From the Boundaries to the Horizons

Light of truth

Question: John D Joseph

It is reported that over 19 lakh people in Assam are removed from the citizenship of India after the final draft of National Register of Citizens. What would be the consequences of such a move? How should we address the crisis of refugees?

Answer: Saji Mathew Kanayankal CST

By 31st of August 2019, the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at Assam is completed and more than 19 lakhs of people are excluded from it, for they could not provide proper documents as their identification proofs. The NRC seeks to identify people who illegally entered India after March 24, 1971 (a day after Bangladesh gained independence), and declare them illegal immigrants. Proving one’s citizenship is only a part of the NRC process because the real intention of the government is to identify the ‘illegal immigrants’ and deport them to their native countries.

After the independence of India, while making the first census in 1951 at Assam, it was noticed that from the previous decadal census the demographic profile of the state is drastically changing mainly because of the migration from the Eastern Bengal. After the war between India and Pakistan in 1971, the migration increased significantly that led to the agitation of the native Assamese which ended with the signing of Assam Accord in 1985 whose major demand was the detection, disenfranchisement and deportation of foreigners. As per the accord, the non-citizens will be taken to detention camps and locked therein until their deportation to their native country. The NRC is an exercise to ensure that genuine Indian citizens are not to be deprived of the entry of their names in the register and that those who entered India after March 24, 1971 are not to be included in the same register. The whole process was done under the supervision of the Supreme Court with a hope to make a perfect register, avoiding all kinds of accusations.

The ‘legacy verification’ is a very difficult task with lot of challenges and hazards. One of the major challenges of the NRC is to identify ‘genuine Indian citizens’ and to ensure that they are not deprived from the ‘home land.’ The second major challenge is to find out and categorise the ‘illegal migrants’ who entered India after March 24, 1971. As we know, the system of documentation in our country is very poor even now. We did not have the practise of registering the names at birth/death till recently. Most of our people depended on the certificates issued from the schools or the names entered in the ration cards as the official source of the identification mark. Moreover, many documents might have lost because of flood or other natural calamities, tribal wars, riots or clashes. So, making a distinction between the ‘genuine citizen’ and ‘illegal immigrant’ became a hazardous task. For example, if a person was born in Assam around 50 years back, the NRC officials have to make requests for legacy verification to various state governments, especially to Meghalaya, for Shillong was the capital of the undivided Assam till 1972. Moreover, because of the political influence many had acquired certain documents of the citizenship and to verify its validity after many years of its possession is not easy.

After the publication of the final list, it is reported that many, not only the ordinary people, but also military veterans, government officials and even family members of a former President of India and former chief minister of Assam were excluded from the draft NRC list. In many cases, some of the same family members are not included and in some other cases while brother is included in the list, the sibling is out! In some cases, despite the inclusion of all members of the family, one son or daughter is being out! And all those who were excluded are asked to prove their citizenship before the Foreigners’ Tribunals. There are also breaking stories of many people, who are born and brought up in Assam, lived there for generations, hold all kinds of documents, but left out from the register- which means a clerical error may cause the loss of citizenship. If the present list is to be finalised as it is today, the country would be witnessing another major tragic event of flight of the refugees with the displacement and statelessness of lakhs of people ending with the result of deprivation of their fundamental rights to live and to protect their life and dignity. Many would be forcefully separated from their own families, which may further lead to different kinds of traumas, riots, clashes and murders. On the other hand, there is also an accusation that so many illegal immigrants have included in the list!

Before finalising the NRC, the government should clear some of the basic questions concerning the future of the ‘illegal immigrants.’ What will happen to those identified illegal immigrants? Will they be detained and deported? Will Bangladesh accept them? Do they have any identity marks/cards from Bangladesh? If they are not being accepted what will be the future? Will they become second-class citizens in India itself and how do they execute their fundamental rights? The central government have not given any answer to these questions. In this context we have to think broadly to find a new way of looking the problems of migrants and refugees.

Though human kind was a nomadic group in the beginning, in the process of the evolution of different civilisations, they settled in particular places and later on it was developed into various city states and nations. The idea of citizenship is originated in the course of civilisation, especially in the background of Greek City States (polis). It is linked with the Latin derivation civitas (city) or civilis (civility), which means urbanity, civic norms or hospitality. In ancient time, the city was the boundary of citizenship. But by the 18th century, at the time of the liberal democracy and the rise of nation states, the idea of citizenship has enlarged to explain the identity of an individual in relationship with his/her birth place/nation and gradually the rights of citizens were expanded to participate freely, fully and equally in political life. Though it has many positive impacts, as Michel Foucault observed, the era of the nation-state was also the era of census, territorial sovereignty, panoptical incarceration and a general rise in governmentality. Through all these administrative and legal gymnastics, the power of the state had penetrated into the everyday life of an individual.

In this context, the idea of ‘universal citizenship’ as propagated by Hanna Ardent or the notion of ‘cosmopolitan citizenship’ of Emmanuel Kant gives us some new insights to see the problem in a different frame. According Ardent, “Philosophy may conceive of the earth as the homeland of mankind and of one unwritten law, eternal and valid for all.” For Kant, the surface of the earth is originally the common possession of mankind, and therefore each of us has the right to travel in order to interact with people in other lands.

This idea of universal vision is well explained by Cicero in terms of ‘natural fellowship.’ According to him, a true human being has to widen his/her relationship from the little circle of family and friends to city, where one enjoys a complex set of economic, political and legal relationship with fellow citizens. From the city, it is to be expanded to wider group of nation, which as he describes, “the fellowship of those of the same race, tribe and tongue, through which men are bound strongly to one another.” However, it has to be grown into the fellowship of “all people with each other,” “which reconcile men to one another, through teaching, learning, communicating, debating and making judgements, and unite them in a kind of natural fellowship.” In fact, it is an opening towards the periphery of the entire universe. Apart from the constrains of race, language, culture or whatever limits, ‘the unity of mankind’ should be seen as the rationale for the universal communication between persons. Our common capacity for language and reason makes communication between us possible.

The movement towards the universal or cosmopolitan citizenship is not that easy. It is a long journey with serious and hazardous tasks. First of all, there is a question of identification. What is the fundamental identity of a human person? Is it based on nation/state, ethnicity, caste or religion or any other frame? One should be able to make his/her identify with humanity as a whole. Individual persons should learn to overcome his/her little circles by broadening one’s outlook, vision and approaches. When an individual or society moves with certain mere narrow political, religious, or economic interests, this process will not be successful. So, we have to overcome such barriers. Second, one should nurture personal respect and respect for others that encourages individuals to think deeply and critically about the dignity of each individual irrespective of one’s cast, colour, religion, ethnicity or nationality. Here one will be able to learn and respect the diversity of identities and cultures, aiming the common good. It promotes respect and responsibility across cultures, countries and regions. Third is the recognition of ethical duties towards all human beings as such, irrespective of their nationality, religion or any other kind of identification marks. The virtue of hospitality will be spiritual and moral force in this context, because, as Kant points out, it is ‘the right of a stranger not to be treated with hostility when he arrives on someone else’s territory.’ The fourth is the idea of states coming together and agreeing by treaty or in some other way to respect each other’s rights, avoiding recourse to war, and submit their disputes to arbitration. Indeed, it is not easy to implement these proposals in a world of separatism, individualism, tyranny and terrorism. However, the collective thinking of a society and earnest effort can make drastic and unimaginable changes in the society.

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