Ganesh Devy, an activist for tribal rights and a well-known writer, is the most mild-mannered, level-headed of academics. Yet to listen to him on the challenges ahead for India as the Modi government seeks to cobble together a National Register of Citizens is guaranteed to give most people an anxiety attack. When we spoke yesterday morning, Devy took the narrative back almost 150 years to British colonial administrators designating large numbers of nomadic tribals in the course of drafting the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Among those regarded as a threat to the government were tribes such as the Meenas who made coins for mints and stonemason tribes called Wodders. “Many of these tribes were sent to detention camps,” says Devy. When India became independent, these tribes were denotified in 1952 but Devy worries that many will not have the requisite paperwork to satisfy the powers-that-be who will decide on their inclusion for the NRC.
How many people will be affected? More than a hundred million, he said.
If even a quarter of these people are unable to prove they have the paperwork to qualify as a citizen, the travails of the 1.9 million Assamese, including more than one million Hindus left off the register, will seem like a rounding error by comparison. On Friday evening, the Home Ministry put out a series of tweets clarifying the situation: “Indian citizens do not have to prove any ancestry by presenting documents like identity cards, birth certificates etc of parents/grand parents dating back to pre-1971 situation.” It also said that people who were illiterate could be vouched for by members of their community. These are important qualifications but the process itself will still entail every Indian citizen having to prove they are citizens in one way or another. Devy speaks of the large number of undocumented Gurkhas living for generations in India and the flow of people between Nepal and Uttar Pradesh to the extent that the Nepalese rupee could be cashed in Uttar Pradesh. Then there are the large number of Tibetan refugees living in and around settlements in Karnataka and in Himachal Pradesh, living there since the Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959. Their documents are typically in the name of camps rather than individuals. Given the large number of tribals in this country and the lack of personal documents carried by many people in rural India where “the poorest, least legally empowered people will be the first category” to be affected, those unable to provide documentary evidence and even those who can will be subject to “multiple confusions” as they work through the bureaucratic quagmire, says Devy, who has worked with tribal communities for three decades.
As the Indian government goes forward with the Citizenship Amendment Act and the NRC, Devy foresees a process that could “span 60 to 70 years to do it for the entire population.” Yet, despite the widespread protests across the country this week, the Modi government appears determined to push ahead although the Ministry of Home Affairs tweets amount to reassurance of a kind. The process still promises to be nightmarish and test India’s under-staffed bureaucracy
to the fullest. Given that India’s businesses are still dealing with the problems of documentation required for the goods and services tax and that an annual return for GST was finalised only recently two and a half years after the tax was introduced in July 2019, the odds are that the government machinery will seize up. The chaos of demonetisation and the invoice matching saga of GST might seem as orderly and festive as a Republic Day parade by comparison.
The videos of women students being beaten with lathis in Jamia Millia Islamia University, the threatening raised fist of a policeman as the historian Ramachandra Guha was taken into custody on Thursday in Bengaluru and the indiscriminate use of the colonial era law of Section 144 in various parts of the country to try and intimidate those who want to protest peacefully are just a few examples of how ugly the Indian government looks when it swings into action. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s denunciation this week of “Maoists, separatists and jihadists” somehow infiltrating students’ protests was not unlike the Communist Party of China earlier this year blaming the “black hands” of the United States and the United Kingdom for somehow brainwashing hundreds of thousands of young people in Hong Kong who lead the protests there. Students in Hong Kong have in the past worn t-shirts with Mahatma Gandhi’s quote emblazoned on them: “An unjust law is itself a species of violence.
What will this process accomplish? Samrat, a journalist who edits East Wind, a magazine about northeastern India, and has watched the tragedy in Assam unfold, observes that even a simplified and improved version of the registration and document verification process that took five years in Assam will likely take longer to complete and cost countless crores when it goes nationwide. Documents will need to be okayed by the bureaucracy.
“The process will be determined by clerks in a government office,” he says. We can all relate to just how uncomfortable that could be.