Serving nationalist interests

The BJP pretends that this is a neutral exercise, emphasising that the Supreme Court supervised the process, even as it celebrates the identification of "foreigners". But the move is anything but unbiased, as it will determine who can own land, hold jobs and vote in BJP-ruled Assam. And whatever the size of the final NRC – there is still time to appeal its findings and correct some errors – it is already clear that those ultimately excluded will be overwhelmingly, if not entirely, Bengali Muslims.

In fact, it has been suggested that a principal purpose of reviving the NRC process has been to strip as many Bengali Muslims as possible of the right to vote ahead of the next general election. In a state of some 30 million, disenfranchising four million people could have a major impact on the BJPʹs electoral fortunes, as it has scant support among Indiaʹs Muslims. But it is almost impossible to tell a Bangladeshi Muslim and an Indian Bengali Muslim apart. Also, the legal implications of the move to strip so many inhabitants of their voting rights have yet to be assessed and court challenges await.

In any case, the Bengali Muslims excluded from the NRC stand to lose more than their voting rights. Some speak glibly of deporting them to Bangladesh. But there is no bilateral deportation agreement in place and Bangladesh has made clear that it assumes no responsibility for people who are not on its territory. The last thing India needs is to create a migration crisis or, worse, try to force deportations to Bangladesh – one of the few neighbours with which the BJP government has managed to maintain good relations.

National Register of Citizens' press conference in Assam (photo: picture-alliance/ZUMAWire/D. Talukdar)
Potential for widespread social unrest: "So far, the crisis created by the NRC has been non-violent. But as tensions mount, the risk of an eruption is growing. Can Indiaʹs democracy afford to disregard the human rights of people who have been living on its territory for decades?" asks Tharoor

Bengali Muslims face an uncertain future

Still, it seems possible that those who are excluded from the NRC will be driven from their homes in Assam – which they may have inhabited for more than four decades – with no place to go. Some have suggested that India establish camps to house these people until they can return to Bangladesh – a prospect that horrifies human-rights groups, not least because there is no guarantee that that day will ever come. More fundamentally, is it really justifiable to strip people of the rights they have exercised in democratic India for most of their lives?

So far, the crisis created by the NRC has been non-violent. But as tensions mount, the risk of an eruption is growing. Now, the government must confront difficult questions. Is an accord reached in 1985 to address actions taken since 1971 really the best framework to resolve the issue in 2018? Can Indiaʹs democracy afford to disregard the human rights of people who have been living on its territory for decades? As laudable as it is to protect Indiaʹs sovereignty and the integrity of its citizenship, does it justify throwing millions of lives into limbo?

There are no clear answers to these questions, despite what passionate voices on both sides of the argument would have one believe. What is clear is that, at a time when the BJPʹs majoritarian assertiveness is already raising serious concerns, the decisions the government makes regarding the NRC will shape the future of Indiaʹs turbulent democracy – for better or for worse.

Shashi Tharoor

© Project Syndicate 2018

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently an MP for the Indian National Congress and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs.

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