After a 20-month-long lull, several Muslim rights activists and Assamese chauvinists are mulling resuming the campaign against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA 2019), and the proposed National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC or NRC) exercise. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s humiliating retreat on the three controversial farm laws, due to the year-long standoff with farmers protesting at Delhi’s borders, motivated the Muslim activists and their liberal allies to discuss the possibilities of resuming the anti-CAA 2019 movement.
The anti-CAA 2019 movement started in December 2019, when, riding on its hubris and backed by its brute majority in the Parliament, Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passed the contentious amendment to the citizenship law, which several critics of the government in and outside India alleged will disenfranchise Muslims and violates their right to equal citizenship according to the Constitution of India.
Muslim women played a pivotal role in organising the mass movement against the CAA 2019 and the NRC exercise. Their three-month-long sit-in protest at South Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh became an iconic turning point in the history of post-colonial India, as millions of Muslims came out on the streets throughout India to safeguard their citizenship, from what they called an assault on their identity.
However, though the intellectuals and activists may restart the anti-CAA 2019 movement, at least in some parts of the country, it’s unlikely that it will make any difference or have any real impact, as, unlike the farmers’ movement against Modi’s anti-farmer agenda, the anti-CAA 2019 movement has been founded on wrong premises.
The farmers’ movement, in which millions of farmers from Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, western Uttar Pradesh, etc, participated, had been fundamentally a different movement than the rainbow coalition’s anti-CAA 2019 movement. Rather than suffering humiliating defeats, the BJP and the Modi regime have managed to yield rich political dividends from the anti-CAA 2019 movement in the long run.
What are the major differences between the anti-CAA 2019 movement and the farmers’ movement against Modi’s farm reforms?
While both the anti-CAA 2019 movement and the farmers’ movement targeted the Modi regime by accusing it as the principal culprit, the objective and the modus operandi of both movements have been quite different.
Firstly, the farmers’ movement—steered by a coalition of 40 farmers’ organisations under the banner of Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM)—had been a well-organised and well-planned one. Its organisers had built a system to put forward their demands and not cooperate with the government until all demands were accepted unconditionally. The anti-CAA 2019 movement, on the other hand, wasn’t well-organised. There was no leading body or leaders to take the movement forward towards a sustainable political goal, which created a loophole exploited by opportunist politicians and activists.
Secondly, the farmers’ movement against Modi’s farm laws had been founded on a set of clear, non-negotiable demands—repealing of the laws, enactment of a new law guaranteeing crop procurement at the minimum support price, withdrawal of the Electricity Bill, 2020, compensation to farmers who lost their lives, etc, —which are known to almost all farmers. But the anti-CAA 2019 movement neither had any substantial demands nor any roadmap to save the people from the NRC drive.
Thirdly, the farmers’ movement, by encompassing the agrarian communities from all religions, castes and clans, jeopardised the communal polarisation done by the BJP’s parent body Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Without a polarised Hindu votebank, which is tempered in the flames of Islamophobia, the BJP can’t win elections. The farmers’ movement hit the BJP hard in its strong turfs, forcing Modi to accept the demands.
But the anti-CAA 2019 movement remained confined mostly within the Muslims and didn’t move beyond the Muslim ghettos of Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Lucknow, etc. It didn’t unite people from all communities, rather, portrayed the NRC as a Muslim-only issue, rendering the rest of the masses politically passive and nonchalant about the peril. This helped the BJP in peddling its Islamophobic vitriol to polarise the Hindus. The 2020 Delhi anti-Muslim pogrom could take place only due to this increasing ghettoization of the anti-CAA 2019 movement.
Fourthly, the focus on a comprehensive set of demands helped the farmers’ movement to dodge the baits laid by the BJP to ambush them. They had been reserved in expressing their views regarding Modi’s assurance of repealing the farm laws.
