Since December 2019, India has witnessed a series of protests against the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the government’s decision to create a National Register of Citizens (NRC). The CAA proposes to give fast-track citizenship to religious minorities of three neighboring countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. However, it blatantly excludes Muslims while failing to address the persecution of minorities in other neighboring nations like Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come under fire for forcefully detaining protesters, attacking innocent people and clamping down on all forms of opposition toward the new legislation. The government also came under public scrutiny by placing the capital Delhi under the National Security Act that allows the police to detain anyone for 12 months without trial.
According to a recent survey by India Today, 43% of people believe that the CAA and NRC are concerted attempts to divert people’s attention away from more important issues, such as the country’s economic slowdown. India is facing its slowest growth in years, with unemployment at its highest level in over four decades. The government is reportedly withholding data on issues such as unemployment and is revising economic growth numbers upwards.
The BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces several challenges, of which the most important is addressing concerns around the CAA, the NRC and the violation of secular tenets of the Indian Constitution. The government’s silence on critical issues is creating more anxiety among the public and, despite assurances from senior political leaders, fear that legal residents may face deportation is still widespread.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Sudhanshu Mittal, the vice president of the Indian Olympic Association, president of the Kho-Kho Federation of India and a member of the BJP, about the public’s concerns over the controversial legislation and the BJP’s image as a Hindu nationalist party.
The text has been edited for length and clarity.
Ankita Mukhopadhyay: The National Register of Citizens will be registering all Indian citizens. Many fear that some citizens could be excluded from the NRC. These excluded citizens would largely be Muslim because Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians can claim citizenship through CAA. What do you have to say about such fears?
Sudhanshu Mittal: Let us understand why there is the need for an NRC in the first place and whether there is opposition to it. In Assam, agitation against illegal immigrants began once population doubled. In normal conditions, within 10 years, the population should increase by approximately 20%. In 1971, 2 million [to] 2.5 million people had immigrated to Assam. However, the rate of population growth since then isn’t even close to 20%; it is a staggering 43%, which shows that several illegal immigrants have entered India after 1971.
When the NRC was conducted, the total number of identified illegal Bangladeshis was between 7-8 million. These folks were scared that they can be identified anytime. The NRC gave them the opportunity of faking their documents and becoming Indian citizens. So, Badruddin Ajmal [the head of the All India United Democratic Front in the state of Assam] welcomed the final list of the NRC because all of his brethren who feared identification got the time to become legitimate citizens of India.
How is the experience of the NRC against Muslims? I believe there has been a deliberate attempt to spread misinformation and play on fear psychosis.
Mukhopadhyay: Systems have loopholes, and the NRC is one of them. A legal citizen can be identified as illegal under the NRC. What is the remedy in such a case?
Mittal: There are remedies for an error like that. When the first list of the NRC was out, it had identified 4 million people as illegal immigrants. The final list has 2 million names. There were startling cases of exclusion, and the mistake was rectified by including these people. In systems that have inadequacies, there is the possibility of abrasion. But should one use the abrasion to completely discredit the system? I believe that the system should be evaluated on its norms, not its exceptions or abrasions.
Let us understand what the NRC is. The NRC is merely a database of all Indian citizens. It is an exercise which identifies and records for the country who its citizens are. Every country must know who its citizens are. I fail to understand the opposition to this. I understand that there is an apprehension that it will leave out a lot of people. But we must understand that there are multiple documents to prove one’s citizenship in order to be included in the NRC. The apprehensions and fear psychosis that has been created around the NRC is unfounded because in the NRC, what is true for a Muslim person is true for a Hindu, Christian or Parsi. The documentation required for the NRC doesn’t look at religion — it only looks at documents that prove Indian citizenship.
Mukhopadhyay: There is a lot of confusion around the documents that need to be furnished to be included in the NRC. Why is the government silent on the guidelines of the NRC?
Mittal: There can be over 100 documents to prove one’s citizenship. When the NRC was conducted in Assam, there were some 17-18 documents that were declared valid to prove one’s citizenship. It’s not about possessing one card — it is multiple evidences that can establish your citizenship. If anyone has a problem with the process, there is an appellate authority to resolve the issue. It’s not a bureaucratic exercise that leaves no remedy in case of an error.
