ourEconomy: Opinion

How India is on the verge of a massive refugee crisis of its own making

The new Citizenship Amendment Act attacks migrant workers and is creating an army of stateless people.

Chandan Kumar Shweta Damle
23 March 2020
Protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register (NRP) on March 05, 2020 in Mumbai, India
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Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto/PA Images

India is grappling with a complex set of economic, environmental and social disenfranchisement issues of the poor and the vulnerable. We are witnessing unprecedented protests from people from diverse walks against the recently amended Citizenship Act 2019 (CAA), the National Population Register (NPR), and the National Register for Indian Citizens (NRC).

Before we begin to explore other facets of this Act, we need to understand that the NPR and NRC are part of the same Citizenship Act. Accordingly, there is an atmosphere of fear that a combined implementation of this amended Act along with the NPR and NRC will adversely affect the poor, marginalized, migrants, women, trans-gender, and tribal people. The very first issue will be that they will be deemed ‘doubtful voters’, and would lose their voting rights. In short, they will be completely stateless and voiceless.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (amendments made in 1986, 2003, 2019) attacks the core principle of our constitution by singling out Muslims. The current amendment welcomes six persecuted religious communities, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Paris and Christians, from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – but leaves out Muslims. This is despite the fact that the framers of our Constitution recognized the presence of diverse communities, based on religion, caste, languages and regions, that ultimately led to the adoption of secularism as the founding principle of India.

The implementation of the NRC in Assam has been extremely traumatic and chaotic. Hundreds of thousands of people were running from pillar to post to locate their documents to prove their citizenship. Families have been torn apart; where some members of the family have made it to the list, others have not. Not to mention that the cost incurred by those ‘doubtful’ to prove their citizenship has further pauperized the poor. The process has resulted in 19.06 hundred thousand people becoming illegal immigrants and stateless. Taking from the experiences of five functional detention camps in Assam, there is widespread overcrowding, inadequate food and medical care, difficulty in accessing legal support and no right to work. There have been more than 28 deaths reported from the detention camps in Assam.

The amendments to the Citizenship Act are a direct attack on two core principles that were enshrined in the Indian Constitution: first, adult suffrage and second, a very progressive methodology of giving citizenship, jus soli (citizenship by birth), which arose out of India's experience of colonialism.

During British rule, only 15 % of the Indian population was allowed to vote, the franchise was limited by the criteria of education, land, and income. The rest of the population was left voiceless and their needs underrepresented. The Nehru Report of 1928 and the Karachi Resolution of 1931 argued that the constitution of India must be ‘as broad a franchise as possible’ and must contain ‘adult suffrage’. The notion of adult suffrage was a political position and the beginning of the formation of a new India. This was to decolonize and encourage individual participation in the decision making processes. The aim was to ensure fairness, equality, and camaraderie. ‘One person one vote and one vote one value’ was the guiding principle.

Jus soli was adopted in 1948 by the Constituent Assembly after much deliberation. The mass movement of people from one region to another and the widespread violence, dispossession, and reallocation in the aftermath of the partition must not be forgotten. It was under these conditions that the need for a universalistic approach to citizenship was of utmost importance. This universalistic approach to citizenship was meant to bridge the inequalities and the vulnerabilities of people belonging to disadvantaged groups. The CAA is the latest and most extreme in a series of attempts to undermine this principle since its adoption.

The paradoxes that the poor, marginalized and migrants must face both by the state and society are humongous. Migration should be consciously debated as a crisis of citizenship. Millions of dispossessed rural people have been on the run in search of employment and livelihood. Most of them have never been recognized as a citizen or worker, once they cross regional boundaries. This leaves them open to having their wages stolen and severely limits their ability to organise, denying them any kind of bargaining power. With the hanging sword of NPR & NRC combined, informal migrant workers are bound to lose whatever little foothold they have achieved at destination. It also allows employers to easily shrug off their responsibilities towards social security. This will only worsen inequality in India, which already has among the worst structural inequality in the world, which comes from complex caste structures which are deeply embedded in our society.

The Economic Survey of India 2017 indicates the ease of mobility of people in the country. The number of migrants by place of last residence in India was 314.5 million in 2001. The figure rose to 453.6 million in 2011, showing an addition of 139 million, an average of about 14 million migrating every year. This is against the figure of 82 million migrants added during 1991-2001, implying that the decadal growth in migration went up up from 35.5% during 1991-2001to 44.2% during 2001-11.

Migration in India can be attributed to both push and pull factors, the push being the primarily landless, dispossessed and agricultural surplus of labour and the pull being the availability of work. Most of these migrant workers are engaged in the informal sector, where the labour laws protecting formal workers do not apply. The informal economy flourishes on the nature of its informality, as migrant workers do not have basic citizenship entitlements, including access to state welfare programmes. So in short, this entire system functions very well, as it suits the larger interest of capitalism.

Despite this ugly exploitation of the working poor, who are mostly Muslims, Dalits and Tribal people, on the economic front, they have never given up on political rights. For example, during the last parliamentary election, a huge number of migrant workers went back to their native states, just to exercise their democratic right to vote. But with this present effort of creating a register of ‘citizens and population’ (NPR & NRC), the present government is attempting to take away their political rights too. This entire effort is meant to allow voting rights only to the privileged or those who believe in the politics of majoritarians. And therefore, lack of trust in the present government by the marginalised has led to massive peaceful uprising across the country.

In conclusion, we can say that it is the nomadic, landless and migrant workers who either are Dalits and Muslims that will be hit hard by the implementation of CAA, NPR, NRC. They will be rendered 'doubtful citizens and their voting rights will be taken away. People on the margins have been exploited for a long time, but this time they are on the verge of becoming stateless. Their aspirations to be organized and access entitlements by using constitutional promises may go in vain. Adult franchise and the liberal jus soli principle of citizenship that enabled Indians, including migrants and the landless, to engage and question the polity, will be lost. This will lead to a massive upsurge of the downtrodden, mostly working poor to do whatever they can to save their substantive political rights. This is visible in the fear and mayhem the Act has created across the country, leading to peaceful protests but also state sponsored pogroms and communal riots.

India is clearly not prepared to deal with this. It is on the verge of creating the biggest refugee crisis in its history.

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