Putting the burden of proof on citizens is like telling them that rights are bounded but duties are not
It is strange and piquant situation that people of this country do not believe the NDA-government when it says that new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is not discriminatory, that the controversial National Register for Citizens (NRC) process has nothing to do with CAA. People also refuse to believe the government when it says that National Population Register (NPR), cleared by the union cabinet only on Tuesday last, is not a precursor to the NRC that has rendered 19 lakh persons in Assam non-citizens and branded as illegal immigrants. It is also surprising that the government asks for trust of its citizens, it simultaneously makes it clear that it does not trust them.
Moreover, the onus of proving trustworthiness is primarily on the people and not the government. This amounts to shifting of the burden of proof of being citizens of this country on the people. This is clear if one goes by many of the statements and assertions emanating from the top echelons of government in recent days. In Lucknow this week, for instance, in a state which has seen the maximum number of incidents of brutal police action and the highest death toll during the anti-CAA mobilisations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke only of the alleged damage to public property by protesters. He exhorted those responsible for it to ‘ask themselves if their path was right’. He also described citizens as bearers not of rights, but duties over many other things.
Rights are bounded and constrained, but duties are not. Narendra Modi has also made it clear that the people should respect their duties towards the nation and not as for their rights from the government. This change of emphasis, this inversion, is significant and consequential in a democratic setup. With the burden of accountability placed squarely on the shoulders of the citizen, it lets the government off the hook. While the citizen squirms in the spotlight, the government, quite literally, gets away with it. For, it is the citizen who must be always on test, who must prove itself constantly. If in the current moment, citizen is being asked not about anxieties and apprehensions about the government’s new law, but to account for the purported damage to public property instead, citizen has been similarly challenged to prove good citizenship and patriotism in earlier times – by demonstrating citizen is not a hoarder of black money, demonetisation, by despite-it-all compliance with tangled tax laws, GST, or by showy solidarity with the Indian army, no questions asked, Balakot surgical strikes.
The National Register of Citizens process, which demands proof of belonging from citizens, is a culmination of this larger paradigm shift. As citizens scramble to make the cut, present documents, do their duty, the government evades the questions on a deepening economic slowdown, havoc with agricultural and rural economy, on the dwindling of jobs, on the rise of anxiety and waning of optimism, or on a law that violates the letter and spirit of the Constitution by introducing religion as a criterion for citizenship. No citizen has a right to ask any question on why the government should enact such a legislation and what was the need for this process, which divides the people on the basis of religion. It has been another country and a different time, but the last regime that sought to talk about fundamental duties over and above fundamental rights, was the one that inserted the former in the Constitution as an attempt to subdue citizens and distract attention from its own attempts to curb their rights and freedoms. Is it a government of Indira Gandhi, during the Emergency, which the present rulers described as a dark chapter in the history of democratic India.