When in doubt, go straight: informed thoughts about my India

29 December 2019: Second post (first post towards the tail of this)

Over the last several days, I spent time to understand more about the citizenship knots our country and its polity seems to have gotten itself into. As an apolitical guy, I had little allegiance to offer justification to any of the actors (good, bad or incidentals).

Here is my read of the situation and what I think (in my humble opinion) should be way forward. Sometimes, an adversity opens up gateways to opportunities.

If you remember your class ninth chemistry class, never was potassium permanganate (used to clean water tanks) and glycerine (used as a skin hydrator in winters and as tear triggers in Bollywood) by their own combustible. Put them together in a cotton swab and lo behold you have fire. Just like that.

Now, that is what NRC and CAA (formerly CAB) combination looks like. I know everyone already knows this. But it is important to establish the grounding here.

The CAA in a nutshell provides citizenship to religious minorities (non-Muslims) from three neighboring countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan). After reading ‘the Act’, I understand it is only for people who entered India up until December 31, 2014 and meet the above criteria (basically – non-Muslims given these three countries are Islamic theocracies). Per the Information Bureau, 30,000 illegal migrants will be naturalised as Indian citizens. That is a paltry number—a drop in the ocean of India’s 1.3 billion headcount. But is that number accurate? I have my doubts. Anyone who has a more realistic number is welcome to share and educate me. Also, there is no talk about the number of illegal Muslim migrants this act will not naturalise as citizens. 

Up until now, CAA is not very EVIL. It improves the living condition of 30,000-odd illegals migrants and ignores an unknown number of illegal Muslim migrations. The operative word ought to be ‘illegal’ and NOT ‘Muslim’. 

The bottom line is: The Republic of India is affording a second chance to a section of people who fled to our nation for reasons best known to them. This is not an obligation that the current regime or any regime needs to fulfill. It is an act of benevolence – at least on the surface. (Balaji S. Iyer)

Now, why does it NOT seem so?   

In my view, NOT because it is faulty or as many claim unconstitutional (well may be the case) but because by excluding illegal Muslim migrants (I don’t want to use euphemisms), this puts our country as less than what it is and has been – the absorbent of all who need place to call a home. As simple as that. India is an idea that has transcended millennia and the roughness that the world has seen and still survived as one of the longest surviving continuous civilisations. Sure, we have been reduced to rubble by the British empire, the multiple invasions by greedy and merciless kings from outside (including the Mongols (remember Genghis Khan), the Muslims (incl. Qassim, Timur, Nadir Shah or Ahmed Shah Abdali), the French, the Portuguese, etc.

But India was never eradicated or totally assimilated into the invading culture. Do you know why? Because of our plurality — we as a civilization and culture presented such a diverse challenge to invaders that they could NEVER get their arms around us fully. Yes, we changed with them, evolved alongside and absorbed their culture but never got absorbed. 

What can (or rather should) we do?

Can we open the naturalisation to everyone who meets a ‘safe criteria’ that can be frame-worked after involving key constituents of our nation (incl. the elected, selected, the forces, the intelligence, the religious bodies, and importantly the tax payer)? We don’t want the criminals, we don’t want the fundamentalists, we don’t want the scum, we don’t want those who will NOT assimilate within this diverse and plural society. We don’t want to repeat the current day France or Germany where refugees are hijacking the local culture and running it into dirt. We want none of these kinds – irrespective of their religion. 

We want those who can enrich us and our land. We want those who can expound the idea of India for generations to come. India needs to expand and NOT shrink for what it has always stood for — the magnanimous heart land of those whose idea of the world and life has transcended both the world and life they inhabit. 

Now what is this National Register of Citizenship (NRC)?

The NRC is supposed to be a register of all Indian citizens. Easy-peasy. Shouldn’t every country have one? Most do. Shouldn’t India have one too? So what is the big fuss? When that question is asked like that it seems straightforward, reasonable and the right thing to do. 

But let us explore an alternate framing. The nexus between CAA and NRC is well explained in many online sources – but for readers who want to get it all in one place, here goes. 