Now, only after the Modi regime assured, in writing, that it will hasten the process of enacting a law regarding MSP through discussions, will not pursue the Electricity Bill, 2020, ask the States to withdraw the cases filed against the farmers during the tenure of their movement as well as to compensate the families of those who lost their lives during the 378-day-long movement, that the farmers have agreed to pause their movement until January 15th.
The anti-CAA 2019 movement didn’t have any set of comprehensive demands that could provide any resolution to the threat posed by the NRC exercise. The spontaneous movement began on ad hoc demands and continued to pester for repealing of the CAA 2019, a demand that found resonance within the mainstream Opposition camp, which also showed up a fake concern for the people.
Lastly, the SKM ensured that the farmers’ movement couldn’t be hijacked by any political party or renowned celebrities of Delhi. They retained the leadership and didn’t fall into the traps laid by the Modi regime using the 11 rounds of “discussions” as a subterfuge. Rather, by maintaining a safe distance from the Opposition camp, the farmers’ movement sustained itself for a longer period and didn’t compromise on any of its demands, which could’ve happened if the mainstream parties had a chance to hijack its leadership.
But the anti-CAA 2019 movement couldn’t bar the Opposition parties like the Congress party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], etc, from either hijacking these movements or from enforcing their slogans and narratives through these movements. Over time, the major issue for which the people have been fighting got obfuscated and the repealing of the CAA 2019 along with banal criticism of the Modi regime became the norm of the largely unorganised movements.
What is the NRC and whom does it target?
Let’s understand the complicated Indian citizenship matrix and the threat posed by the NRC.
The NRC is an exercise that’s mandated by Section 14 (A) of the Citizenship Act, 1955, to create a national database of Indian citizens and disenfranchise those whom the law calls “illegal migrant”. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 (CAA 2003), introduced the draconian Section 14(A) to the Citizenship Act, 1955.
The CAA 2003 made the NRC a mandatory exercise that the Union government, irrespective of the party in power, is bound to undertake. The NRC will become the sole identity-cum-residential proof of Indian citizens, while the rest, who can’t prove their citizenship, will be rendered stateless, sans any identity.
According to the Indian Constitution’s Article 6(B), one will be considered as an Indian citizen during the adoption of the Constitution, ie, on November 26th 1949, only if they have migrated to the present Indian territory from the undivided British Indian territory—present-day Bangladesh and Pakistan—on or before July 19th 1948. Those who migrated later should have visited a citizenship registration officer, mostly the district magistrates before 1987, and registered themselves.
After the Constitution of India came into force on January 26th 1950, those who were born in the Indian territory were unconditionally considered as a citizen by birth. Others, like migrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan, were supposed to register themselves with the local citizenship registrar. Also, people were allowed to become Indian citizens through naturalisation. Citizens of territories annexed by India after the Constitution came into force, like Goa and Sikkim, were automatically made Indian citizens.
However, during and after the Bangladesh Liberation War 1971, a refugee influx took place in states like Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal. These people, who fled persecution in Bangladesh, entered India to seek refuge. Their increasing influx, especially in states like Assam and Tripura, created a rift and fuelled the antagonism between the Bengali-speaking refugees and the local people.
After the violent Assam Movement of the 1970s and early 1980s, which culminated with the gruesome Nellie massacre of February 1983, the Government of India entered into an agreement with the movement’s leadership, mostly belonging to the All-Assam Students Union (AASU) and signed the Assam Accord, 1985, which promised to detect, detain and deport the refugees who arrived in Assam after March 24th 1971.
Soon, the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955, was amended through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1987 (CAA 1987), which ended the unconditional citizenship by birth provision and entered a condition that one of the parents of those born in India after July 1st 1987 must be an Indian citizen during the child’s birth.
This means, either they must have a birth certificate proving their date of birth in India between January 26th 1950 and June 30th 1987, or they must have citizenship registration or naturalisation certificates. As the birth certificates were rolled out from 1969 onwards, under the Registration of Birth and Death Act, 1969, the certificate wasn’t as ubiquitous as it’s at present.
