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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 14 New Delhi March 21, 2020

The Practical Solution: Citizenship Card and Domicile Card

Tuesday 24 March 2020

by Diptendra Raychaudhuri

Politics in India has of late become an art of making simple things complex, and at times even incomprehensible. It has all happened thanks to overdose of politics. In other words, India has become an example of how too much politicisation of simple narratives contributes to anarchy.

Take, for example, the question of updating the National Register of Citizens, or the NRC issue. It has failed in Assam after making the people face an unimaginable degree of strain, anxiety and even deaths. But, from the very onset, it was destined to fail, for three simple reasons. First, the process started three decades after the decision on the survey was taken in 1985 through an accord between the Central Government headed by the Congress and the AASU, the students’ organisation agitating against the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Surely, many of the aged immigrants had by then died, some got entrenched outside Assam, and lakhs of children of these immigrants were born in India. In short, the cut-off year (1971 or 1967, whatever) had become hopelessly outdated by then. Secondly, the whole process was being done on the basis of various documents that can, on the one hand, be easily forged or tampered, and, on the other hand, may not be available with many genuine Indians. The third reason for the failure was giving the responsi-bility of checking the documents to the police, a force that is known everywhere in India for its excellence in corruption (who, for money, may reject genuine documents or accept the forged ones as genuine).

In simple words, the Assam model of the NRC failed because it was contemplated in a wrong way. And now the NRC has become a divisive word! A political game, started by the BJP, has now become a full-blown issue of discord, mistrust, and confrontation. But, should we abandon the process altogether? Should we abandon the process of identification of the illegal foreign immigrants because some of us are corrupt, some inefficient, some ignorant of the reality, and some are trying to score brawny political points from it? We must not, because it may have huge impact on our security in future. And, the most important point, we have an easy way out of this jam, if only we can free the process from the game of scoring political points.

Before examining the way out, let us examine why an Assam model of the NRC is bound to wreak havoc with the common man’s life.

The ‘Poha’ Comment showed 

the Extent of Ignorance

The simple reason for the failure of the Assam model is the disconnect between the elite and the diverse social reality of this ancient land. This elite include all those who decide the policy and who make commentaries on them—the pundits and the professionals, the politicians, and, of course, the babus. Last January (on the 24th) a stalwart leader of the BJP, Kailash Vijayvargiya, gave us an excellent opportunity to gauge the extent of such ignorance of the elite.

Vijayvargiya presented three criteria to identify a Bangladeshi. That they ate poha and not roti, that they could not speak Hindi, and that they could not say from which district of Bengal they came. All the criteria he mentioned, to say the least, are wide off the mark. It exposed the total ignorance of the senior politician about the food habits and language of the poor of Bengal, a State Vijayvargiya is in charge of on behalf of his party.

Bengalis display different food habits in different regions. The poorer section cannot have daal and fish everyday. Some do with panta bhat (rice of the previous day soaked in water), salt and chilly. Some others may prefer chide, the Bengali word for poha, and gud (jaggery), or would like to have muri (puffed dry rice) with whatever vegetable was available. These are just a few examples. About the poorer migrant Bengali-speaking workers, they carry chide as it can be eaten just with water and jaggery, thus saving them the burden of cooking and, more importantly, fuel costs. Anyone claiming to identify Bangladeshis by seeing them eat poha exhibits deplorable ignorance about Indian Bengalis.

Now, come to the question of Hindi. Humongous ignorance on the spread of Hindi is common in the Hindi heartland regions. Though Hindi is the mother tongue of only 43 per cent of Indians (including even those speaking languages like Bhojpuri), many Hindi-speaking people think anyone not being able to understand Hindi is an alien! Citing a personal example will not be out of context here. In the 1990s, I went to cover the UP Assembly on the day a no-confidence motion against Mulayam Singh Yadav was to be voted. The officer in charge of issuing the pass for entering the press gallery rejected my application as it was written in English. My plea that being a Bengali who worked in Delhi, and I could speak Hindi fluently, but not write in it did not cut ice with the gentleman. “How is it that you can speak in Hindi but not write in Hindi?” he retorted. Finally, I had to go to the then Speaker of the Assembly, and got my pass through his intervention.