The CAA will naturalise all illegal migrants (except illegals Muslim migrants) from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan as an Indian Citizen.

Once that is done, the NRC kicks in (god knows in what form) and starts validating the citizenship of every Indian. Now if you are a Muslim you MAY have it rough and if you are Muslim and poor, well it is difficult to feel at ease. There is a slim but realistic chance of that happening and here is why. Chances are that many Indians including Hindus and people of other religious denominations will find paperwork to be flaky — I mean who would have thought that one day they will have to prove citizenship and most of what we believe as proof of citizenship may not hold good stead (like our passport, Aadhar card, PAN Card, etc.). Now if you are Hindu, Sikh, Jain, etc. you MAY be isolated as unable to prove citizenship because as a nation documentation has not been our strong point – more acute a problem in the lower strata of the society — but then you MAY have a window to citizenship through CAA. But if you are an Indian Muslim who is unable to prove citizenship on the same account (difficulties with documentation) you MAY be in trouble. And that leap of faith is NOT difficult to make. 

I did some digging to find out about the origins of CAA and NRC.

And boy isn’t it fascinating to track down the chronological trail and identify the people and political parties that got us here. And BJP just happens to be now and here… Congress has been in on it from the start (read on):

Major milestones along CAA and NRC (since 1955)

  1. 1955: The Citizenship Act (1955): In simple terms, according to the law, anyone born in India on or after January 1, 1950 is a citizen by birth. 
    • PM: Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru (Congress) 
  2. 1979-1983 Assam movement 
    • Assamese public started a movement demanding identification and deportation of ‘all’ illegal Bangladeshi migrants. This public movement was about deporting all (Hindu, Muslims, etc.) who were non-Indian citizens. The then PM was fully supportive and clear that all need to go back (to Bangladesh) and made an official announcement on this matter.
    • PM: Indira Gandhi (Congress)
  3. Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1986
    • Amendment to the act: Limits citizenship by birth to those born between January 1,1950 to January 1, 1987
    • PM: Rajiv Gandhi (Congress) 
  4. Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1992
    • Amendment to the act: Expands the coverage of citizenship by birth to include people born after 1992 amendment is enacted if either of their parents are Indian.
    • PM: P.V. Narasimha Rao (Congress)
  5. Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 – game starts to change
    • Amendment to the act: Those born after December 3, 2004 will be deemed a citizen of India by birth if one parent is an Indian citizen the other parent is NOT an illegal immigrant. Concept of illegal immigrants introduced into the mix – making illegal immigrants ineligible for citizenship. Importantly, the Act mandated the Government of India to construct and maintain a National Register of Citizens. Concept of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) for citizens of other countries who are of Indian origin.
    • PM: A.B. Vajpayee (BJP / NDA) 
  6. Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2005
    • Amendment to the act: Provided that no person, who is or had been a citizen of Pakistan, Bangladesh or such other country as the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify, shall be eligible for registration as an overseas citizen of India. Abolished the Fourth Schedule of the original act – which means they narrowed down the suspect country list for illegal migrant classification. Opened up more people for potential citizenship but carefully excluded people from Pakistan and Bangladesh. 
    • They did nothing to challenge or remove the NRC from the act.
    • PM:  Dr Manmohan Singh (Congress / UPA)
  7. Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2015
    • Amendment to the act: Bars any person whose parents/grandparents/ great-grandparents were citizens of Pakistan or Bangladesh to apply for Overseas Citizenship of India.  
    • PM: Narendra Modi (BJP / NDA)
  8. Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019
    • Amendment to the act: Makes room for illegal migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who are non-Muslims to apply for Indian citizenship.
    • PM: Narendra Modi (BJP / NDA)

Now, how come Congress is playing into the protests? Congress has been either actively or passively supporting deportation of all illegal migrants especially from Bangladesh and Pakistan. So, at a minimum, they may agree with BJP on deporting illegal Muslim immigrants. That’s a first – or is it?

