Walk the talk on NRC

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statements over the weekend on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) have created confusing signals for the people of India and they urgently demand clarification. Stung by the nationwide protests over the NRC and the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) over the past week, Mr Modi chose a rally in Delhi to make three points. First, he claimed, barring Assam, the question of a nationwide NRC had never been discussed in the Cabinet or, for that matter, at any time these past five years. Second, he said, no rules have been issued for the NRC or discussed in Parliament. Third, the prime minister said no detention centres had been built in readiness for this exercise. But Mr Modi’s claims do not tally with the reality on all three counts.

The parliamentary record of November 20 bears witness to Home Minister Amit Shah announcing in the Upper House the government’s intention to launch a nationwide NRC on the lines of the controversial exercise just completed in Assam. Mr Shah was, in fact, reiterating a tweet of May 1 that spoke of the sequencing of the exercise — the CAA first and NRC second — to “deport every infiltrator from our motherland”. The NRC was mentioned prominently in the party’s manifesto ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in May as well. Also, if there was no such initiative in the offing, other Bharatiya Janata Party stalwarts appear not to have got the memo. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made a statement to this effect on December 1. Karnataka, which had said it would not implement the NRC in October, has reportedly held discussions to launch an exercise as early as March 2020. Mr Modi’s assertion that the matter has not come to Parliament nor rules have been framed is also confusing. The NRC does not have to come to Parliament because the appropriate legislation was passed in 2003 (when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister) and the process began in the form of the National Population Register enrolments in various states. On detention centres, land has been identified for such purpose-built camps in Guwahati, Navi Mumbai, Bengaluru, and two places in West Bengal.

Such inconsistencies between statement and fact are unlikely to allay the worries of civil society. It is possible, of course, that Mr Modi has absorbed the message from the widespread protests, including from BJP allies, that he has misjudged the public mood — brute parliamentary majorities tend to have that effect on leaders. Since he is unlikely to admit to an error in public, it is possible that his rally statements were a way of signalling that the NRC has been put in abeyance. If that is the case, a more unequivocal announcement would go a long way in offering clarity rather than allowing millions of Indian citizens to wallow in febrile uncertainty over what to expect next. Certainly, after five years of majoritarian rhetoric, it is refreshing to hear the prime minister refer to unity in diversity as India’s speciality. It would be even better if he chose to walk the talk on that foundational value as well.

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