The NRC causes widespread panic among Muslim communities

Construction work for the country’s first detention centre for illegal migrants is underway in Assam’s Goalpara district. It is expected to hold upto 3,000 individuals declared to be “foreigners” by Foreigners Tribunals. There is growing panic among Muslims outside Assam, as various leaders of the ruling party have demanded that this kind of exercise be extended to the rest of India. ZISHAAN A LATIF FOR THE CARAVAN
19 September, 2019

On 1 September, a Twitter user living in Maharashtra sent a direct message to the handle of Indian Civil Liberties Union, a collective of lawyers and activists that aims to “fight against hate mongering, discrimination and corruption.” A Muslim from Pune, he had queries about the National Register of Citizens—a citizenship list published by the government that aims to identify who qualifies as an Indian citizen and, significantly, exclude those who do not. The final list, published on 31 August, excludes over 1.9 million individuals. These people have 120 days to prove their citizenship before foreigners’ tribunals—quasi-judicial courts empowering district magistrates to decide whether a person living illegally in India is a foreigner or not.

When assured that the NRC was for Assam, the Twitter user replied, “What if implemented across India? So wanted to correct all things in advance.” He said his grandfather had moved to Maharashtra before the 1930s, and that he was not from Assam.

The publication of the final list has created a wave of panic, with many Muslims wondering what the implications of an NRC-like exercise for the rest of India would mean. Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party have demanded similar measures be taken in their states, such as in Delhi and West Bengal. Amit Shah, the union home minister, has repeatedly declared his commitment to making this a national project. “Various people have raised all kinds of questions about national register of citizens,” he said, during his address, in Guwahati, to the chief ministers of the northeastern states soon after the publication of the list. “I want to clearly say that not a single illegal migrant will be allowed to stay in the country by the government of India. That is our commitment.”

A gazette notification about updating the National Population Register, or NPR—a proposed database of all Indian residents, distinct from the NRC—has added to the sense of anxiety. Messages on social media urging people to collect their identity papers and government-issued documents have sent people scrambling.

“Most of the people who have contacted us are Muslims,” Shivangi Sharma, a law student, told me. Sharma is a member of the Indian Civil Liberties Union, and answers a helpline dedicated to callers seeking information about the NRC. “Most of the calls and emails are from Indian Muslims who live abroad, or from rural areas, asking us about what documents are needed, how to collect family-legacy data and so on,” she said. She has fielded several phone calls and nearly sixty messages on Twitter and Facebook since 1 September.

“There is absolute panic,” Nesar Ahmad, the coordinator of the Jaipur-based Budget Analysis Rajasthan Centre, told me. “I’ve been getting social media messages saying, ‘Gather all your certificates and keep them ready,’ and these types of messages have increased in the past one month. The messages are on my family groups, school friends and friends’ groups.”

Ahmad is originally from Bihar, but has been working in Rajasthan for the past decade. His father passed away last year without transferring the family property to his son’s name. Ahmad says he will get this done on a priority basis, so that he can show that he is the heir. “You can own property, but even that doesn’t prove anything,” he said. “You would have to be a resident of India for ten generations, going by the noises the BJP is making. There is panic among Muslims only, because the government is saying they will amend the citizenship act to make it easier for Hindus, Sikhs and Christians from neighbouring nations to gain Indian citizenship.”

In response to the growing anxiety about who qualifies as a citizen, a few individuals have been using social media to clarify the situation. Faizan Mustafa, the vice chancellor of NALSAR University of Law in Hyderabad and a well known commentator on constitutional affairs, uploaded a video, on 24 August, called “Who is an Indian Citizen, NPR is not NRC.” The video is part of Mustafa’s legal-awareness web series on YouTube. The explainer has the highest number of views of all his videos. Ahmad told me that Mustafa’s video went viral on social media and WhatsApp groups, and brought a sense of relief to many.

In the video, Mustafa explains that anyone born in India between 26 January 1950 and 30 June 1987 is a citizen by virtue of birth. People born between 30 June 1987 and 2 December 2004 are citizens if either of their parents is a citizen. Those who were born after the latter date are considered citizens if both their parents are citizens, or if one parent is a citizen and the other is not an illegal migrant.

“So many people were making distress calls to me and sending emails, expressing fears that in case NRC is implemented in the rest of the country, the cut off date will be 19 July 1949, unlike in Assam where it is 1971,” Mustafa told me. He added that the panic in Muslim communities, in particular, reached a crescendo a month before the publication of the final NRC list, and that people were searching for documents going back to 1949 to prove their citizenship. According to the Constitution, anyone who migrated to India before July 1949 was automatically an Indian citizen if either of their parents or grandparents were born in India. Those who entered after this date had to register themselves.

“If you look at the statements from the ruling dispensation, there is every indication that they want an NRC nationally, but NPR is only about residence,” Mustafa told me. Apart from confusion about who is an Indian citizen, people are worried about spelling mistakes in their legal documents. “Yesterday, I got an email from someone in Uttar Pradesh, who said her father’s name is Zafar Siddiqui, but in the document it was Siddique Zaffar,” Mustafa said. “People are suffering for minor clerical errors.”

The profusion of messages on social-media platforms, often contradictory, is adding to the confusion. To get a sense of this, I spoke to Sanobar Fatma, who handles social media for the Indian Civil Liberties Union. With the deluge of messages, part of Fatma’s time also goes into debunking fake news. She forwarded me a message she had seen on WhatsApp. A document titled, “National Register of Citizens Updating Process (April 01, 2020–September 30, 2020)”—the dates refer to the timeline for updating the NPR, not the NRC—lists two sets of papers that a person purportedly needs, classified into two lists. List A contains 14 documents, including electoral rolls up to 1971, land records, insurance certificate and passport. List B mentions eight documents, including birth certificate and ration card.

“There is so much misinformation going around,” Fatma told me. “Pictures of half-constructed buildings are being passed off as detention centres. There is talk that what is happening to Uighur Muslims in China will happen here and other such messages.” When Fatma tried tracking the origin of the messages by calling the people who forwarded it, they said, “Our maulana told us this.” When she spoke to the maulana, he denied sending such a message.

The reasons for alarm, however, are understandable. Construction work for the country’s first detention centre for illegal migrants has started in Assam’s Goalpara district, and has been entirely funded by the union government. It is one of 11 centres being planned in the state.

“There is a general sense of apprehension, not just among Muslims, but Hindus as well,” Mazhar Hussain, the executive director of the Confederation of Voluntary Agencies—a Hyderabad-based network of organisations working for social justice—told me. “Some people are being proactive about gathering their documents and correcting clerical mistakes in them.” However, he said, “Although it has not been announced in the rest of India, you never know what will happen, particularly given the statements from ruling-party members.” Hussain added that the apprehensions among mainland Muslims were also being fanned by the “serious flaws” in the NRC process in Assam.

Anas Tanwir, a lawyer based in Delhi, has been helping out with NRC cases in Assam. He started the Indian Civil Liberties Union to facilitate the work, and has received a flood of calls from Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal, including from his family. Tanwir is from Varanasi, and said he has documents that prove his family has resided in Uttar Pradesh since at least 1857. “My surname is Tanwir, and it can be spelled in different ways in documents,” he told me. He said he had got phone calls from family members with queries about which documents to start collecting, and how to correct discrepancies. He has also got calls from relatives who migrated to Mumbai in the 1980s.

“The panic is excessive, but the fears are not unfounded, given that the home minister has made certain statements regarding NRC in the rest of the country, and it was part of the presidential address,” Tanwir said. “We must be prepared for it.”