Coming back to NRC, here are some questions to ask… 

What was the population census all about then? What was the UID / Aadhar, which now has constitutional status and is mandatory for all Indian Citizens to have and cross link all about? Don’t we already have a National Register of Citizens through these PLUS PAN, Ration Card, a million other scheme cards? 

Acknowledging the legitimate concerns of illegal migrations to India and how many of them got Indian ID cards owing to vote bank politics – there MAY be a need to review the Citizenship data (and perhaps NOT a fresh NRC exercise).

How big is the problem in states outside of border states in North East, Punjab and J&K? Why a hammer to slay a proverbial fly? How many such illegal migrations are based in Karnataka or Madhya Pradesh or Goa?

How about an internal consolidation exercise to streamline the data the government already has to true up the citizenship list? And any gaps or discrepancies are handled in a gentle and caregiving way by reaching out to the citizens for data validation and proof submission thereof. Citizens unless proven otherwise!!!

Consolidate what you already have (which should be 90%+) and then stitch the remaining story together by collective public-private citizenship framework.

What is the NEED for another one? What is going to be the cost to create this new NRC (or equivalent) — cost in rupee terms, impact on fiscal deficit increase, cost in terms of lost economic value from loss of labour days, the humanitarian cost of putting an entire nation of 1.3 billion people through a process of proving their citizenship by standing in lines, fretting over old documents, proving why a photograph of cat is on your grandmother’s Aadhar card is NOT her fault but of the UID third party agency which goofed up, Yada yada yada… Think about ‘Demonetization’ hassles and just exponentially magnify the sheer physical stress and mental frustration and you can only start to visualise the nation-wide NRC.

The worst case is NOT your money being worthless BUT being transported to a detention camp to lead your life as a prisoner of your own state. If you have doubts, I recently dug up information on a Karnataka detention centre being built near Nelamangala (40 kms out of Bangalore).

The current agitation in Assam about CAA is NOT based on liberal lines. The agitation in Assam supports NOT giving citizenship to any illegal migrants – be it Hindu or Muslim- and having them deported to Bangladesh. The BJP here is going in for granting citizenship to a portion of those who will be eventually displaced – so better marks for a bit of open heart and minus points for excluding Muslims from their generosity. 

While Rahul Gandhi / Congress and Aam Aadmi party activists, by supporting the Assam agitation, are actually supporting a more brute all must go protest. Very conveniently masking the protest as ‘for constitution’ and ‘for people’ – well then have the galls to say things as they are. Congress and AAP (and many others) want to use this opportunity against BJP and may be fine supporting a less humanitarian option through. Oh, VOTE BANK POLITICS!

As my favourite journalist, Shekar Gupta, said on this matter “Iss hamaam mein sabb nange hain!” (In English: everyone is nude in this public bath).

See the refreshing fact-based video by Shekhar Gupta 

A tabular view of how polity is staking up:

BJP / NDA Play: Hindutva identity and altering dynamics in North East and West Bengal to create long term vote bank.
Congress and allies Play: Amplify the protest sentiments. Add fuel to fire. Huge gains by destabilizing the BJP deck.   Deceptively opposing the CAA and NRC, which they brought in and have supported while in power through original act and subsequent amendments.
Assam Gana Parishad Play: wants all illegal migrants to be kicked out.    Which political party is supporting them? Are those parties supporting AGP ready to say to their vote banks that they are supporting mass scale disenfranchising of Hindu and Muslims in Assam?   Some homework for the readers: Which NGOs are supporting the Assam protests?
Aam Aadmi Party Play: Initially wait and watch to sense public sentiments around CAA / NRC. Interestingly, silent in the initial weeks of this development. But now stepping up the heat on the government through protest and social media.   A viable alternative political engine in this country. But sadly, playing the misinformation game too. AK in his tweet asks the govt. Who will pay for the 3 crore non-Muslims in the three neighbouring countries? Well, the CAA is not about bringing new migrants – read the act! Please do.AK tweets “The entire country is on fire” – well, NO. It is NOT. He tweets ‘all factories are shutting down’ – well, NO. They are NOT. Really ‘ALL’?   A realistic hope down the drain with AK at the helm.
Didi / Trinamool CongressWant all illegal migrants to stay and vote for them. It makes for a great vote bank to keep them there and NOT grant them citizenship – but somehow get them to vote. Wow!