Millions of Indians, especially those born between 1950 and 1969, don’t have the document for obvious reasons. Even those born until the late 1980s didn’t get their births registered due to poor infrastructure and lack of knowledge. This rendered the citizenship of millions of Indians born after July 1st 1987 and whose parents don’t have birth certificates, certificates of citizenship registration or naturalisation, into the ‘doubtful’ category.
Since the 1990s, the rise of Hindutva fascism, which has been riding on the shoulders of the neo-liberal economic model and titillating the burgeoning urban, upper-caste Hindu middle-class and the marginalised and oppressed poor Hindus, gave birth to xenophobic propaganda over a purported “Bangladeshi infiltration” bogey.
It was alleged that a large number of Bengali-speaking Muslims from Bangladesh are entering India and living in the country illegally. Though such allegations have never been validated by data, the Assam-centric detect, detain and deport provisions were emulated by the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in the CAA 2003.
The CAA 2003 mandated the preparation of the NRC to segregate the citizens from the “illegal migrant” and imposed a harsh condition that once someone is labelled as an “illegal migrant”, they and their offspring can’t apply for Indian citizenship ever.
According to the CAA 2003, an “illegal migrant” is someone who either entered India legally, using passport and visa, but overstayed and those people who entered India illegally. It also imposed a new and harsh condition on citizenship by birth, stating that for those born from December 2004 onwards to be considered as citizens by birth, it’s mandatory that not just one of their parents should be an Indian citizen as per the CAA 1987, but the other should not be an “illegal migrant” during the birth.
Now, as the concept of “illegal migrant” is ambiguous, it includes anyone from any religion, caste and region, who can’t prove that either they were born in India between January 26th 1950 and June 30th 1987 or have no documents to prove that they or their ancestors lived in the current Indian territory before July 19th 1948.
Under this provision, all Bengali Hindu refugees, tribal people, the poor people of both urban and rural India, and the large number of internally-displaced and migrant population fall in the “illegal migrant” category.
The NRC exercise was extended to Assam by the Supreme Court using the cut-off date of March 24th 1971, however, for the rest of India, it will remain July 19th 1948. Out of a total of 33m people who took part in the Assam NRC, 1.9m were excluded from the final NRC. The Assam NRC form had no columns to capture religion, which makes everyone from the poor and marginalised background vulnerable to exclusion and disenfranchisement.
The Rules of the CAA 2003—Citizenship Rules, 2003—mandates the preparation of a National Population Register (NPR), which will provide raw data for the NRC exercise to take place. Since 2010, the Government of India, using the world’s largest biometric-driven surveillance programme Aadhaar, started creating the NPR database.
The NPR is clubbed with the Census project, making it mandatory for all to participate in it. Under Modi, who earlier vehemently opposed the Aadhaar, the biometric system has been extended and made mandatory to avail all benefits, from food under the National Food Security Act, to the opening of bank accounts, school and hospital admission to even private jobs.
The government postponed the NPR and Census 2021 due to the pandemic in March 2020. It planned a digital Census, which will take into consideration the Aadhaar data. The government is mulling to start the Census 2021 field survey along with the NPR validation from 2022 onwards.
This is preparing the national database to implement the NRC, which will exclude people whose data can’t be mapped with the voters’ list of 1951 using the family tree created by Aadhaar, now linked with the electors’ database. Millions, irrespective of their religion, are susceptible to losing their citizenship due to the NRC.
What is the CAA 2019 and how does it save the Hindus and non-Muslims from the NRC?
Most of the Muslim activists who steered the anti-CAA 2019 movement accuse that the CAA 2019 will provide a safety net to the Hindus and other non-Muslim communities from the NRC. It’s alleged that even though the Hindus and non-Muslims are excluded from the NRC, they can get their citizenship under the CAA 2019 but the Muslims can’t. This allegation isn’t merely ill-founded but also dilutes the major threat posed by the NRC exercise to the marginalised Indians of all communities.
