The chief ministers of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh seem to be keen on a National Register for Citizens (NRC) on the lines of the one in Assam. While Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar announced that his government will have its NRC, UP CM Adityanath spoke of implementing it in phases if need be. Both leaders seem unaware that the NRC was introduced in 1951 in view of the exceptional conditions that prevailed in Assam then. The Supreme Court ordered that the register be updated and thereafter, started to monitor the process after being seized of the specific context of the problem. Ironically, with the completion of the Assam NRC on August 31, it has become evident that the process is neither fool-proof nor can a citizenship register offer solutions to complex issues of identity. Surely, Haryana and UP have more pressing administrative issues to tackle instead of contemplating divisive schemes.
The NRC seems to have caught the imagination of BJP leaders ever since party chief Amit Shah started to mention it in his campaign speeches during the general election. While the anti-immigrant sentiment in Assam did not disriminate on religious grounds, the BJP twisted it to give the narrative a communal colour. The principle that underlies the NRC itself is flawed since modern societies and economies are influenced by migration. Assam’s own tortuous history, particularly since the mid-19th century, has been shaped by the influx of capital and labour, often facilitated by the state, and the pressures of geography. The same state also fuelled anxieties about identity and demography, which congealed into political movements in the last century. The Partition of the Subcontinent further complicated the process. Seeing it all through the prism of religion would not help to understand the nuances of a complex, and tragic, process that has affected millions of people.
The lesson from Assam is that it is a futile exercise to catalogue people on the basis of their supposed origins. For instance, it was estimated that illegal migrants in Assam numbered anywhere from 10 lakh to two crore. But the NRC puts it at 19 lakh, which has left many who backed the process dissatisfied. The process has been an unmitigated disaster with people threatened with uncertain future, including detention. Any talk of NRC today only triggers anxieties and fears with deep communal undertones. The government must ask itself if it wants to expend its immense political and social capital on the “illegal” migrant or focus on creating opportunities for a large young population.