'No' to Muslim Festivals

The truth lies in the details. To understand why so many citizens in so many States have been continuing to raise their voice against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register (NPR) it is useful to go beyond the headlines and to read the fine print.

Recently, some eagle-eyed reporters spotted a glaring lacuna in the NPR "Instruction Manual" for the enumerators who carry out the door-to-door data collection. It is shocking that the Instruction Manual mentions only Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian religious festival holidays as a reference point for citizens who may not know their exact date of birth—the list of holidays and festivals does not include Muslim holidays at all.

While officially releasing the Manual, the Union Home Ministry emphasised that 'Date of Birth' is a very important item of information needed to compile the National Population Register. Since a large number of people may not know the exact date of their birth, enumerators have been advised to try to estimate the probable month of birth.

The Manual says: "If the respondent remembers only the year of birth but is not sure about the month of birth, ask whether the birth was before the rainy season or not. If the birth was before the rainy reason, one may further ask whether the birth was in the month during which some important festivals like New Year's Day, Guru Gobind Singh Jayanti, Makara Sankranti, Pongal, Republic Day, Basant Panchami, Maharishi Dayananand Saraswati Jayanti, Maha Shivratri, Holi, Gudi Padwa, Ramnavmi, Vaisakhi, Bihu, Mahabir Jayanti, Good Friday, Budh Purnima are celebrated and estimate the month of birth".

It adds: "Similarly, if the birth was during or after the rainy reason, you may probe and estimate the month of birth by asking whether the birth was in the month during which some important festivals like Naga Panchami, Janamashtmi, Raksha Bandhan, Independence Day, Ganesh Chaturthi, Onam, Dussehra, Gandhi Jayanti, Diwali, Bhai Duj, Maharishi Valmiki Jayanti, Chhath Puja, Guru Nanak Jayanti, Ayyappa Festival, Christmas festival are celebrated".

There is no mention whatsoever of Muslim festivals. Even in the detailed Annexure that has been provided with the Manual, the list of all-important festivals and holidays conspicuously omits mentioning any Muslim holidays.

Whether this exclusion of guidelines for NPR enumerators in regard to India's largest minority population, comprising an estimated 20 crore, is intentional or inadvertent is best left to the imagination. But it would inevitably lead to serious difficulties whenever the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise is undertaken all over the country.

It is relevant to note that when NRC was conducted in Assam some months ago there were tell-tale signs of religious bias. A fact-finding report by an NGO which looked into the functioning of Foreigners Tribunals in Assam, came out with certain disturbing observations—leading to the conclusion that the Tribunals were "trying to declare as many Bengali Hindus and Muslims as foreigners as possible".

The report entitled "Democracy under Detention: Horrors of NRC", which was released during a press conference at the Delhi Press Club much before the current nationwide agitations against NRC and CAA, provide eye-opening details of how the Foreigners Tribunals decide citizenship cases.

It needs to be kept in mind that the NRC final list, released on August 31, had declared over 19 lakh people to be "doubtful" citizens. Those excluded from the list would have to file appeals before the Tribunals across Assam to claim Indian citizenship.

The first grey area was the composition of the Tribunals—the eligibility criteria to select members was arbitrarily relaxed to hire more members and increase the number of tribunals from 100 to 300 as the NRC deadline approached.

Tribunal members have a two-year contract—but the contracts of some members were prematurely terminated—in fact about ten members have petitioned the Gauhati High Court challenging their dismissal.

The official reason given for the abrupt termination was that their "performance was poor" on the basis of the number of persons they had declared to be foreigners. For instance, if a Tribunal member declared only 10 out of the 300 cases as foreigners, the performance was marked as 'poor and not satisfactory' and his contract was terminated. However, a member who declared 160 of 200 people foreigners was given a 'good performance' rating.

However, a BJP minister was quoted as saying: "The state government controls the tribunals. Tribunal members are well-paid and given car facility, so why should they not do what we want"

Another shocking finding is about detention centres—which the Prime Minister falsely stated do not exit. One inmate described his ordeal in one of the detention centres where he spent five years—he was kept in "a small jail with 50 people where I used to get only two-foot space to sleep".

According to the report at least 25 people have died in detention centres. Shockingly, they had been declared as Bangladeshis whilst they were in the camps, but after they died their bodies were sent to their Indian homes.
The devil, therefore, is in the details of such tragic and sordid real-life stories.

After the messy Assam NRC was completed, 19 lakh people were left stateless. This figure is almost six per cent of Assam's population—it is also equal to the entire population of Nagaland and double the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

According to the latest count as many as ten out of the 13 NDA partners are now dead set against all-India NRC. The BJP leaders may have won the Lok Sabha elctions in May 2019, but judging by the non-stop mass protests by students and citizens in general, they do not have the support of the majority of Indians anymore as 2020 dawns.

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Vol. 52, No. 30, Jan 26 - Feb 1, 2020