The CAA 2019 provides an opportunity to those belonging to the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Christian and Parsi communities, who have migrated to India on or before December 31st 2014 from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, due to “religious persecution” and “have been exempted” through the 2015 and 2016 amendments to the Foreigners Rules, 1948, and Passport (Entry into India) Rules, 1950, to apply for Indian citizenship after completing a minimum of five years of stay, excluding areas that fall under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.
According to the affidavit by the representative of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) examining the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, the precursor of the CAA 2019, only 31,313 people can apply for citizenship under the new law (see point 2.17 of JPC Report).
Most of these are refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan, who have entered India using valid travel documents or without them and registered themselves at their nearest Foreigners Regional Registration Offices (FRROs) as “victims of religious persecution” in their home countries. According to the MHA official, to apply as a victim of “religious persecution”, the applicant must provide such evidence, which includes news clippings of the instances published either in print or electronic media (see point 2.13 of JPC Report).
Unlike the Afghan and Pakistani refugees, who had to travel to India using proper documents or mandatorily sought refuge and got long-term visas (LTVs) issued by the FRROs, those who came from Bangladesh didn’t undergo any such processes and managed to acquire voter cards, ration cards, Aadhaar and other documents.
According to the MHA official, such people will not just be excluded from the benefits of the CAA 2019, but they may even be prosecuted for using forgery to acquire such documents. The MHA official also stated, in the affidavit, that no new applicant can apply for citizenship under the CAA 2019 and each of such applications must be cleared by India’s external security agency – the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) (see point 2.18 of JPC Report).
If the task of verifying the antecedents of millions of Bangladeshi refugees is foisted on the R&AW, it will take a few thousand years to verify them, considering that it’s an external security agency and have limited field agents to do such a job in a foreign land. This means no new application for citizenship under the CAA 2019 is possible.
For this reason, the Rules of the CAA 2019 have not been notified by the Modi regime even after 24 months of passing the law, lest it smashes the illusions created by the law, which is dangled by the BJP as bait before Bengali Hindu refugees in states like Assam, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Meghalaya, Tripura, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. The Rules of the CAA 2003 were prepared before the law was even passed by the Parliament.
Under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic, the MHA has been postponing the publicising of such Rules, which would state how the law will work and who all can apply. Due to this reason, the CAA 2019 isn’t implemented yet, despite it being a law that the BJP vociferously advocated.
Thus, rather than serving the BJP’s electoral agenda, which aims at polarising the Hindu voters, the CAA 2019 can’t serve any purpose. No Indian who loses citizenship under the NRC can apply for citizenship using the CAA 2019, as it’s meant only for the refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Also, it will endanger those who will apply, as it will mean they are declaring themselves as foreigners to acquire Indian citizenship and such declaration may be used by the Union government to prosecute those individuals under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, and the Foreigners Act, 1946. Such individuals can be detained indefinitely in detention centres.
Why the anti-CAA 2019 movement is in fault?
Unlike the farmers’ movement, the anti-CAA 2019 movement wasn’t founded on a proper understanding of citizenship laws. Rather, driven by momentary emotional upsurge, the anti-CAA 2019 movement clubbed the CAA 2019 with the NRC and demanded the scrapping of the law to protect the Muslims, who are wrongly portrayed as the sole victim of the NRC, from being disenfranchised.
The CAA 2019 isn’t connected with the NRC. Even if the Modi regime repeals the CAA 2019, the CAA 2003 will stay in force and the NRC will take place, which will disenfranchise millions of Indian citizens from the marginalised background. But by focusing only on the CAA 2019 and calling it an “anti-Muslim” law, the Muslim activists and the Opposition have played in the hands of the BJP, which used the optics to scare the Hindus and other non-Muslims to assert that while it’s providing them with citizenship, the Muslims are stalling it.
The 2020 Delhi anti-Muslim pogrom could take place and the majority community could be provoked against the Muslims using such optics by the BJP, which fanned Islamophobia. The Hindus, especially the Bengali Hindu refugees, the tribal people and the backward classes (OBCs), have entered a phase of indifference towards the threat posed by the NPR-NRC as they consider themselves safe due to the CAA 2019, which isn’t the case.
