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India’s national register of citizens: Challenge to South Asian Identity?

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Subhajit Naskar |

The illusion of South Asian identity is equipped by discord among the community interests. Subsequently, Religious dogmatism helped identity consolidation which negates the contemporary notion of citizenship. In the post-partition era, the rise of territorial nationalism in South Asian states gave birth to the exclusionary idea of citizenship that debunks the virtues of civic culture.

The discourse of Citizenship must go beyond the normative principles of territoriality. And we need to move the discussion and debates beyond its normative shadow. The historicity of south Asia has many commonalities, and traditional identity formations happened along that line.

National Register of Citizens (NRC): A Consolidation of Hindu Identity?

Clash of Individual Identity with national identity thesis has recently been once again aggravated by the authorities of Northeastern Indian state of Assam on the Bangladesh border. The Assam government has published a register of citizens, and to be incorporated, people must prove that they came to India by March 24, 1971 .i.e. two days before Bangladesh declared independence, which led to hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing to India and many of them settled in Assam.

The Illusion of Destiny’ prophesied, ‘’The main hope of harmony in our troubled world lies in the plurality of our identities, which cut across each other and work against sharp divisions around one single hardened line of vehement division that allegedly cannot be resisted.

Approximately, four million residents of the state have not found their names enlisted in the final draft of the National Register of Citizens for the state of Assam. The NRC is considered to be a long-term massive project of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to be implemented across the country soon. A national register of citizens was promised during last general election by RSS’s soft Hindutva mascot Narendra Modi.

Consequently, Right-wing BJP of Prime Minister Modi campaigned vehemently on the rhetoric of designating migrants as so-called “Illegal foreigners” and safeguard the rights of indigenous groups. Critics say, the move to strip the citizenship of Bengali origin people is part of the malicious design of Hindutva ideologues. Anti-Bengali Hindutva card is played to sensationalize the cultural sentiments among indigenous people which coincides with the idea of Hindutva.  Ruling BJP assumes, Indianness will eventually create an exclusive Hindu state.

Read more: 4 million mainly Muslims stripped of Indian citizenship

Anti Ahmadiyya Rhetoric: Subversive Islamism?

Pakistan too restricted the participation of Ahmadiyyas from the mainstream notion of citizenship. The community has long been persecuted in Pakistan. In 1953, a violent agitation broke out in Punjab against the Ahmadiyyas mainly led by the Islamist forces. During the agitation, Ahmadis were mercilessly killed and their property was rampaged.

The agitation was crushed following the imposition of martial law by the federal government. The Court of Inquiry for the riots, headed by Justice Munir of the Lahore High Court, found that the leading figures of the Muslim League were deeply involved in the violence. The report warned of the consequences of exploiting Islam for political purposes and described ‘the Islamic state model of the clerics as an obscurantist and oppressive’.

Ethnic Cleansing of Tamils and Oppressive Buddhist Dogmatism

The Sri Lankan government as well has been indicted for launching a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” ensuring its victory over the Tamil Tigers in the country’s 26-year civil war. As Tamils feel dejected and victimized by the successive majority Buddhist led Sinhalese governments. Millions of people have been displaced and tens of thousands of people have died in rampant human rights violations.

Read more: Four million in Indian state risk losing citizenship

A Citizenship Crisis in the Horizon of South Asia

The discourse of citizenship in the Indian subcontinent has been mired by the tension between inclusion and exclusion. Conceptualizing citizenship in South Asia cannot sufficiently form on the basis of the discourses of identity, as it fails to capture the categories and typicalities of variations among south Asian communities. Combining the identity with citizenship is often ‘susceptible to caricature’.

In the name of building nation-state, migrants are used as signifiers to categorize between ‘self’ and ‘other’ through projects of NRC in India, Subversive Islamist rhetoric against Ahmadiyyas and Buddhist dogmatism against ethnic Tamils. The founding fathers of South Asian states embraced and celebrated cultural diversity based on the notion of a ‘family of nations’, and persistently promoted tolerance by saying ‘They are just like us’.

In the post-partition era, the rise of territorial nationalism in South Asian states gave birth to the exclusionary idea of citizenship that debunks the virtues of civic culture.  The discourse of Citizenship must go beyond the normative principles of territoriality.

Today, if identity consolidation is for safeguarding national sovereignty then that refutes with the idea of constitutional republicanism which was endorsed by not siding with the exclusive identity building.

Read more: Indian among 3 foreigners killed in Afghanistan

Prof Amartya Sen in his book ‘Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny’ prophesied, ‘’The main hope of harmony in our troubled world lies in the plurality of our identities, which cut across each other and work against sharp divisions around one single hardened line of vehement division that allegedly cannot be resisted. Our shared humanity gets savagely challenged when our differences are narrowed into one devised system of uniquely powerful categorization’’. Prof Sen categorically emphasized on the plurality of identities, resurrecting that could well mitigate the citizenship crisis in the horizon of South Asia.

South Asia: A Melting Pot?

Diversity in the erstwhile Indian subcontinent was compatible to identity formations, therefore abrupt unfolding of a cultural identical problem is evidently a manufactured crisis. As the identity of South Asian Nation-states goes beyond the segregated races and ethnicities in a global village space, does the loyalty to a nation-state lie in national identity? Prof Will Kymlicka points out ‘Citizenship must not be to the status of identity but developed through responsibility and civic virtues’.

Subhajit Naskar is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata and an Alumni of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He can be reached at subhajitjnu@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.