Document-based citizenship does not exist anywhere in the world: Teesta Setalvad

The meeting, jointly organised by the volunteer-driven Lokayat and Muslim Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Pune, was addressed by activist-lawyer-journalist Teesta Setalvad

Document-based citizenship does not exist anywhere in the world: Teesta Setalvad
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Rosamma Thomas

“Bomb the university if you must,

Reduce the hostel to rubble.

I’m grass, I’ll grow right back on it all”

These lines from Punjabi poet Pash were read out at the beginning of a meeting to better understand the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register (NPR) in Pune on Sunday.

The meeting, jointly organized by the volunteer-driven Lokayat and Muslim Chambers of Commerce and Industry in the city, was addressed by activist-lawyer-journalist Teesta Setalvad, well known for the services she rendered to victims of riots in 1984 in Delhi and 2002 in Gujarat.

“No country in the world has relied on laws that require production of documents to establish citizenship,” Setalvad said. She underlined that while the Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed in Parliament and became an Act, the NRC and NPR were Rules made by the subordinate legislation processes undertaken by the executive. They were not discussed in Parliament and there was no Act of Parliament backing the NRC and NPR.

While the Act itself is unconstitutional and being challenged in court, there is need to reject the complete package. For the data gathered for the population register would ultimately feed into the process of ascertaining citizenship, if the two “heroes” in the nation today are allowed to have their way. Never once did Setalvad mention Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Union Home Minister Amit Shah by name. There was, however, no one in the audience in doubt about the “heroes” being referred to. “After all,” Setalvad explained, “we are accustomed to goons depicted as heroes in our film industry.”

In Assam, the National Register of Citizens process was undertaken under the supervision of the Supreme Court. Despite that, large numbers of citizens were excluded, and after repeated lists were issued, the number excluded in a final list of August 2019 was over 19 lakh, with many of them identifying as Hindus. In a country where only 58% of births are actually registered, imagine the huge problems that mandatory production of documents to ascertain citizenship could cause, she said.

While the National Population Register would count all those living in India, excluding citizens resident elsewhere and including foreigners resident in India, the National Register of Citizens, mandated by the Citizenship Act of 1955 as amended in 2003, would be a register of all citizens. The process was undertaken first in Assam, under SC supervision. The BJP government at the Centre now wishes to conduct a similar exercise across the country. Although the BJP repeatedly claims that none of these exercises will deprive citizens of their citizenship, the provision under the Citizenship Amendment Act that provides priority citizenship to people from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who are non-Muslims has caused protests to erupt across cities. For the first time, religion has been introduced as a criterion of citizenship. There is well founded concern that the secular ethos of India is being eroded. Meanwhile, the government of Kerala has approached the SC with the petition against the Centre, challenging the constitutionality of the CAA.

“We must not get drawn into a discussion of how to more efficiently conduct this registration exercise. We must completely reject the whole process, because there is no efficient way of doing it,” one speaker said, adding that the whole exercise in Assam had been so expensive and so fraught with tension and stress for people who feared being excluded.

“There were about 52,000 government officials involved in this exercise, meaning other routine work of the government was held up. Foreigners Tribunals conduct their proceedings in a non-transparent manner, and are often staffed by people poorly equipped to evaluate evidence. The media does not cover these proceedings. If indeed someone had to challenge his exclusion from the exercise, why cannot he approach a Sessions court or a local magistrate’s court?” There are 300 foreigners’ tribunals in Assam alone. The enormous cost the whole exercise would involve, if it was to occur across the country, was just one concern out of several, at a time when the economy was in the doldrums. What is more, of the 19 lakh excluded in Assam are several Hindus; a retired soldier who had served in the Kargil War was also missing from the list, making activists wonder if the Indian Army really recruited illegal immigrants.

Setalvad explained that instead of getting the whole country to prove citizenship under the NRC, the government could just rely on already existing laws to identify foreigners in India who are staying illegally and act against them. The CAA also makes provision for objections to be raised to the grant of citizenship. “We all know that the only organization involved in such a process would be the RSS,” she said. In Assam alone, about two lakh such objections were raised.

Setalvad recalled Gandhi, and said he posed a threat to the RSS because he stood for an inclusive India, which offered equal citizenship to people of different religious groups. While the partition riots raged, Gandhi visited the Meo Muslims of what is today Haryana and assured them that the Indian state would offer them full protection, and that they need not choose to move to Pakistan in fear. It was Gandhi’s assurance that led many Muslims to stay in India.

Setalvad recalled that attempts were made on Gandhi’s life earlier too, before the attack of January 30, 1948. “In three of those five attacks, Godse was involved,” she said. “We do not teach our children this history; there are people in power who want us to forget.”

Neeraj Jain of Lokayat, in concluding remarks, explained that we cannot assume that because the government acts against Muslims, it is in favour of Hindus and other faiths. “The over 30% cut in the education budget, the huge spike in unemployment, the large loan waivers to big corporate houses and the tax waivers offered to businessmen show that this is a government quite removed from the common people, whether Hindu or Muslim. We have seen the public sector being privatized at a pace we have not seen before.”

Lokayat is currently conducting regular meetings in different residential localities to counter the propaganda of the government at the Centre and educate people about CAA. This meeting was one of several planned in Pune.

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