The update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has sparked yet another debate regarding the status and scale of immigrants in a state that ostensibly bears the brunt of illegal immigration. Sadly, the discussion surrounding the NRC has taken a woeful direction and has yet again descended into the binaries of the liberal left and the xenophobic far-right. It doesn’t take long for a left-liberal to label anyone in favour of the NRC a bigot, and frankly, seeing that the narrative has been hijacked by sections of the media that only exist to determine who yells the loudest and is the most patriotic, one cannot blame them. The nauseating narrative pushed forward by some of the prime time debates is doing a major disservice to anyone, mostly the people of Assam, who want the rest of India to understand exactly how they feel about the NRC. The problem with the NRC is not its existence, but its implementation.
Is anyone who even remotely supports the NRC a hyper-nationalist bigot? Is it not possible for one to be on board with the NRC and see its shortcomings and the issues with its implementation and yet be against the ruling party and its communal politics? The fact that the Assam agitation took place because of the drastic increase in the electorate is something to take note of. And whether or not Assam’s illegal immigration problem is as bad as some claim it to be, the concern about immigration, one that has a history and a violent one at that, isn’t unique to the right-winger bigots who want to throw everyone out unless they are a citizen and not turn a hair to their well-being.
No one is saying that the NRC cannot potentially be a disaster. And no one is indifferent and oblivious to the havoc it can wreak. By the same token, when one says that the NRC is something necessary and was supposed to be updated at some point anyway and was pending since 2005, it does not amount to a disregard of the vulnerable and the indifference of those who may be deemed illegal immigrants and stripped of their citizenship. And it certainly does not imply that the 4 million people excluded from the NRC are all illegal immigrants. Some “liberals” need to keep in mind that those frothing-at-the-mouth uber-nationalists on prime-time debates do not represent the people of Assam and don’t speak for those who may not be entirely opposed to the NRC. There is cause to worry. However, what is often not properly taken into account regarding the NRC is that this is not the final list. And no, that is not repudiating the fact that the time given to take in those who have been wrongly left out of the NRC isn’t nearly enough, but that is nonetheless a fact that needs to be considered.
The debate about the NRC is almost always shut down by bringing up far-right extremist voices, and anyone who is for the NRC even if they are worried about its faulty procedures is suddenly associated with voices as extreme as a that of a BJP MLA calling for shooting the immigrants dead if they don’t leave. Trying to present an opposing view not only invites a sort of backlash that is uncomfortable since it implies bigotry, but it also turns the debate into that of humanitarian aid as opposed to one about illegal immigration. Supporting the NRC is not majoritarian bullying and communal, and it’s an absolute woe that some sections of the left are not able to see for what it is and mistake every opposing voice for those extremist far-right hyper-nationalists.
It’s disheartening to see the way Assamese are being wrongly labelled because people who are actually hyper-nationalist are using a certain kind of rhetoric. Woe betides anyone who dares to speak for something that is happening under the current regime, no matter what it is. Because this is a time where either you are against communal politics and must oppose literally everything the BJP does, or you are a xenophobic bigot. If the BJP pushes for the Citizen (Amendment) Bill, which makes it easier for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship, oppose it. If the NRC update happens to be taking place while the BJP is in power, even though it’s because the update was ordered by the Supreme Court and has little to nothing to do with the current government, oppose it.
It doesn’t matter if the people who are defending the NRC are doing so on the ground that it’ll identify the problem of illegal immigration and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill will exacerbate that very problem, you have to oppose both. It doesn’t matter if you are rightfully worried of the procedure through which citizenship will be determined and are still not entirely opposed to the NRC, you cannot but be a xenophobic bigot and a staunch supporter of the ruling party if you lend your support to the NRC. You must be one of those who supports lynching, and you must believe that the 4 million people are all illegal immigrants. You must be oblivious to the genuine problem of the aftermath of the NRC update. In essence, you are either completely in concurrence with a very specific liberal viewpoint or with those blindfolded xenophobes whose politics is communally coloured, for there isn’t any other position to be taken.
None of that is to say that there aren’t actual xenophobes out there and the rise in the anti-immigrant sentiment across the world is well understood. There are voices which are extreme, in Assam and outside. Speaking about immigration, therefore, knowing that there are extremist voices out there missing no opportunity to play with the politics of alterity and capitalise on people’s insecurities by exaggerating a situation can be deeply uncomfortable. It is important to note, however, that speaking against the dehumanisation of immigrants and refugees and be concerned of an illegal immigration problem in one’s own state isn’t necessarily mutually exclusive.
The only way to have a healthy discussion about the issue is to recognise that lending your support to the NRC doesn’t amount to the denial of its errors and it is possible to discuss what sort of mechanism and strategy there needs to be to deal with those who will be stripped of their citizenship and still be supportive of the NRC, all the while acknowledging that a fairly large number of people risk losing their citizenship despite being Indian citizens because of poor management. It is an important issue, and it needs to be properly discussed and debated. However, for that to happen, one needs to break away from the binaries that seem to have hijacked the current political discourse.