Statement on the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 and National Register of Citizens

The Modi-Shah government is launching yet another disastrous and divisive campaign against the marginalised and poor communities of the country to pursue its policy of building an aggressive majoritarian rule in the service of mega corporate houses of India and Multinational Corporations.

It provokes large sections of the population to protest vigorously, in order to brand them as anti-national and also to provide a smokescreen for corporate led economic ‘reforms’ in the wake of severe economic slowdown and livelihood crises faced by the toiling poor.

The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) which was rushed through the Parliament in two days and made into a law by the overnight assent of the President should be read in the light of the impact of the implementation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state of Assam.

In the process of registering all citizens of the country residing in Assam, with the objective of identifying and expelling ‘illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators’ every citizen was required prove that their ancestors were Indian citizens with at least two or three documents. The fact that the government had failed to issue credible identity papers to all its citizens in the past or that the local government documentation and preservation of documents is dismal, did not deter the government from making this demand. Millions of people were forced to scurry around looking for documents, borrowing huge amounts money so as to pay to get such documents, and travel long distances to centres for submitting their claims to citizenship and being called time and again to face bureaucrats. At the end of the process nearly twenty lakh (two million) people who could not provide credible documents were declared illegal infiltrators and placed in detention camps, tearing apart families and communities. Contrary to initial claims the majority of such people (about 11 lakh) were Bengali and Assamese speaking Hindus and tribal migrants, not Muslims from Bangladesh.

The Modi-Shah regime has been threatening to extend the NRC to all states of the country. This essentially means that the vast majority of the poor, landless labourers, tribals, nomadic people and poorly educated masses whose ancestors did not have the privilege of having their name enshrined in government documents will be potentially threatened with dispossession of all citizenship rights and access to land and commons, and forced into detention camps.

Realising that the NRC was not actually implementable and that it could not be used for divisive purposes of isolating Muslim minorities, the Modi-Shah regime forced through the Parliament an amendment to the Citizenship act which provides for giving naturalising citizenship to all Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh and who had settled in India prior to December 2014.The ostensible reason given is that these are persecuted minorities in these countries and India should provide them with a home when forced to leave their countries.By excluding Muslims and by excluding other neighbouring countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, (which are not Muslim-majority countries) it seeks to legalise ‘illegal infiltration’ by Hindus etc, from the said three countries and criminalise only Muslim immigrants. This is patently a religion-based discrimination and goes against the promise of equality in the constitution.

It may be noted that discriminatory administrative orders have been in operation in the past: for example, while Bangladeshi Hindus who overstay their visa permit have to pay a minimum fine of Rs. 500 while Muslims committing similar transgression have to pay $500, seventy times more!

However, this is the first time that religion based discrimination has been made a part of the statutes and that too in the act concerning citizenship. This effectively undermines the secularism professed in the very preamble of the constitution and in the fundamental right to equality.

It is an irony that a law which claims to give protection to minorities of neighbouring (Muslim majority) countries has created fear and anxiety among the Muslim minority community in India!

The people of Assam and other north eastern states have also been agitating against the CAA as it grossly violates the Assam Accord entered into by the government of India and the Assam movement leadership in 1985. This accord had sought to prevent naturalising in the state of Assam of immigrants from Bangladesh who came after 1971 as a safeguard for the identity and culture of Assam.

CAA when seen with the NRC, opens up enormous possibilities for arbitrary disenfranchisement, criminalisation and confinement in ‘detention camps’ of not only minorities but also vast tribal, nomadic and landless dalit populations who may not be in a position to produce documentary evidence of citizenship of their ancestors. This assumes importance in the light of the failed attempt of the Modi government to amend the Land Rights laws which sought to give arbitrary powers to the state to expropriate the lands of peasants and tribals.

It also opens the possibility of ghettoing the Muslim minority population, castigating them as ‘illegal infiltrators’ and criminalise them and provoke the neighbouring majoritarian population to target them. Any protest or retaliation by them could then be castigated as anti-national activity and they could be further threatened and penalised.

The concerted campaign to communalise the mind-set of the majority of the population through manipulation of social media with help of multinational consultants, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been assiduously preparing the ground for a fascist type consolidation of Hindu community under its leadership. The need to create a soft target out of vulnerable minorities is being addressed by the CAA and NRC.

A heartening feature of the countrywide protest against CAA and NRC ever since the passing of the CAA, has been the coming together of all communities instead of just the Muslims as envisaged by the ruling regime. Students, workers, intellectuals, artists, and politicians from across a spectrum have come out in massive numbers to protest in virtually every state of the country. This despite desperate attempts by the state to blockade any movement, cancelling metro rail services, imposition of prohibitory orders, amassing massive police force…. besides shameless campaign by the crony media.

The task is to take forward this moment deeper into the society, and agitate among the broad masses about the implications of the NRC-CAA combine for them in real terms using the example of Assam.

Even as the divisive and communal agenda of the BJP needs to be combated we need to address some of the larger contextual issues relating to citizenship and rights of migrant workers and peasants.  As hyper globalisation proceeds in fits and starts, it has resulted in the loss of traditional livelihoods for millions who have been forced out of their normal residential areas into areas where they have no support or sympathy and which makes them extremely vulnerable. Workers in search of work and livelihood have been migrating from poor and small countries to more prosperous neighbouring countries. More than often they travel without valid permits or documents and fall prey to the manipulation and victimisation and become open to most despicable forms of exploitation and oppression. This is true both of ‘illegal immigrants’ and also ‘internal migrants’ who travel as bonded or semi servile people under the supervision of their creditors, who in turn lend them out to various contractors. This pliant and vulnerable migrant population is used to depress wages and break unions and working class solidarity. The NRC and CAA typically are part of the mechanism of control and subjection of this section of the working class.

The rapidly worsening climate situation has meant further degradation of traditional livelihoods and submergence of lands. This will drive large populations from the coastal regions and also inlands in countries like Bangladesh towards better situated employment opportunities in India. The problem of ‘illegal migration’ is likely to increase with time instead of weakening in the future. Hence a comprehensive enumeration of their rights, requirements and methods of organising them have to be worked out urgently. A campaign has to be mounted in defence of the migrant workers. Leaving them unorganised, stateless and vulnerable will severely undermine the working class movement and the movement for equality, dignity and social justice.

Accordingly, we demand

i. Immediate withdrawal of the CAA and its discriminatory clauses.

ii. Immediate cessation of the process of NRC, its impartial review from the point of view of the labouring poor.

iii. Enacting a law which treats equally all immigrants without papers irrespective of gender, creed or community and assures them dignity, security, civil rights and protection of law.

iv. A comprehensive South Asian study of internal and cross border labour migrations and report of their conditions and measures for ensuring their protection and dignity.

v. Restoration of civil liberties and freedom to protest against discrimination.

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