If the wrong perceptions regarding the CAA 2019 and its purported “anti-Muslim” character continue to dominate the narrative of the movement, the activists and the opponents of the government can neither stop the NRC juggernaut nor defeat the BJP’s divisive agenda.
Moreover, by remaining obstinate and parochial regarding their sole demand of repealing the CAA 2019, the Muslim community’s interests can’t be protected as most of the Muslims are economically weak and marginalised. They will suffer due to the NRC drive and there will be no mechanism to shield them from this fascist aggression.
To understand how the CAA 2003 is the source of the NRC and how the CAA 2019 can’t disenfranchise people, you may also read these articles:
- Why the CAA 2003 and not the CAA 2019 will disenfranchise India’s poor?
- How the CAA 2019 is kept on hold by the BJP to derive political mileages from wrong notions?
- Why the CAA 2019 is not going to save Hindus from the NRC?
Why does the Opposition support the anti-CAA 2019 movement?
During the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign, Modi and the BJP raised the NRC tempo to scare the Muslims and polarise the Hindus. President Ram Nath Kovind announced in the Parliament in July 2019 that the government will carry out the NRC exercise. When the CAA 2019 was passed by the Parliament, the Opposition parties, especially the Congress party, the TMC, the CPI(M), etc, started opposing the law, calling it communal, discriminatory and anti-Constitution.
These Opposition parties even passed resolutions in the legislative assemblies of the respective States ruled by them like Kerala, Punjab and West Bengal to oppose the CAA 2019. They jointly opposed the NRC drive and clubbed the CAA 2019 with the NRC. Though such resolutions are useless as citizenship is a Union subject and States have no right to stall the Union from rolling out citizenship laws.
However, behind this hyper-activism of the Opposition is their frantic bid to cover up their obnoxious role in enacting the CAA 2003, which mandated the NRC through the NPR. This article analysed how a Rajya Sabha Committee approved the CAA 2003 in December 2003 endorsed the NRC by overlooking the plight of the poor people (see point 6 of the Report).
The Committee was headed by former president and Congress party leader late Pranab Mukherjee. Apart from the BJP and the Congress party, the Committee had members from the CPI(M), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), etc, to name a few. All these parties are now hypocritically opposing the NRC and calling the CAA 2019 a communal law to hide their despicable role.
When the CAA 2003 was passed by the Vajpayee’s NDA, the TMC was a constituent of the alliance and part of the government. It didn’t oppose the law or the NRC exercise proposed by it. Rather, TMC supremo Mamata Bandopadhyay once created a ruckus in the Parliament by raising the “Bangladeshi infiltrator” bogey.
Though the BJP-led NDA had passed the CAA 2003, it was enacted by the Congress party’s Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in December 2004. The CPI(M)-led left bloc was the second-largest constituent of the UPA but did nothing to stall the legislation. The UPA also rolled out the Aadhaar-based NPR drive, which Modi is now utilising as the world’s largest government surveillance programme.
Though the CPI(M)-led Left Front was ruling the States like Tripura and West Bengal in 2003-04, there were no mass movements or agitations by the Party against the NRC. Rather, the Left Front government unleashed brutal police atrocities on the Bengali Hindu refugees in the border areas and started harassing the poor under the guise of tracing the “illegal migrant” population.
To ensure that the movement against Modi’s citizenship matrix doesn’t expose them and their heinous role behind the enactment of the CAA 2003, none of the Opposition parties spoke a word against the CAA 2003 and limited all discourse within the premises of the CAA 2019 only. The Muslims who took part in the anti-CAA 2019 movement, were cajoled to believe that they can save themselves from the NRC by forcing the government to repeal the CAA 2019. This severely harmed the movement and caused setbacks.
What’s the present status of the NRC exercise?
