Heartburn over NRC is because India has never discussed religious privilege

HM Amit Shah reiterated government's commitment to implement NRC in Bengal (image: worldbulletin.in)

The other day Amit Shah arrived to inaugurate a Durga Puja pandal in Kolkata and reiterate the government’s commitment to implement the National Register for Citizens (NRC) in West Bengal.

The declaration set all sorts of tongues wagging. The first point that opponents seized on was the difficulty of producing documents to prove citizenship in a country so poor as India. For what it’s worth, poverty is not actually a natural calamity; it’s not like an earthquake nor a volcano. If a place is poor, there are ways for it to get rich. Observe how those who have advocated economic policies for 70 years that maximized poverty in West Bengal are also most vocal in asking how NRC can be implemented in the backdrop of widespread poverty. Clever of them to think of benefiting from West Bengal’s poverty both coming and going.

The second point that opponents seized upon is this: The NRC will obviously be accompanied by Citizenship Amendment Bill which will give immunity to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, etc, but not to Muslims. Is it not unfair to genuine Muslim citizens of India? Does it not violate the right to equality of all citizens?

No, it does not. The government treats people differently according to their circumstances all the time. A person who earns above Rs 5 crore in a year will pay a lot of their taxes in the 42% bracket. A person who earns less than Rs 5 lakh in a year will pay literally nothing in income taxes. Does that violate the right to equality? An ordinary salaried person might be required only to fill up the ITR-1 form at the end of the Financial Year. A salaried person who also invests in stocks would have to fill the much longer and much more onerous  ITR-2 form. Is that discrimination?

The whole issue of infiltration and NRC has to do with the Partition of India. Nobody can deny that the partition of India happened on religious lines. And when this partition happened, Muslims had a choice. They could choose to settle either in India or Pakistan. Hindus had no choice.

As with income taxes, the more fortunate end up paying more. Those who own many homes, many businesses and make a lot of income must pay more tax and fill in more forms. Those who earn less than 5 lakh pay nothing. Those at the bottom, i.e., the ones making less than 2.5 lakh don’t even have to file an income tax return.

So, yeah, the ancestors of Indian Muslims benefited from a clear advantage in 1947. Perhaps, one small drawback of this advantage is a slightly increased documentary load today. Nobody loves paperwork. But surely no person who earns above 5 crore a year would want to earn less than 2.5 lakh just for the joy of not having to file income taxes!

It is for Indian Muslim citizens to understand the privilege they have been born with. And acknowledge it in full. To understand what Indian Hindus have been through. It is no picnic to be made to pay a jazia tax for hundreds of years just so you can breathe. It is no picnic to be thrown out of the land where your ancestors have lived for one thousand years. Check the percentage of Hindus in Pakistan at the time of 1947 and check the percentage now.

That’s the key here: Privilege.

Even as we speak, the Supreme Court has restored the old SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. If you read the law, it is clear that it is weighted heavily in favor of members of SC/ST communities. But it has been established clearly that the benefits of such a law outweigh the dangers from potential misuse. Just like the continued benefits of reservation to backward communities outweigh any perceived “discrimination” against forward caste students and/or job applicants.

The more fortunate, who have benefited from privilege over centuries, might have to face a bit more documentary burden today during NRC. It’s really nothing worth complaining about. Would you exchange this bit of extra paperwork burden for 1000 years of oppression that Hindus have faced? I doubt it.

The heartburn over NRC and Citizenship Amendment Bill is simply due to the fact that we as a nation have never discussed religious privilege. But it is never too late to start. Certain religious groups who have systematically benefited from hierarchies of the past need to become sensitive to the sufferings of others. It won’t harm anybody. It will make us a better country.

Abhishek Banerjee: Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or not be an Assistant Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  
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