About the third point Vijayvargiya for-warded—they could not tell the name of the district or village—it apparently looks logical. But it is not. In what language they were asked the question is the deciding point here. We can presume it was asked in Hindi. A poor Bengali of rural area would not understand the meaning of words like ‘zilla’ or ‘gaon’. Interestingly, many of them refer to the district as ‘dishtict’ (or else as jela). The gaon becomes ‘geram’. One cannot communicate with such people of any region of India unless one is well-versed in their nuances. Such knowledge does not come to our elite, because they do not travel incognito in rural belts interacting with the common man (the middle and lower-middle class who can marginally influence the decision-making process) and the poorest, that is, the invisible man (those who have no say in the decision-making process as they cannot organise themselves in any way). All our politicians at the national level, including the MPs and the top leaders, are regional, or at best, they have knowledge about the life and living of the common man of their own State.

Now, a rejoinder: Such ignorance about the people of a different region is not limited to Hindi-speaking people only. It is common everywhere in India. In fact, none of us Indians are ‘national’ by character. All of us are regional, and we generally see India through the prism of our own region, which can be as small as a district or a big city like Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore. We invite a problem when we try to impose on the nation the wisdom of our region. Vijayvargiya’s poha comment was a classical example of imposing his parochial outlook on something that needs much, much wider perspective.

This example is important as it shows how ill-equipped the politicians or the babus of the government are as far as fixing the criteria for identifying who is an Indian and who is not. The point I have mentioned here is not about Vijayvargiya alone. It is about all of us.

The Core of the Reality

The truth is that no single criterion identifies an Indian. Forget about food, clothes, faith and so on, even paper documents vary widely, and can easily be forged. The official record of it may simply be found ‘lost’ in the office of the concerned authority. Further, the authorities for checking the papers can easily be bribed. Most importantly, millions of poor Indians did not have any document before the epic card was given to all about twentyfive years ago. Our elite have not seen such people who have survived thousands of years at the margins of the society, and have been somewhat uplifted only in the last thirty years. So, the babu who is to decide the criteria for the NRC too may feel those who are not eating roti or who do not understand Hindi, or failing to show paper documents are not Indians.

The issuing date of ration cards could have served some purpose, if the records of all such original issuing dates were kept. However, in most places records have not been kept, and no one’s claim of his or his father’s residency in India by showing the issuance date of ration card can be verified. If the Election Commission had kept the records of all those eligible for voting since 1952, it could have helped a lot of people to show their ancestor’s name there. But, thanks to the tremendous efficiency-level of our bureaucracy, the spelling, or even the order of the name (particularly of the Muslims) may vary. Again the name may go missing for some time, as it often happened till some years ago.

This is the reality of India. If the ‘invisible man’ has no document, it is not his fault. It is the fault of the state, and the state cannot morally, ethically, or legally punish or harass anyone for its fault.

Both poverty and illiteracy were extensive till a few decades ago, and the victims had no sense of importance of any document, or of remembering the details of where one’s father or forefathers lived. It is an ancient land, and more than 90 per cent of the people have lived here, from generation to generation, for millennia. The others, who are of Central Asian/Arab/Iranian or other origin, too are living here for hundreds of years. No one ever asked them whether they were Indians, not even in the last 70 years (after the birth of the political state of India). So, how could they know the importance of preserving the details about their parents or grandparents?

Now, waking up one fine morning, the state cannot ask everyone to show the papers. It is like the state asking all of us to prove that we are not thieves. Can they say that? There may live five million thieves in India who the state cannot catch. But for that the state cannot demand proof from all of us that we are not thieves. It is assumed that one is innocent unless one is proved guilty. Similarly, asking all Indians to prove their citizenship (because the vast, expensive law and order system cannot catch a few million illegal immigrants) is something that should never be even contem-plated. Everyone domiciled in India should be assumed to be Indian, unless proved otherwise.

The Rational Alternative: Citizenship Card

However, it cannot be anyone’s case that India should remain a dharamshala forever. We have too much population, and we need to control it urgently, not increase it. Again, Indian tax- payers’ money cannot be spent on Bangladeshi illegal immigrants. That does not happen anywhere in the world. Unless the country is very rich, it cannot afford it either.

