03, Jul 2021 | CJP Team
Amidst the Covid-19 chaos, many pressing social issues were side-lined at the beginning of 2020. Among them were some of the most pivotal movements against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). While the physical presence of this dissent had to be withdrawn, organisations like Citizenship for Justice and Peace (CJP) continue to fight the good fight, and carry on such discussions with our fellow Indians.
Eager to better inform minority communities about CAA/NPR/NRC laws, CJP collaborated with community worker Noor Alam on June 24, 2021 and held a training programme discussing how such policies pan out in reality. After receiving various materials from Team CJP about the National Register for Citizens (NRC), many educationists in Mumbai who work with minority communities in slum areas attended the event. Rita George from Mother Teresa Trust, teacher Arifa Shaikh from the Smile Foundation and Siddique Shamim Ahmed from the Hamodan Welfare Society were among the 24 attendees to the programme.
Every day of each week, a formidable team of community volunteers, district volunteer motivators and lawyers—CJP’s Team Assam – is providing ready at hand paralegal guidance, counselling and actual legal aid to hundreds of individuals and families paralysed by the citizenship-driven humanitarian crisis in the state. Our boots on the ground approach has ensured that 12,00,000 persons filled their forms to enlist in the NRC (2017-2019) and over the past one year alone we have helped release 41 persons from Assam’s dreaded detention camps. Our intrepid team provides paralegal assistance to, on an average of 72-96 families each month. Our district-level, legal team works on 25 Foreigner Tribunal cases month on month. This ground level data ensures informed interventions by CJP in our Constitutional Courts, the Guwahati High Court and the Supreme Court. Such work is possible because of you, individuals all over India, who believe in this work. Our maxim, Equal Rights for All. #HelpCJPHelpAssam. Donate NOW!
To discuss this issue that is centered around the basic concept of citizenship CJP general Secretary Teesta Setalvad explained how the concept from a legal point of view considers the relationship between individual and state, not the government. “Knowledge is our one weapon. Information keeps us from being manipulated/ misinformed and our rights allow us to assert our citizenship,” she said.
Indian independence was achieved through the united effort of various communities with many minority groups like Adivasis being the trailblazers of the historic struggle against colonisers. Accordingly, the end-goal of an inclusive sovereign, as created by the constitution, could not and was not built by discriminating between religion or caste.
Setalvad stressed that this fact is why the current CAA-NPR-NRC process is unconstitutional at a fundamental level. To explain this in detail, she started from the growing discord in Assam in the 1970s as people began discriminating on the basis of language and ethnicity. In 1983, the Nellie massacre (one of the worst pogroms in history) raised the question of “illegal migrants” in Assam and the need to delete the same from electoral rolls.
Later in 1985, the Assam Accord was established. Yet, the continuing chaos resulted in the demand for an NRC procedure to decide once and for all who is an Indian citizen. The procedure would decide this on the basis of legal documents. CJP stressed that while documentation should not be the basis of determining one’s citizenship, the unique circumstances in the state resulted in a unanimous assent to a “free and fair NRC.”
Still, Setalvad said, “When you weigh citizenship on the basis of documents, then at a fundamental level you will fail because our country does not even ensure birth certificates to all.”
Many people have used different spellings in different documents. Still more people do not have required documents. Having worked in Assam for five years, Team CJP has witnessed these issues when we helped people gather documents for inclusion in the NRC, and also in cases where we helped them get released on conditional bail from detention camps.
A video played by CJP during the event showed the state of detention camps and the lives of the prisoners and their families waiting for their release. It mentioned how there is only one camp for women out of state camps that only has four taps and two bathrooms and toilets. Many women have children with them. Some infants were born in detention camps as well. Many similar such videos are available on CJP India’s YouTube channel. Another video showed how 41 people have been released on conditional bail with CJP’s help so far.
Still, despite continued efforts, over 19 lakh people were excluded from the final NRC list in 2019. The family of a former President of India, and in another case, the family of a former Deputy Speaker of the Assam Legislative Assembly, were also not spared. CJP considers this a humanitarian crisis. The government invested Rs. 1,600 crore in the NRC process. Yet people have had to mortgage belongings to survive the tussle for documentation. 69 percent women, of the roughly 3 crore who applied, were excluded from the list. Families were torn apart.
All this goes to show the fundamental flaw in awarding citizenship to individuals on the basis of documentation. In 1955, citizenship was granted to any person born on Indian land, among other provisions. Then in 1984-85 this was amended to specify that parents of hopeful-citizens should not be illegal immigrants. Again in 1987, this was amended to state that any person born before July 1987 will be entitled to citizenship.
These amendments continued until in 2019, the CAA declared that citizenship will be based on religion. As per the amendment, any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, shall not be treated as illegal migrant. However, this law excluded Muslims as well as Sri Lankan Tamils and people from Myanmar.
In doing so, the law violates the fundamental right of equality enshrined in the Constitution. Even former judges called it an unconstitutional amendment. Setalvad stressed that the ruling regime does not believe in equality. The vehement dissent of the people against this law is an ideological clash between constitutional and unconstitutional thinking.
In Assam, the process has gone on such that people can now be robbed off of their citizenship by: NRC exclusion, or being designated D-Voter by the Election Commission, being named a suspected foreigner by the Assam Border Police, and eventually designated a Declared Foreigner by a Foreigners’ Tribunal.
Similarly, after the All India NRC, it is likely that economically weaker sections, and minorities will suffer. In the 2003 rules regarding the National Population Register, it was stated that if a pan-India NRC takes place, a pan-India Population Register will be initiated. In this, officials will check our documents, question us and then they will decide whether to include us in the citizen list.
“We believe if this power is given to the government, it will become a tool of harassment and people will become antagonistic towards each other. Other issues like hunger, health will be ignored,” said Setalvad.
To combat this, it is important that people begin asking pertinent questions to authorities. Governments headed by Opposition parties should be influenced to work towards this end. People should work towards blurring the line between the privileged and the rest of India. This distinction was greatly highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Regarding citizenship, it is important to ask why the government wants to make such a register. Further, the government will have to determine a legitimate cut-off date that will be applicable for the whole of India. This is all the more important in terms of documents.
In India, birth registration started in 1969. Even nowadays, the same is not guaranteed to all. Even Aadhaar card is only available to 89 percent of Indian population. The situation is the same for all documents.
Most importantly, such a process will affect communities living in slum areas. Farmers, migrant labourers, Adivasis and others are still fighting for relevant documents for land ownership, etc. People who have been rehabilitated from low-income neighbourhoods or pavement dwellers in cities, also do not have documents for houses.
For this reason, there is a need to challenge the government and create a network to inform the masses about the issue. Team CJP also called for an action or mass movement on this issue. Present attendees agreed to work towards this end.