The eruption of fear around the NRC was largely fueled by some people with political interests. They spread false information to accentuate fear in the minds of Muslims, convincing them that this will be discriminatory to them, whereas facts are contrary to that. The NRC was welcomed by the Muslim leadership in Assam.
Mukhopadhyay: What will happen to those who are identified as non-citizens? Where will they go?
Mittal: Identification will not lead to deportation. This is a fact that must be understood by everyone. Every country takes decisions based on a few facts and makes decisions based on the practicality and desirability of the solution.
Identification has been misconstrued as deportation. You have to understand that if we deport people, the other country must accept them, right? I can push you out, but if the other country doesn’t take you in, then the entire exercise is fruitless. Once we identify that you’re not a legal citizen of India, we will disenfranchise these people. The fate of Indian democracy must be decided by its citizens and not by non-citizens. This is similar to a restriction on owning property in India. For example, a foreigner can’t own property in India without the permission of the Reserve Bank of India. There are various implications of the identification. Deportation isn’t the only implication.
Mukhopadhyay: Why has the government not explicitly mentioned this anywhere?
Mittal: As I said earlier, we haven’t explicitly mentioned this because that’s not been the experience of those who underwent the exercise of the NRC. Has anyone deported the people identified as illegal in Assam under the NRC?
Mukhopadhyay: There are reports of detention camps in Assam for those identified as illegal under the NRC. What is the purpose of the detention camps?
Mittal: Assam had detention camps … before the NRC was implemented. There were tribunals that decided the fate of a person who was presumed to be an illegal immigrant, and those identified were sent to detention camps. These camps were not made specifically for the CAA and NRC. This is also misinformation being spread by those with political interests.
Mukhopadhyay: There is a lot of confusion between the National Population Register (NPR) and the NRC. How is the NPR different to NRC? Are they related?
Mittal: There’s a lot of unnecessary fear about the NRC, and everything is being linked to it. This situation reminds me of the days when the Aadhaar card, India’s biometric ID system, was made a mandatory identification. People thought it would be an indirect route to conduct an NRC. But Aadhaar is merely an identification of residents, not citizens of this country. There is a distinction between a resident and a citizen of this country. Similarly, the NPR is a list of usual residents who have lived in a local area for the last six months or more.
Mukhopadhyay: The BJP has been criticized intensely for excluding Muslims under the Citizenship Amendment Act. What does your party aim to achieve through the CAA?
Mittal: I will reiterate what senior members of the BJP have said: That the CAA aims to give citizenship to people who are already in India, but on the ground of religious persecution.
Mukhopadhyay: What about those minorities like the Rohingya, who are persecuted in countries like Myanmar? Why were they excluded?
Mittal: Myanmar isn’t a theocratic state. India didn’t take the Rohingya in because they came to India via Bangladesh. And the Rohingya wanted to enter India for economic reasons, not because they were persecuted religiously. When Myanmar expelled them, the Rohingya felt the heat and went to Bangladesh. From there, they entered India. They are not people who migrated to India from Myanmar, they came from Bangladesh.
As I said, the persecution of one community in Myanmar is not equivalent to the persecution of religious minorities in Bangladesh, because Bangladesh is a theocracy and Myanmar is a non-theocratic state.
Mukhopadhyay: The BJP could have simply solved the illegal immigration issue by tightening the borders.
Mittal: Border fencing is being pursued strictly by this government. Earlier governments thrived on illegal immigrants. Why is Mamata Banerjee [the chief minister of West Bengal] opposing border fencing in Bengal? Because her largest vote bank today is the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who are settled in West Bengal. It’s the vote-bank politics that compromises with the national interest to prevent illegal immigration in this country.
Mukhopadhyay: How is the BJP planning to implement the CAA and NRC even amidst opposition in several states?
Mittal: As per the constitution, citizenship is the sovereign function of the center. A state doesn’t have any say on matter of citizenship. Indian states don’t have locus standi to prevent any exercise to identify illegal citizens of this country. We will go ahead with it as it’s the function and responsibility of the center.