To my dear Protestors

I understand many of you are part of different political denominations and many are perhaps not. First, you need to ask yourself, who are you standing next to when you protest? What is their ideology, their motives and affiliations?  Do you even remotely agree with each other except you perhaps don’t like the BJP? Please do not join hands for the sake of convenience just because it serves the short term. 

When Rahul Gandhi drums up tweets supporting the protest – is he ready to disenfranchise the stand officially taken by his Grandma and Daddy? Heck does he even know what stand they took?  Does Mamta Banerjee?

But also, importantly, protest – but peacefully. You have no right to destroy public and private property? No sir and madam – there is just no explanation here that will cut it. You will NOT stop normal course of life for others — you made your choice to protest and some others chose to carry on with their work. Next time your loved one is up for a lifesaving and time sensitive surgery, just pray the surgeon is not standing next to you in the protest or worst held up by the mob. Act like a civil (and civilized society).

Let us get some empathy going for the police force which faces an angry mob, which pelts stones at their colleagues. How do you expect them to respond when their lives are at danger? While you give that a thought, just think about how you react when a biker brushes against your car in traffic – how compassionate or calm are you? Interestingly, the policemen may actually be supportive of the protest but still turned up to do his or her duty – so have some respect.

Now just to punch back: 

Messages floated by protesters: Being Apolitical is being pro status quo – and that is being political. 

My response: Well NO. Being apolitical is like being an atheist. I just believe in one less god than you do. Period. 

To my Government / Sarkar

Your role is to represent us – Junta. Act on our goodwill placed on your shoulders… what do we make of you when you turn your guns and troops on us? What do we make of you when you start to decide for us – the Junta, on behalf of we the people? You are not the freehold owner of this country, you at best have a power of attorney to administer on our behalf, to execute our will with prudence, balance and grace.

So, open conversational forums. Stop telling and start asking what the country needs. You don’t have to figure all of this out yourself – part reason is you cannot. We will help. Start by asking – and NOT rhetorically. 

It is NO other way that we the people of this country will have it.

I see you. And I will see you at the next elections.

19 December 2019 – Initial post

Full disclosure: I am an apolitical chap (now that means, I don’t care at all about political parties and their associated politics. In general, I have a healthy skepticism about anyone who is in a position of power (often even about myself when I have whatever little power I have). I expect that my participation in this country stays strictly limited to paying my taxes, being a decent human being, a steadfast citizen and voting in every election. I expect that elected and selected to do their jobs (well). I stay away from activist kinds as well – the hammers always looking for a nail. I am part of the privileged class in this country (at least I believe so): I am a Tamil Brahmin, Hindu, educated, have a (decently paying) job at an MNC, live in a tier 1 city (Bangalore), among other nuances that may make me privileged. And yes, I am opinionated.

Now if you are in the general ballpark of what I have described above and have been struggling to align your views on everything that is bursting at the seams regarding the NRC and Citizen amendment bill, you may want to read on.

It took me a few days (four to be precise) and a conversation with a politically active friend to even take any of this seriously. Honestly, I was proud about keeping my mind out of the ditch by staying away from news channels, social media and even the newspaper. Just too much noise everywhere.

But as I started to unpack all that is happening, I was left with questions about how I or others feel and also about what I or others are expected to feel. There is just too much internal and social pressure to a situation like this.

Here is the link to THE CITIZENSHIP (AMENDMENT) BILL, 2019

So here goes…

Is my (over populated) country in a position to accept and normalize refugees and asylum seekers? Does my country’s economics work to afford the incoming barrage of refuges? Is that the best use of my tax money? Does economics change basis the religion of the refugees? Am I ready to make the requisite concessions for refugees who are in the so called white listed religious groups?

