Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi did some damage control exercise to clear the air on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), it is unlikely to allay the fears that they could be used as polarising instruments to target the Muslim community. While Modi has asserted that there has been no move so far to initiate a pan-India NRC, his ministerial colleague and party president Amit Shah is on record, telling Parliament that such an exercise was very much on the anvil. The onus is now on the NDA government to remove the confusion and assure the nation that such a divisive agenda would not be implemented in future. As mass protests against the CAA-NRC are spreading across the country, there is a need to defuse the situation and address the questions being raised by the people. More than the CAA that seeks to fast-track granting of citizenship to six minority groups from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, it is the NRC that has caused anxieties among citizens, particularly Muslims. There appears to be deliberate ambiguity about the documents needed to prove one’s citizenship. Putting the onus on the people to prove their nationality can be a nightmare, particularly for the marginalised sections, and will involve huge economic and social costs. The failure of the NRC exercise in Assam and the social tensions it had triggered are weighing on the minds of the people opposing its replication nationwide.
The Prime Minister’s statement, made during an election rally in Delhi, may signal government’s readiness to reconsider the citizenship policy but many gaps are left unaddressed. Modi’s clarifications have failed to convince the protesters. The government will have to make more efforts to build trust on the issue. He needs to follow it up and assure the nation unequivocally that the NRC would be removed from his government’s agenda. Senior ministers like Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh had repeatedly talked about nationwide NRC and throwing out illegal immigrants. During election campaigning in the past, Modi himself had advocated the need for a pan-India NRC. In reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha last month, Shah had said that the NRC exercise would be carried out across India. The issue also finds a mention in the BJP’s 2019 election manifesto, which clearly states that the NRC will be “completed expeditiously.” The Centre must now heed the calls for meaningful changes that would help dispel fears gripping the country, especially the minorities. The religion-specific references in the CAA need to be removed so that the citizenship window is made available to all the undocumented migrants, irrespective of their affiliations, who can prove persecution in their home countries.