Mukhopadhyay: The Delhi Police is under public scrutiny after policemen beat up protesters in Jamia Millia Islamia university and Seelampur. What happened? Do you think the police went overboard and has to be held to account for its actions?
Mittal: I have one question for you: Was there violence preceding the police action? Fundamental to law and order is the presumption that nobody is permitted to take law into their own hands. If order has to be maintained, law has to be enforced. If buses are burned, if violence is perpetrated, if public property is damaged, what is the police expected to do? Is it expected to be a mute spectator or go after the rioters?
The Delhi Police beat up the mob when it started to commit violence. The Delhi Police entered the premises of Jamia Millia Islamia after the mob entered the campus. Jamia’s administration had a responsibility to prevent outsiders from entering the campus. If outsiders are rioters who belong to the mob and damage public property, then they have to be held up, right?
Mukhopadhyay: There are reports of innocent students who were beaten up by the police in Jamia Millia Islamia. What do you have to say about that?
Mittal: If any excess has been committed, an inquiry will be conducted. The police has no right to beat up an innocent student. An inquiry will determine whether the students were innocent or not, whether they were part of the rioters or they were themselves perpetrators. Police has acted only when violence has taken place and public property has been damaged. In Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the police had to become a silent spectator as they weren’t allowed inside the campus. On one hand, people say things like, Where is the police when violence is taking place? On the other hand, you say the police shouldn’t enter a university campus. You can’t have double standards.
Mukhopadhyay: Why did the police choose to be a mute spectator when students were beat up in JNU?
Mittal: The police is not allowed to enter the JNU campus unless the vice chancellor allows them [to]. You can’t have rules of engagement suiting your convenience.
Mukhopadhyay: There is a lot of negative news coverage on the JNU incident and police violence against protesters. How does the BJP plan to address this negative image?
Mittal: Why is no one talking about the violence which took place during the protests? Why is everybody silent on that? Do we endorse rioting? Do we endorse damage to public property? Do we endorse the beating of innocent people by rioters? Do we endorse the burning of buses?
Mukhopadhyay: Who are these rioters?
Mittal: Either political activists or people who have been misled into believing that they will be discriminated against by the CAA and NRC. There are political outfits which have successfully created false campaigns and inculcated fear psychosis to the extent that at the slightest of bidding, violence can be instigated in India.
Mukhopadhyay: Recent government actions such as the passing of the CAA, the construction of the Ram Mandir temple in Ayodhya and the abrogation of Section 370 in the state of Jammu and Kashmir have caused unease among Muslims. Is the BJP anti-Muslim?
Mittal: Let us analyze each issue. Jammu and Kashmir is not a Muslim issue. It’s a regional issue. How is the abrogation of Section 370 in Kashmir an anti-Muslim issue? This move was an administrative one. Jammu and Kashmir also has Kashmiri Pandits, who are as passionate about Kashmir as the Muslims. It’s a regional issue, and not an issue of Islam.
The other thing you talked about is the judgement on the Ram temple. That is not the handiwork of this government. It was a judicial process and, in the process, the judgement was delivered. How can this be attributed to the BJP?
The CAA too has nothing to do with Muslims. A certain political section is frustrated and fears complete annihilation, owing to which they are creating false propaganda and distilling fear in the public.
We are nationalists. We perform what we think is our national duty. The BJP doesn’t do things for electoral gains. The electoral gain is incidental. Any government that has done good work will inform people about their work. And we like to be judged on our work.
Mukhopadhyay: Why has the Indian media been critical of these measures?
Mittal: After a long time, the media has got an opportunity to lash out against the government. If you remember, most of Indian media is left-dominated and hostile to the right wing. This hostile media was on the receiving end after their doomsday seers incorrectly predicted a loss for Narendra Modi in the 2019 election. Now, reeling under that onslaught, the media got an opportunity to lash back, and they have exploited it to the full.