But it is not only that allowing another one million people in the next one decade is not economically viable: Some sinister prospects will stay real, if our doors remain open. Pakistan’s ISI may go for a long-term plan, and push hundreds (or even thousands) of Pakistani or Bangladeshi fundamentalist militants into India, who will lay in wait for months or years for the opportune moment. So we have to give all our citizens a card to identify their citizenship. Only then will it be difficult for an illegal immigrant to settle anywhere in India. And we need to start the process without delay, so that by the next two years all Indians get Citizenship cards.

The problem is that the Narendra Modi-led Central Government never took it as a serious security issue. In Assam, it used the updating of the NRC to the hilt to reap political benefit out of it by reducing the number of Muslim (Bangladeshi) voters. It was a political issue for them, not so much a security issue. It was always so for the BJP. Identifying the illegal immigrants is the job of the police, but the BJP- ruled States never made any serious attempt to identify the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in those States. For the record, the BJP has ruled many States for many, many years, and it is ruling Gujarat for more than two decades without a break. They have made no serious attempt, in the last five years, to find the Bangladeshis in Delhi though the Delhi Police is under them. They waited for the opportune moment to play politics

As the exercise failed in Assam, they shifted their gaze to Bengal, and to allay the fear of Bengali Hindus of losing citizenship for not providing proper documents, the government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). While it is true that since independence all our stalwarts—from Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar to Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh—have spoken about the need to give the refugees (Hindus) citizenship, it could have been done even through the law of the land existing prior to the CAA. In simple words, the CAA, particularly the mention of the religions in it, was another attempt to consoli-date the Hindu vote-bank and engineer reactions from the opponents. Even if the CAA was to be enacted, just the word ‘refugee’ in it could have served the purpose, for it is common knowledge that except a handful like Taslima Nasreen, the members of the majority community of Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh have not come to India till 2014, the stipulated period of the new law.

This political game, and talks of the CAA to be followed by the National Population Register (NPR) and NRC have made many Muslims scared about their future. They are worrying as to whether all these are ploys to take away their citizenship. The Opposition parties have joined the fray to ensure they do not lose the Muslim votes. Many intellectuals have questioned the constitutionality of determining citizenship on the basis of religion, and the Supreme Court will take a final call on it. But altogether, a situation of confrontation has arisen, and the Prime Minister has been forced to say the NRC is not on the cards. It is just an overdose of politics that has done in the BJP for the time being, and an important national security question has become the apparent casualty.

But identifying illegal immigrants is not a Hindu-Muslim question, or secularism versus communalism debate. In fact, instead of playing the RSS-influenced CAA politics, Narendra Modi could have brought a law for giving citizenship cards to all Indians. Here the plain truth is that apart from the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants (Bengali-speaking Muslims from Bangladesh), all other people living in this country are Indians. What is the number of such illegal Bangladeshi migrants? Indrajit Gupta, the only Communist Home Monister of India (1996-1998), told Parliament that an estimated one crore Bangladeshis were in India, with half of them in Assam. More than two decades have passed since. Now there is no estimate of any actual number.

But we know the number of Bengali-speaking Muslim population domiciled in India. At the moment it is about four crores, that is, three per cent of the total Indian population. So, the rest 97 per cent of the population are, beyond doubt, Indians. No non-Bengali speaking Muslim can be denied citizenship (if a few hundred or even a couple of thousands of Pakistanis/Afghans/Iranians have overstayed their visas in India, they will have to be identified by the police). So, if the government stops playing politics, and the Opposition responds, 97 per cent of the population can be given Citizenship card even within a few months.

Now come to the rest three per cent of the population, the Bengali-speaking Muslims. A very large number of them stayed back in India (or, as in the case of people of Murshidabad district, who joined India after hoisting the Pakistani flag on August 15, 1947) though they could easily go to East Pakistan. They are our compatriots. Rather, they are us. And these people were not responsible for the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants (who entered crossing the international border of Bengal, Assam, and other North-Eastern States by bribing the BSF, and then got entrenched thanks to political patronage). So, we have to be extra-careful so that no Indian Bengali-speaking Muslim loses citizenship. Most of them will have some paper to show, and a large section of the rest will be able to identify the graves of their forefathers. After giving all of them Citizenship cards, the rest should be given further opportunities to prove their bona fide claim to citizenship, like allowing others to give sworn affidavits in their support.

