Once more, questions arise: Who is a citizen? Who can qualify to be an Indian citizen? Are we deviating from the path laid down by the Constitution? Has our descent down the slippery slope started? Can it be arrested?
One of the tasks Dr.Manmohan Singh had specifically asked me to look at when I became Cabinet Secretary in 2011 was the creation of identity cards for the people of India. My predecessor, BK Chaturvedi, had struggled with it for a couple of years. I, too, tried my hand with the help of the Home Ministry and the Registrar General of Census Operations. Frankly, I had little technical knowledge and made no headway. Also, a task as big as this required a dedicated organisation. It could not be another part-time occupation of the Cabinet Secretary, loaded as he was with a great many assignments straddling many different sectors.
It was then that the Prime Minister thought of appointing Nandan Nilekani to take up the humongous task of providing a mark of identity to every person living in the country. And then the project took wings. With his technical background and his capacity to go into minute details, the contours of a solution gradually took shape. I helped by holding meetings of Secretaries to iron out differences. Nandan is a determined man and he generally managed to get what he wanted, including an organisation consisting of handpicked officers, mostly from the IAS. There were several issues that had to be resolved. One such was whether biometric identification was to be confined to fingerprints alone, which would have been a great deal cheaper, or should it include iris, too. Nandan was insistent on inclusion of iris and finally this was agreed to, despite the high cost. Thus was born the concept of Aadhaar.
There was immediately a conflict with the Home Ministry. In 2004, the Citizenship Act of 1955 had been amended to provide for issue of national identity cards. Through this amendment, the Central Government had acquired the power to “compulsorily register every citizen of India and issue national identity card to him.” For this purpose, a National Register of Indian Citizens was to be maintained. This fell within the domain of the Home Ministry. The intervention of then Home Minister, Chidambaram, resolved this dispute. Nilekani said that Aadhaar numbers would not be tantamount to establishment of citizenship. At that time, there was no intention even to issue Aadhaar cards. It was only after Prime Minister Modi recognised the advantages of Aadhaar and decided to link it to a wide range of governmental activities that the Aadhaar card came to occupy the position of pre-eminence that it presently does.
The National Register of Citizens has again gained prominence. The work on preparing the Register was taken up in a desultory manner and never made much progress. It could not, therefore, address the issue of millions of migrants, primarily from erstwhile East Pakistan, who had illegally entered Assam, the North Eastern States and West Bengal. This huge influx had resulted in mass agitation in Assam, headed by the All Assam Students Union, which ended only with the Assam Accord of 1985 on the initiative of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Accord sought to legitimise migrants who had entered Assam illegally until 1971. Migrants who came into Assam thereafter would be detected and expelled in accordance with law. Neither this Accord, nor subsequent actions of the Central or State Governments, made any distinction between illegal migrants in the name of religion.
The Supreme Court, in 2013, directed the Central and State Governments to update the Register and this task was to take place under direct monitoring by the Court. Accordingly, the updating process commenced and the final list was published in August 2019. As against 33 million people who applied for registry, 31.1 million were found eligible to be registered, leaving 1.9 million out in the woods, facing threat of expulsion. This led to another storm of protest, as many people, including a sitting MLA representing Abhyapuri South constituency in lower Assam, were left out in the cold. It was alleged that many genuine citizens, including Bengali Hindus, were not included in the final list.
It was in this context that the Central Government decided to push through amendments to the Indian Citizenship Act, whereby Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who entered the country on or before 31st December 2014, became eligible for citizenship. The original Act provided for citizenship only to applicants who had stayed in India in the last 12 months continuously and for 11 out of the previous 14 years. This, too, was relaxed and they needed to stay only for five years to qualify for citizenship. With their brute majority in the Lok Sabha and their new found majority in the Rajya Sabha, the Government was able to ram through these amendments. To be fair, they had been trying to get amendments to the Citizenship Act passed in Parliament since 2014, in line with their election manifesto, but they had not succeeded since they did not have the requisite majority in the Upper House.
The newly passed Bill seems to change the direction of Indian polity. Never before has religion formed the basis of any legislative action, except where such discrimination was deemed necessary to redress perceived economic or social inequality. This is seen purely as a measure to exclude Muslims from the definition of legal migrants and to fast track the legitimisation of migrants belonging to the six identified religions. Since the bulk of the migrants are Hindus, this is clearly seen as a highly discriminatory move, striking at the very heart of the Indian Constitution and the spirit of equality that it embodies. Article 14 of the Constitution states that, “the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.” Article 15 provides explicitly that the citizen shall not be discriminated against on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Article 16 assures equality of opportunity in matters of employment and the State from any kind of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth or residence. While it can be argued that these provisions relate to citizens and not to those who are yet to become citizens, there is no gainsaying the fact that these people have been living for years in India and suddenly face the threat of dispossession of their rights. Besides, the thought that majority governments, representing only a part of the electorate, can tinker with the very concept of citizenship, should set alarm bells ringing. What safeguard is there against future governments introducing new clauses to further change the definition of citizenship? This battle will be fought in court and its result will be vital to the very concept of the nation.
The deliberate, well considered, exclusion of Muslims holds dangerous portends for the future. India has prided itself on its inclusiveness, its policy of complete non-discrimination. This is a thought process that defined the Independence movement, which became the cornerstone of the Constitution. “In nature,” said Gandhiji, “there is a fundamental unity running through all the diversity that we see about us. Religions are given to mankind so as to accelerate the process of realisation of fundamental unity.” This is the concept of advaita,non-duality, that lies at the core of the Hindu religion. To this concept of oneness, Gandhiji returned again and again in his messages to the people of India.
In Kevadia Colony in Gujarat stands the world’s tallest statue, all of 597 feet high, commemorating the immense contributions made by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to the making of India. This was the man, who, as Home Minister, spent sleepless hours trying to contain the horrors of the holocaust that followed Partition. After Independence, when Gandhiji went on a fast, protesting the Cabinet’s decision to withdraw the amount of ₹ 55Cr given to Pakistan, Patel said, “ If, in spite of having achieved Independence, Gandhiji has to fast today to achieve real Hindu-Muslim unity, it is a standing shame for us. We have just heard people shouting that Muslims should be removed from India. Those who do so have gone mad with anger.”
The countries named in the amended Act have also shown their displeasure. The underlying statement is that Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan are in some manner persecuting religious minorities. While our relation with Pakistan have never been good and shows no signs of improvement, our relations with Afghanistan and Bangladesh have improved over the years. As of today, the Foreign Minister and the Home Minister of Bangladesh have cancelled their visits to India. The Afghan Ambassador has articulated the disquiet felt in his country. It is difficult to fathom also why we have left out other allegedly persecuted minorities like the Tamils of Sri Lanka, the Rohingyas of Myanmar, the Uighurs and the Tibetans of China. Diplomatically, therefore, the present move does not make much sense.
Finally, Assam is boiling over. Curfew has been imposed in Guwahati and the army has been called out. The Rajiv Gandhi inspired accord has obviously been diluted and recast. The increasing role of the military and paramilitary forces to contain civilian unrest, first in the Kashmir valley, now in Assam, does not bode well for the future of Indian democracy. Will this trend continue and create further divisions in society and a new form of muscular government where the Constitution does not guide but becomes incidental to governance?
The question is whether the decisive mandate given by the people earlier this year will be used effectively to unite the country and build its economy. Particularly since the economy today is gasping for breath and should be the sole priority of government.