Another example is the violence that was showcased by the media in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). In UP, the violence was actually contained by the state government, as it was very forthcoming and strict, particularly toward those who damaged public property and took law into their [own] hands. Sporadic protests in the state were deliberately shown out of proportion to create an impression that this is an all-India phenomenon, which is quite unfortunate, in my opinion.
Mukhopadhyay: There are parallels being drawn between the BJP government and that of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The UPA government didn’t undertake any harsh or violent measures when a national anti-corruption movement was organized against the government by Anna Hazare in 2011. The term “state oppression” is being used for the Modi government. Does the BJP want to suppress any form of dissent?
Mittal: If the way Anna Hazare was picked up from Ramlila ground and his supporters were lathi-charged — if that was not state oppression, then what is state oppression? In 2011, the anti-corruption movement was completely silent and non-violent, but violence was carried out against innocent protesters by the UPA government. Today, there is violence being perpetrated on sites of protest. We are trying to contain violence by acting against it. There’s a qualitative difference.
Mukhopadhyay: India is currently facing an economic slowdown. Many attribute it to the BJP’s 2016 demonetization policy. Do you agree?
Mittal: I completely disagree. To date, nobody has been able to give me the analogy of how demonetization has affected the economy. Please understand that the money was not taken away by the government. What affects the economy adversely is a lack of liquidity. During demonetization, there was no lack of liquidity. The public was only inconvenienced for a month, when they faced problems in withdrawing money and conducting financial transactions. In fact, [all the] money that came into the economy following demonetization went to the banking channel. If the money [was put back into] the economy, I fail to understand how has it has affected the economy. This baffles me.
India is seeing an economic downturn because the kind of foreign direct investment (FDI) we anticipated didn’t come into the economy. An infusion of capital is fundamental to economic growth. There are multiple reasons for low FDI, including trade tensions between the US and China. In addition, a lot of judicial orders have created discontinuity in business, like the cancellation of licenses. India has also become riskier for investors.
Mukhopadhyay: What is the plan to get the economy back on track?
Mittal: Stable government is critical for economic growth. In the last five years, the Congress [India’s main opposition party] acted irresponsibly by opposing for the sake of opposing. They snowballed all reforms we attempted because they had a majority in the Rajya Sabha [upper house of Parliament].
The reaction to the goods and services tax (GST) by the Congress is a testimony of irresponsible politics. Instead of bipartisanship, they have chosen to play politics with the future of this country, which is unfortunate. Today, we have the majority in both Lok Sabha [lower house] and Rajya Sabha, I think we will see a lot of reforms and initiatives and lot of speed which were earlier blunted by the obstructionism of the Congress using their majority in the Rajya Sabha.
Mukhopadhyay: Under the BJP, the idea of a Hindu Rashtra has become prominent. Does the BJP plan to create a Hindu religious identity for India?
Mittal: The BJP has always rejected theocracy. We have rejected the concept of the Hindu Rashtra as the BJP doesn’t believe in theocracy. If that is the core stance of the BJP, then where is the fear of a Hindu Rashtra coming from?
Mukhopadhyay: Why is this fact not out in the public?
Mittal: This depends on media coverage. Although senior leaders of the BJP have stated this clearly, the Lutyens’ media has underreported this aspect.
Mukhopadhyay: However, your government is viewed as draconian owing to measures like the implementation of Section 144 that prohibits public gathering of more than four people, and directives being issued to the media for reporting on the protests over the CAA. Your government is also being labeled as fascist in the media.
Mittal: I fail to understand where this is coming from. In India, the media is free. Your independence to write has never been under challenge. The fact that so much is written against the government shows that the media is free. The evidence is out there, as the media freely and continuously writes against the government.
This kind of news is being propagated by the opposition that has chosen to become irresponsible in their lust for power. No low is low for the opposition. Once upon a time, national interest was paramount. When the Kargil War between India and Pakistan was going on in 1999, the Congress remained silent and never criticized the government. In fact, they supported the endeavor. Contrary to that, when the Pulwama attack took place, the way media acted indicated the lust for power of the opposition, which has discarded sensibility.
*[Updated: April 8, 2020, at 12:30 GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.