Using the NRC as a Hindu nationalist tool
Prof. Ajay Gudavarthy
Center for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) in India’s Assam state is being used to mark non-documented citizens as ‘infiltrators’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ and thus ineligible for registration. Such a system has been a long-standing demand of the local Assamese in order to protect their language, land and culture from ‘outsiders’ — primarily referring to the Bengali speaking population. This system is now being promoted by Hindu nationalists aiming to spread their ideology through India.
Questions of land, language and culture have been converted into one of religion by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and proxy managed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The NRC was established with an explicit view of identifying Bengalis who may have migrated to and are residing in India ‘illegally’. The National President of the BJP and the current Home Minister of India Amit Shah referred to them as ‘termites’ and ‘ghusbaitias’ (infiltrators).
The statistics of the NRC — roughly 1.1 million Hindus and 800,000 Muslims — feed into the nationalist narrative and optics that the BJP and RSS wish to perpetuate.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagvat recently commented on the outcome of the NRC and argued that no Hindu will have to leave the country, even if their name was not recorded in the NRC. This implies that Muslims who do not appear on the list will need to leave India. The political purpose of such a strategy is to link citizenship with religious nationality, dividing India into Hindus that have a right to residency by birth, and others that need to prove their legality.
This mode of operation has a direct relation to the way Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS have built their political discourse for close to 100 years. Its founding fathers championed the Hindutva movement and argued that India is both a fatherland (pitrabhumi) and a Holy Land (punyabhumi) for Hindus. Meanwhile, Muslims are regarded as having suspect loyalty towards the land and culture. Their non-Hindu cultural ethos was seen to be at odds with the ‘civilisational ethos’ of the ancient culture of India.
The current BJP government seeks to make this regressive vision a reality. There is no doubt that what began in Assam will not end there, nor will it only target ‘illegal immigrants from Bangladesh’. There is now an attempt to extend the NRC to all others states, with Bengal and Delhi being immediate targets.
The purpose is to constitutionalise majoritarianism and eventually declare all Muslims residing in India as either illegal immigrants or second-class citizens. The aim of alienating Muslims and stripping them of their citizenship is to make them ineligible for social welfare and employment. They can then either live without these basic rights or choose to leave.
A discriminatory agenda is also being inserted into the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 which seeks to offer Indian citizenship to religious minorities in the Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. This has been tabled in the Rajya Sabha (upper house).
There is large-scale resentment in many parts of Northeast India against the idea of settling ‘outsiders’ in their states. The BJP and RSS have capitalised on these anxieties by mobilising support for the NRC in order to identify the ‘outsiders’ while surreptitiously converting it into a religious issue.
The NRC should be viewed as part of the long-term agenda of the RSS to establish a theocratic Hindu state where all other minorities are reduced to the status of second-class citizens or forced to eventually leave the country. This agenda is inspired by the imagery of partition in the past when there was a mass exodus of Muslims from India.
After the recent abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, the RSS has been toying with the idea of using demographic change in order to shift the configuration of the Muslim-majority state. In a program referred to as ‘Panun Kashmir’ (Our Kashmir), they wish to resettle the Kashmiri Pandits to a separate locality, and resettle Hindus — mostly Balmiki and Dalits — that migrated from Pakistan and have been demanding permanent residence certificates in the Kashmir Valley.
The RSS wishes to revert to regressive religious sectarianism. Historical truces between religious communities are now being overturned to purge religious minorities of basic rights of continued citizenship. This is antithetical to the principles that India was founded upon and poses a serious risk to national cohesion.
This article originally appeared on East Asia Forum website and can be read here.