Recently, answering a set of questions on the CAA 2019 and the NRC, Union Minister of State for MHA Nityanand Rai told the Parliament that the government isn’t contemplating conducting a pan-India NRC now. This statement is a reiteration of a similar assertion by the minister in February 2020 after Modi had declared this during a mass rally at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan in December 2019, amid the peak of the anti-CAA 2019 movement, that his government had never discussed a nationwide NRC.
This declaration by Modi, reiterated by Rai and his boss, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, has been cited by many activists as proof that the anti-CAA 2019 movement managed to halt the NRC juggernaut and temporarily save the Muslim community. However, contrary to this claim, the situation has neither improved for the Muslims nor has the government retreated.
The government’s declaration that no NRC is taking place all over India is true. However, it’s just one part of the whole truth. The government can’t conduct an NRC exercise until the NPR is prepared and validated using Aadhaar and field visits during the Census 2021. Only after the NPR is prepared and finalised, the NRC will take place, and most probably that will happen through backend processes as the Aadhaar data is now linked with the electors’ data and can be used to form a family tree of any individual easily.
Only when the NPR is done, the NRC will take place. Due to the pandemic and to ensure people’s movements don’t flare up, the Modi regime will go slow. It’s anticipated that the updated NPR, which will contain details of the place of birth of individuals and their parents, will be publicised by the end of 2024. It’s by 2025 that the Modi regime plans to unleash the NRC.
What’s to be done?
As the poor Hindus, tribal people, the Dalits and other marginalised people have the illusion that they won’t be harmed by the NRC and, therefore, they will not boycott the NPR but participate in it. This will make them vulnerable as without the legacy documents dating beyond July 19th 1948, they won’t be able to retain their Indian citizenship.
In the present circumstances, it’s important to comprehend that unless the majority community, ie, the poor—the working class and the farmers—along with all sections of the marginalised people, especially the Dalits, the tribal people and the OBCs, boycott the NPR exercise, the NRC can’t be stalled. Even if the entire Muslim community boycotts the NPR out of the CAA 2019 paranoia, it won’t matter as only 15% to 20% of the total population will abstain and the rest 85% will participate in it, without realising the threat it poses.
For those who are trying to revive the anti-CAA 2019 movement, it’s important to have a complete understanding of the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955, and its subsequent amendments. Unless the CAA 1987 and the CAA 2003 are repealed, the people’s right to unconditional citizenship by birth can’t be restored.
Merely demanding the repealing of the CAA will mean the repealing of the CAA 2019, which will isolate the large number of Bengali Hindu refugees, who will otherwise suffer the most under the NRC. Therefore, it’s important to carefully raise the proper slogans and put forward the proper demands to ensure that an anti-NRC movement is built up with a focus on restoring the right to unconditional citizenship.
Like the farmers’ demand for a comprehensive law that will make procurement of crops at a pre-determined MSP mandatory, it’s also the call of the hour that the anti-NRC activists raise the demand for a comprehensive new citizenship law that will not only restore the right to citizenship by birth unconditionally but also ensure the refugees also can avail citizenship rights through a hassle-free process. To end the complex rules regarding citizenship, it’s imperative to demand a new citizenship law.
In 2020, the anti-NRC movement in West Bengal had split over the question of the CAA 2019. The demand for unconditional citizenship for all under a “humane CAA” has been raised by a new movement that has threaded together the Muslims, the Dalits, the tribal people and other marginalised sections against the NRC.
Like the farmers’ movement, the anti-NRC movement won’t stop with the repealing of the CAA 2019, but with the repealing of all CAAs and the enactment of new citizenship law. By replacing the demand of repealing CAA 2019 with the demand for a “humane CAA”, ie, a demand for an amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955, to repeal all the CAAs passed by the Parliament and restore the right to unconditional citizenship by birth can help the anti-NRC movement win large-scale support and enable it to fight the Hindutva fascist onslaught effectively.
An avid reader and a merciless political analyst. When not writing then either reading something, debating something or sipping espresso with a dash of cream. Street photographer. Tweets as @la_muckraker