How do my team members who are Muslims ‘feel’ about what is happening? Not what they should be ‘feeling’ but how they actually are. I was having lunch with one today and was enjoying the mouth watering jackfruit Biriyani she had prepared—and I forgot to ask how she felt. Privilege you see. Things did feel normal (well, to me).

How do Muslims, in general, feel about cohabitating in our country? Again, not what they should be feeling but how they really do. Do they feel the same way as I feel when I am stuck in a traffic jam in Shivaji Nagar? 

Do I feel this is not about Muslims? Not what I should feel but what I actually feel. I would ‘like’ to believe that is NOT the case. I would like to believe it is a benign and steadfast framework to provide for the promises made to people of Dharmic religious denominations (Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs — and by friendly extension the soft spoken white robbed friendly Father – the Christians) at the time of partition. Now, assuming positive intent is very important. Wouldn’t you agree? 

Do I feel all the sloganeering and protests by the activist junta is the face of courage and resistance against what they claim as a fascist regime? Who are the organised bodies behind these protests – are they the same political outfits who in the past have smeared our land in bigotry by drafting in laws that are actually being implemented now — and causing the widespread protests? 

How do I (and others like me) feel when a potentially productive day is wasted in traffic jam because you decide to protest on the road to my work – because you or your close kin may actually own the road. When ambulances get stuck for hours in the kilometer long jams that you inadvertently help creating, what should the family member of someone who either met with an accident or just had a cardiac arrest is fighting for her / his life and is in a rush to reach the hospital feel? Or what does she / he feel, whose car you just burned down because you were angry with the government? It is not what we should feel but what we really do.

And most of us are too timid to voice our concern as we fear for our well being as we feel that either side of the flank is aggressive and full of rage. And you believe you are right.

Am I afraid about writing this piece and putting it out there? Not whether I should be afraid but am I? Not only from the stereotypical saffron rage, but from the red, green and black rage of the protestors or of social ridicule from the high horsed intellectuals. The fact that I am still writing… and I still believe that my country is open, plural and accepting and overall alright. And I believe that even my voice and of those who want to steer clear of your left and right circus should be out there — don’t care if it is actually heard or not.

Here is my appeal to (not the powers that be) but the powers that are on both sides of the debate:

Those who are calling the shots: 

If your intentions be noble even towards those who you find difficult to include, make it your priority to assuage the fears, walk the extra mile in their shoes and offer them shoes that they need at this point. Just saying they got nothing to worry is not cutting it. Time for some genuine empathy and affirmative action.

Those who are calling them names: 

If you really want to bring about change in mindset, then stop holding on to your high intellectual horses, stop labelling those who are at work with choicest of your sarcastic haikus. That is if you really care about change of hearts and minds. No one made positive change happen by calling people names. Calling someone a hitler just does not work. Bruising egos seldom lead to generative outcomes. So look inward on what your true motivations are. Of course you are right and the other side is wrong. Isn’t it always?

I think asking questions of everyone who is trying to feed you with opinions on this matter is important. Some of those questions will be uncomfortable—and we should be first asking those questions to ourselves. There is a bigot in all of us who gets very uncomfortable with the inner activist. But they should converse. The activist needs to learn to talk and not talk down. The bigot – well.

So when in doubt, I would like to go straight. The left and the right – can you stop dragging me (and those like me) into your strife? 

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One thought on “When in doubt, go straight: informed thoughts about my India

  1. This is absolutely the exact mindset most of us are going through, Balaji and I am one of them. However the last few days here in my hometown in Assam, has brought in a host of other scenarios to think about. My Assamese folks (Hindus and Muslims alike) are protesting against CAA to keep the Assamese language and culture alive, fearing if this act is implemented, the Assamese would become a minority in their own state, not by religion, but by language and identity. Whereas the protests in Delhi, have a different agenda of their own. Both are right in their own way. I AM in doubt, but I don’t know if I should go straight this time (like always) ? However loved reading your thoughts, if only all of us could think in the same way, we might have been in a much better place!

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