It is time for the Prime Minister to address the nation and reassure those who have been wrongly told they must fear for their citizenship rights.
If one were to bet on the outcome of a battle between hope and fear, one should consider the latter. Reason: hope is something that may happen in the future. Fear is something you feel right now in the gut. Anyone who can engender fear in people holds the edge against others who are trying to ignite hope.
This is the case with those who want to burn the country by instilling fear among the minorities about what the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) will do to their citizenship rights. The other side, the one that hopes to gain early citizenship (which means the persecuted Hindus, Jains, Parsis, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan) will not come out on the streets to demand what they are now entitled to since this may endanger them.
After lighting many fires by misinforming Indian Muslims about how their own citizenship may be affected by CAA by conflating it with the still-to-be-decided National Register of Citizens (NRC), a confluence of minority organisations and political parties dependent on the minority vote has made fear win. At least as of now.
This is why even a sober politician like Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has now decided that he will not back NRC. This is a political turning point and implies that NRC is dead on arrival. It cannot be implemented without a major Centre-state conflict and street battles. It could also jeopardise the 2021 Census, which would have been used to partially feed the NRC authentication process.
In order to save the Census from being sabotaged by vested interests, and, more importantly, to enable the government to focus on the economy and CAA intelligently, the NRC has to be put on the backburner.
The government has to look at softer alternatives to get to its NRC goal. These could include the following:
One, make the NRC process a voluntary affair, where citizens with the right documents can submit them and get certificates of citizenship. This is how Aadhaar was pushed even with no law backing it until 2016.
Two, assure all current residents, whether illegal migrants or undocumented citizens, or anybody else, that voluntary participation in NRC will not result in anybody’s deportation.
Three, the state should assure all residents, that they do not have to prove their citizenship; it is the state which has to marshal the evidence to disprove it. At worst, if the state proves someone is an illegal migrant, it should guarantee the issue of work permits even as it freezes his voting rights in Indian elections.
The NRC is any state’s right, but the issue here is not one of rights, but a bad bureaucratic system that is not only compromised and capable of being subverted, but could produce perverse outcomes – as was the case with the Assam NRC.
The Narendra Modi government would do well to formally announce that any NRC, if decided on, will happen only with a political consensus. It should now include many opposition parties in devising an acceptable way of doing the NRC – cleanly and efficiently, without any rush.
This is what wisdom demands. And, yes, it is time for the Prime Minister to address the nation and reassure those who have been wrongly told they must fear for their citizenship rights.