Home Minister Amit Shah’s announcement of a proposal for a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) is worrisome on several counts, not the least of which is the apparent inability to learn from the experience of carrying out the humongous exercise in Assam. The government, he said, would also re-introduce the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in Parliament that envisages the grant of Indian citizenship to all refugees from minority communities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In all three nations Muslims are in a majority, and therefore, the Bill effectively denies benefit to Muslim minorities from other neighbouring countries, including Myanmar where Rohingya Muslims face persecution. Along with the promised combination of the NRC and CAB, the Home Minister announced that the NRC process would “naturally” be conducted in Assam again with the rest of the country. Interestingly, this comes just days after Ranjan Gogoi, who supervised the NRC process, demitted office as Chief Justice of India. Clearly, the Assam proposal will be in defiance of the Supreme Court, which directed the entire NRC registration specific to Assam through all its tortuous details. There is still no clarity on what the end results mean for the 19 lakh plus people who find themselves outside the NRC, potentially stateless and at risk of “deportation” to Bangladesh, which refuses to acknowledge, let alone accept, them. Given that the NRC process in Assam was rooted in the specificities of the 1985 Assam Accord, and as the government never tires of saying, a court-mandated process, extending it to the entire country is both illogical and bizarre. Flawed it might have been, but the NRC exercise, overseen by the Supreme Court, involved the active participation of the Central and State governments. For the government to repeat the exercise merely because the numbers thrown up are politically inconvenient for the ruling BJP, makes no sense at all. If there is a lesson from Assam, it is that there is no right way of going through a process such as the NRC.
Like the CAB, which pointedly discriminates against Muslims, and is loaded against the right to equality and equal protection before the law as enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution, there are genuine fears that a nationwide NRC will target Muslims. Details of how such an exercise will be carried out are, of course, not yet known. In the case of Assam, there was a cut-off date — March 25, 1971 — after which all foreigners as per the Assam Accord were to be “detected, deleted and expelled in accordance with law”. Presumably, the Centre will come out with a cut-off for the nationwide NRC, but it will be an arbitrary one. Given the dangers that lurk within such exercises, the government would do well to abandon the nationwide NRC-CAB combination. Indians can certainly be spared this pain.