NRC and CAA: Lies, truths and half-truths

Topics Citizenship | NRC | Citizenship Bill

In January 2018, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) sent a mission from Delhi to look at the conditions inside Assam’s detention centres. The mission had three men, Mahesh Bhardwaj, Indrajeet Kumar and Harsh Mander. Their terms were to see if due process was followed in Assam in declaring individuals foreigners, what conditions these people were being locked under, what would happen to those whose appeals were rejected and what the role of the foreigners tribunals was.


The mission found that people were being held in jails for several years. Husbands separately from wives “in a twilight zone of legality, without work and recreation, with no contact with their families, and with no prospect of release. In the women’s camp, in particular, the women wailed continuously, as though in mourning.”


As of September last year, 1,037 people had been locked up in this fashion. Many of them are unaware of the process that brought them there. Children have been born in these camps and remain there. The NHRC mission’s report added that because the state did not differentiate between detention centres and jails, they were treated as prisoners but denied the benefits given to criminals under jail rules like parole and waged work. The mission said that for those who cannot prove their citizenship “each day is unchanging in its monotony. Early morning they wake up, stand up for the counting, have breakfast, then lunch and go inside ward after having early dinner at 4pm. For many years, the entire day they do nothing, because the detention centre doesn’t have even television or access to newspaper and library.”


It has much more of this sort of thing, and it is so damning that the NHRC did the thing that we expect India’s institutions to do in these times: It chose not to publish the report. NHRC Chairman, retired Justice H L Dattu, is a good and pleasant man who gives a patient hearing to all who go before him (I have gone twice), but he is in a sinecure and will not disturb it by getting into the nasty business of human rights.


Anyway, it is puzzling that the prime minister should claim there are no detention centres in India for people declared foreigner. His exact words at a recent speech in Delhi were: “Jo Hindustan ki mitti kay mussalmaan hai, jinke purkhe Ma Bharati ki santaan hai… un par nagarikta qanoon aur NRC, donon ka koi lena dena nahin hai. Koi desh ke mussalmaanon ko na detention centre mein bheja ja raha hai, na Hindustan main koi detention centre hai. Yeh safed jhooth hain, yeh badiraade vaala khel hai, ye naapaak khel hai (Neither the citizenship law nor the NRC have any implications for the Muslims of India, whose forefathers are sons of Mother India. No one is sending Muslims of this country to detention centres, nor is there any detention centre in India. This is a lie, it is a game with evil intent, an unholy game).”


Illustration: Binay Sinha
It is not a lie and this is not a game. The detention centres exist and they are full and they are bringing disrepute to India. They have been covered by publications such as The Economist but more continue being built around the nation. One is not sure why the prime minister said what he did. Perhaps, he was ignorant of the fact that they exist. Or perhaps he misspoke or misremembered. Whatever the case, he seemed to be softening in the face of dogged resistance on the streets from millions.


But two days later, he again appeared to have hardened. The Cabinet approved the funding of a population register that has been amended to align it to the National Register of Citizens (NRC). And in his next speech, the prime minister spoke darkly of the duties of the protestors. Instead of addressing the fact that over two dozen had been killed by the police — which lied about not having opened fire on them — he asked the protestors to introspect. Why the change again in tone?


Perhaps he received information from the grassroots that this was a good issue worth pushing further and electorally beneficial. Or perhaps he had an epiphany himself about this. The fact is that we are preparing for an industrial scale brutalisation of India’s Muslims.


It will interest readers to know that the government of Assam has submitted an affidavit in the Gauhati High Court, which lays bare the manner in which the foreigners tribunals function. They are the work of part-time workers, on two-year contracts, incentivised to declare maximum people foreigners. Those who have a low rate are not given a contract extension. The courts have been complicit in this and because it is deemed a civil process, the scope to appeal the verdict has been narrowed to the point of meaninglessness. It is truly Kafkaesque and indeed that is exactly how The Economist described it.


There is a certain casualness with which India is going about doing this and that is astonishing. The prime minister’s incorrect statement regarding detention centres and his turnaround indicate this casualness. It is astonishing because we have received a taste of the sort of backlash the NRC will produce on the streets and in universities across the nation. It is an issue that is absolutely black and white and, therefore, easy for people to take a position on.


Internal resistance to the NRC and the CAA from our courts, the NHRC and the various organs of the state, the foreign service, the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service and ministries and departments has been none and not much should be expected from them. It is on the street that we will see the resistance. Unlike the Babri verdict, the citizen’s register touches people individually. Like with divorce and polygamy and temple entry, this is a matter where the individual can demonstrate resistance or indeed martyrdom. Mr Mander has announced that if a religion-based NRC is pursued, he will declare himself a Muslim and go to jail with his countrymen. There will be others like him as we enter 2020 and begin the population register process.


It will not be easy for the government to ram the mass incarceration of Muslims through. One hopes that the prime minister understands this, as he pursues an action that has already brought and will further bring to India a deserved infamy and disrepute.

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