Citizenship is the Right to have Rights
December 16, 2019
Iamge courtesy: Indian Express\Ganesh Shirsekar
Mumbai, December 12. Addressing a press conference organised by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and Citizens for Justice and Peace, Teesta Setalvad condemned the process set underway by the Citizenship Amendment Bill, leading to the National Register of Citizens.
Citizenship, she underlined, is the right to have rights, since it is the basis of all other rights, including those to equality and non-discrimination; to lose citizenship is to lose the protection of the Constitution. Debating citizenship amid the trauma of Partition and the forced displacement of some 15 million people, the Constituent Assembly (1946–49) was unequivocal in assuring equal constitutional guarantees to all arrivals from across the border. While the word “secular” was introduced into the Preamble in 1976, the principle had been embedded in the Constitution from the outset, with the guarantee of equality and non-discrimination. This is a position upheld by numerous judgements of the Supreme Court, as in the Kesavananda Bharati case of 1973, or the S.R. Bommai verdict of 1994.
Today, the right of Muslims to belong to India as equal citizens has been savaged at one stroke. During the parliamentary debate on the Citizenship Amendment Bill, the BJP government identified Islam as the only source of religious persecution in India’s neighbourhood, disregarding evidence to the contrary from Myanmar, Sri Lanka and China. Setalvad noted that the inclusion of Parsi and Christian refugees for immediate admittance to citizenship was made only as an afterthought. The Bill is rooted in religious bigotry.
For the past three years, the CJP’s team of 700 volunteers has worked across Assam, and the unfolding of the NRC process in that state is a foretaste of what is in store for the rest of the country. The condition of Assam’s detention camps is worse than prisons. There is no manual to guide or regulate the running of these camps. The media cannot access them. Families can’t enter to visit their loved ones. We have no idea of what kind of food is served or medical help made available. Subjection to lawlessness and bullying appear to be commonplace among the detained. What is more, the verification of citizens has been an arbitrary, cruel and opaque process all along. In Assam, the CJP has verified at least a hundred deaths from heart attack and suicide, caused by the relentless harassment to which poor and desperate people have been subjected.
The onus of proving citizenship is placed on the individual applicant. In Assam, some 2500 centres have operated — under the Orwellian name of Nagrik Seva Kendra — where people must go with their papers and establish that they are bona fide citizens. Poor people have had to give up work, draw on their savings and travel long distances to present themselves at Kendras located outside the district where they live, and to do so repeatedly. There is little clarity on which papers constitute proof of identity and residence, and arbitrary rulings have been the norm. Setalvad cited the instance of panchayat certificates, which are useful identification documents for rural women who married young, whose children were born not in hospital but at home, and who had changed villages with marriage. In 2015, the Registrar General of India declared that panchayat certificates would not be accepted as proof of identity. When the matter went to the Supreme Court, it ruled that the certificates would be accepted, but only for married women. Thus the same papers will work to establish the identity and residence of some people but not others. Single women, who may be widows or have left their village of birth due to a natural disaster, may not apply with panchayat certificates.
The NRC process has left the social divisions of Assam unhealed. The state is in turmoil, its administration, economy, and the lives and savings of poor people have been consumed for the past three years by this pointless exercise. The NRC process was long expected in the state, where the issue of foreigners has dominated political discourse for decades. There was a degree of consensus among all stakeholders on how the verification should unfold. In the event, both consensus and process disintegrated utterly, leaving nobody satisfied with the outcome. If Assam, prepared as it was to undertake the process, could not deliver it, what does this portend for the rest of the country? As another instance of administrative irregularity, Setalvad cited the foreigners’ tribunals of Assam, which, till 2013, had been staffed by members with judicial experience, these being judges and district magistrates. Lately, lawyers with five years’ experience have been appointed to the tribunals. The decisions of these bodies have been arbitrary, ex parte, biased, and with no recourse to appeal. From the same family a mother may be certified as a citizen and her son not. The extension of foreigners’ tribunals and detention camps to the rest of India threatens to bring disruption, distress and lawlessness to the lives of poor people all over the country. While every other tribunal – the national green tribunal, income tax tribunal, central administrative tribunal — is governed by articles 323 A and 323 B of the Constitution, under a process determined by law, the foreigners’ tribunal has no legally determined process. The process becomes whatever the tribunal says it is. In our country, Setalvad pointed out, we have not yet been able to verify migrant labourers with sufficient clarity to give them the right to vote where they live, but will now require them to prove their citizenship. We will make them travel back and forth across the country, endangering their livelihood, depleting their savings and landing them in debt, over what is and should be a non-issue.
The citizenship question arose in Assam in the 1920s, due to the divisive policies of the colonial government which played off Assamese against Bengalis. In the early 1930s, C.S. Mullan, a British census commissioner, promoted anti-Bengali sentiment among the Assamese people, while the government, in the next breath, declared Bengali the official language of Assam. Ill-feeling towards Bengalis continued to grow after Independence.The border police began labelling people as “suspected foreigners”. There were outbreaks of fierce violence (such as the Nellie Massacre of 1983). Under T.N. Seshan, the election commission began compiling lists of “doubtful voters”, or D-voters, while the issue of “outsiders” was kept alive electorally. Every attempt at clarification or resolution has only compounded the problem further. The latest and worst of these is the NRC process. It was never going to yield anything but increased social turmoil. Not one side finds the outcome satisfactory, and not one social segment has escaped unharmed.
Speaking in parliament, the home minister, Amit Shah, admitted that there are 2 lakh “D-voters”, and another 2 lakh “suspected foreigners” in Assam. Thus, the state now operates three separate processes of othering; all of them persecute immigrants, and none of the three has brought anything but grief and further exacerbation of the problem. While 80 per cent of the “D-voters” are Muslim, the list also includes Bengalis, some of them residents of eighty years’ standing. Of the 6 lakh Hindus left out of the NRC in Assam, 4 lakh are Hindi-speaking immigrants from Gujarat, Bihar and elsewhere. The Assamese people question their status. How will these people claim they are a persecuted minority from Bangladesh? Many of them voted for the BJP thinking they were in the clear, but now find themselves caught in a mess no one foresaw.
While the NRC will be used as an ideological weapon to target the Muslim minority, the experience of Assam shows the enormous harm and waste it will cause to the entire society, economy and polity of the country. The Citizenship Amendment Bill — which became law after President Kovind signed it on December 11 — and the NRC take our constitutional values into free-fall. They must be opposed, before the Supreme Court, in the media and on the streets.
Watch the entire address from TeestaSetalvad and Mihir Desai:
First published in Sabrang India.
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