the case of Aadhaar nationwide.

The people’s movement the world over is under threat due to the rise of right-wing and regional chauvinism. The refugees are unwelcome almost everywhere due to the economic problems used or misused by the cultural right for justifying its bigotry. It has successfully established Latinos as “job snatchers” in the US and Syrian refugees as “aliens” in ­Europe. In Turkey, which has a long history of cultural and political exchanges with Syria, the Syrian refugees are now considered as “polluting and corrupting.” Most of these countries are signatories to the United Nations (UN) refugee convention and numerous other legal provisions for the protection of human rights. Can we still say the fight for the right of refugees is merely a legal one?

The authors should worry about the situation when the NRIC would be a legal process as was in Assam, done under the supervision of the Supreme Court. The legal institutions in India as in any other country provide “legitimacy” to the exc­lu­sionary principle which sees citizenship rights as a privilege not to be “squandered” among all. The resistance should seek to push for the maximum and est­ablish the legitimacy of universalism.

Apart from too much emphasis on the legality aspect, the book also fails to provide an explanation as to why the issue is raised the way it is raised and how it is a part of the larger understanding of nati­onalism propagated by the BJP–RSS. None of the 40-odd articles in the book try to explore the issue from a political economy aspect and therefore fail to exp­lain the popular support behind the move. The most critical aspect of the ­entire agitation against the CAA–NRC was a polarisation among the masses. The reader fails to understand why the ruling establishment in India was able to successfully polarise people. Is it solely due to the hatred towards Muslims as was seen during the Delhi riots? If so, why the issue of taking away the jobs ­becomes so significant and why the leaders in the RSS–BJP repeatedly raise the issue of country’s economic health while pushing for their agenda?

References

BBC (2020): “India and Bangladesh: Migration Claims Fact Check,” 21 February, viewed on
20 January 2022, 
https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-51575565.

Bhattacharya, Anirvan (2019): “The ‘Secular’ Forces Have Abandoned Secularism,” Wire, 9 June, viewed on 20 January, https://thewire.in/politics/congress-bjp-secularism.

Chatterji, Angana P, Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot (2019): Majoritarian: How Hindu Nationalism Is Changing India, New Delhi: Harper Collins.

 

 

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Updated On : 26th Jul, 2022
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