Misguided National Register of Citizens initiative reflects challenges for a nations-state
“I am an Indian, and will remain an Indian”, words rang heavy out of a decorated Indian Army veteran outside Gauhati High Court in Assam, India. Mohammed Sanaullah, 52, was picked up as an alleged illegal foreigner – an “Infiltrator” – on May 27 by the Border Police, the same organization he was working for having retired after 30 years in uniform. Case against him is built on three witnesses, all of whom have since denied making these statements, two denied meeting the investigating officer, and all filed lawsuit alleging forgery of their signature and willful misrepresentation. On June 7, Sanaullah walked out on bail, unbowed, ramrod straight and head held high, every way a soldier, though his eyes belied wariness through months-long process that may just have started.
Sanaullah is the lucky one, most likely he will be a declared innocent of any crime. Apart from willful misrepresentation, there may a possible case of mixed identity where a poor soul with very similar last name was supposed to be the target; another different clerical error may have undermined his case previously. Being war hero got him media coverage resulting in him being represented by a legal luminary. All in, a happy ending in due course, if and when.
It did not have to be this way for Sanaullah, and, more importantly, for 4 million others whose fate is hanging in balance having failed to be included in the National Register of Citizens, or NRC. As The Economist put it,“(b)illed as a scientific method for sorting pukka Indians from a suspected mass of unwanted Bangladeshi intruders, the seemingly banal administrative procedure has instead encoiled millions of people in a cruelly absurdist game”. Mostly poor and illiterate (or barely literate), immigrants from Bangladesh and other parts of India by and large arrived before the cutoff date of March 24, 1971. As it happens with people in transition through turmoil, most lack documentation to prove their arrival, 93% of filed petitions to prove as such. Veritable nativist groups have somehow gotten hold of the list, and filed 220,000 letters of objection against people who’ll have no idea before their names get deleted; the same set of untraceable objectors appear in hundreds of poison letters. If struck off the list, applicants are supposed to appear in one of 100 Foreigner’s Tribunals, nearest one could be hundreds of kilometers away, 60% cases are adjudicated without appearance. Those who are declared illegal foreigner are rounded up, some 1000 are already interned in six such camps in subhuman conditions, ten more camps are on the way. Final NRC list comes out July 31, and the final number of excluded is not expected to change by much. Nobody has any idea what to do with these 4 million people, that’s the population of Los Angeles, afterward. In theory, each case can go through the legal system, taking years, by which time most of them will be dead. At the very least, they will stay on without civic rights and protection of the Law. Kafkaesque, you say?
I carry with me experiences from many sides of the puzzle. Both my parents were refugees from Bangladesh to India, my dad grew up in orphan homes around Kolkata and my grandmother from mom’s side died of hunger on the streets. I am an economic migrant to U,S. with the high privilege of having gone to some of the most selective colleges, both in India and in U.S.. I have been told to “go back” more often in India than I have been in the U.S., even when I spoke the same language and looked the same – I never stepped outside of India before traveling to the U.S. for education. If I were from Assam and was asked to document my ancestors’ antecedents, I would likely have fared poorly.
Let me say it one more time. I could have been called an infiltrator, even if being Indian is the only ethnic identity I have ever known.
At the core is the fundamental confusion about what India is. India is not a single nation state, we tend to see differences with the person next more than we see similarities. Without a common enemy in the British, we’d most likely be a collection of feuding feudal fiefdoms for at least hundred more years. If our shared antipathy to the British constitutes vast majority of our shared history, how do you carry it on when the British are no longer there? How do we react to opportunists stoking our worst selves, making us fear, loathe, and resent the riff-raffs who are here to “take our jobs”, “occupy our fertile land”, and “clog our support mechanisms” – and, over time, “tilt political system to their favorite”? To some of us, they are the other ones, the ones who should simply “go home”.
A way out is to co-create a common set of future experiences, a future path laying the foundation stone of an emergent nation. The U.S. has done an admirable job in the shape of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution enshrining a living experiment in free thoughts and religion, equality before the law, democracy and reasonably free markets. It is said that India has not held a core set of principles on a high pedestal as done in U.S. In its seventy sixty-nine years of existence, Indian Constitution has had 103 amendments – last two came within 5 months of each other. Deliberations in Constitution Assembly of India, or its Drafting Committee, are not subject of reverent folklores. As a newcomer to the U.S., it amazes me time and again that through its shared experiences, including its original sins, US has gone back to the same Bill of Rights and minutes of the Convention to find a meaning that is in tune with needs of the day. Not so in India. Some in India are talking about religion as the foundation; any such effort shall further divide the country resulting in bloodshed and thuggery on the streets. With thousands of them, a path through language is even more dead on arrival.
An Incredible India needs to rise up and dazzle the world. An India that does not have to look for infiltrators by the thousands inside its borders, an India that brings out the best among those who took refuge, and stayed on. US did so, pretty well for all its warts, and became a natural superpower. If India aims for a USD 5 Trillion economy, least it can do is to not make vulnerable four million people who did nothing but till the land, teach at schools, toil in offices and factories and took an oath to lay down their life for a country that is now wishing they did not exist.
I am looking for inspirational and aspirational leadership. Will the real leader please stand up?
[Partha Chakraborty, Ph.D., CFA is an entrepreneur in Blockchain and Wealth Management. All opinions are of the author alone and do not necessarily represent that of any organization he may be part of. The author alone is responsible for any error or omission.]