The Moral Dilemma

But can we expel from our land all the others who will fail to prove their claims? According to our law, those born before July 1, 1987 are Indian citizens. Now suppose, a newly married Bangladeshi couple entered India in 1985, had a child before the cut-off date and two others after it. So, should we keep that eldest child in India asking the rest to leave? Can we, ethically, ask a couple living in this country for more than 30 years to leave? Should we divide a family, as the Americans and other people of the West do, because they are illegal immigrants? Can we Indians be so heartless?

But it is true that the couple were illegal immigrants, and their two children are not Indian according to our laws. So, what to do with them then?

Take another example. Suppose we identify three, four or five million people as non-Indians. Bangladesh will surely not accept so many people. So what to do with them? It is farcical to think that we will put them in detention centres and feed them. It is not only inhuman, but economically not viable too. It will cost tens of thousands of crores to build the centres, and then tens of thousands crores to detain them lifelong. So the arguments put forward by the BJP leaders and top-level bureaucrats, of deporting them or putting them in jail, are crossing the level of sanity.

But what is to be done with them then?

Simple. Give them work permit, and let them stay. The aged ones may stay as lifelong ‘non-citizen domiciles’ without voting rights. The young ones, born after 1987, may be given domicile card now, and may be given the right to apply for citizenship after a decade (or whatever period is stipulated). The ‘domicile card’ would be something akin to the US ‘green card’. The illegal immigrants, who have entered in last two decades, need to be deported, if only Bangladesh takes them back. Otherwise, the same route has to be followed for them too. They will work for their living, as they do now, and will enjoy some basic facilities or subsidies. They will pay taxes (even the poor pay tax in the form of GST for the goods they buy), and enjoy certain benefits, but will not vote in any election.

And yes, all the Hindus coming from Bangladesh are not victims of persecution. Like the Muslims, many Hindus are coming just because India is a better place for earning a living or doing small business. So, 2014 must be the cut-off date for them too. Any Hindu, who has or will come after 2014 from Bangladesh (when religious tension has ebbed in that country), should be treated as illegal immigrant, unless she/he can prove persecution.

This is the only solution, and it needs to be done now. Otherwise, the process of illegal immigration will continue, and any funda-mentalist force will take advantage of it. In the last seven decades we have debated it, signed agreements on it, but never acted on it. So, when finally we acted on the basis of a hopelessly outdated cut-off year, as in Assam, it resulted in a debacle. We cannot play with this grave security issue any longer without putting us and our children at high risk.


It is true that Assam in particular, and the North-East in general, do not want to give any Bangladeshi—be they Hindu or Muslim—the right to live in their land for genuine ethnic-cultural reasons. That is why they have launched a movement which is the polar opposite of the ‘No NRC’ movement.

They were opposed to it from the very beginning, and that was why Jawaharlal Nehru wrote a letter to Gopinath Bordoloi, the first Chief Minister of Assam (which was then the entire North-East except Tripura and Manipur), urging him to differentiate between the (Hindu) refugees and other (Muslim) immigrants. Unfortunately, the State or the Union Govern-ment did nothing to differentiate between the two, and allowed both the refugees and illegal immigrants to stay. That was why a bloody movement rocked the State, and the Assam Accord (1985) promised to finish the pending job.

But even thereafter, the people of Assam voted for such parties (like the AGP and Congress) for three decades, often repeatedly, who did not care to identify the Bangladeshis. Then they voted for a party (the BJP) that played another type of politics over it. Now, many decades have passed. The concern of the North-East is genuine, as it becomes clear from the fate of the Assamese people, who have now become just 48 per cent of the population of Assam. But now, after so many decades, things cannot be changed. For them the only safeguard can be that no domicile card holder of the North-East will get Citizenship card if she/he lives in the North East.

The author is a journalist and author.

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