CAA/NRC/NPR – A Blueprint for a Fascist Surveillance State


  • April 19, 2021
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The NRC/CAA is a project of the RSS/BJP duo to seize political power by simultaneously orchestrating communal polarisation in the name of Muslim ‘infiltrators’ and hanging the bait of citizenship to the Hindu ‘refugees’. To understand the possible blueprint of what might unfold in West Bengal in regard to citizenship issues, we need to understand the complexities and interconnections between the NPR, NRC and CAA, writes Amit Jugnu.

 

The issue of citizenship of millions, who crossed over to West Bengal over the past few decades, from the neighbouring nation of Bangladesh, is one of the hotly debated subjects in the ongoing eight phased West Bengal assembly election, and it will play a decisive role in determining the election result on 2 May. In its election manifesto for West Bengal, released by Amit Shah on March 21, the BJP has promised that if it comes to power, it will announce the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019 in the first cabinet meeting and grant citizenship to all Hindu refugees, who have entered India from Bangladesh. It was been an oft-stated position of RSS/BJP that the Hindu Bengalis who crossed over the borders into West Bengal are religiously prosecuted “sharnarthis” or refugees, while the Muslim Bengalis, who crossed over the border are “ghuspethias” or infiltrators.

 

The party has declared on many occasions that while the Hindu refugees will be granted citizenship, the Muslim intruders will be identified and pushed back. The strategy is two-pronged. On the one hand, such a position enables BJP to represent itself as the only party sympathetic to the demand of citizenship of the persecuted Hindus. On the other hand, it also enables them to paint all other parties as appeasers of “Muslim intruders”, and at the same time stir the old wounds and horrifying memories of the Partition to further its project of communal polarization in the state. The BJP knows it better than anyone else that its only chance to dislodge Mamata Banerjee from power is by winning over the Bengali Hindu votes.

 

It is true that millions of Matuas, a part of the large Namasudra community, who crossed over to West Bengal, initially, after partition in 1948, and mainly later, during and after the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971, are apprehensive of their status, and have continuously been demanding formal citizenship of India. All the political parties, though sympathetic to their demand, have never done anything concrete on the subject of their citizenship, and have historically treated them as mere vote banks.

 

Will CAA solve their justified concerns about formal citizenship, as is being promised to them by the BJP? Let’s see how credible this promise of granting citizenship through CAA to Hindu Bengali refugees actually is. Let’s also examine what NRC will mean to the people of West Bengal, including the Hindu refugees, in light of the experience of NRC already done in Assam under a BJP state government. We will also try to understand the interconnections between NPR, NRC and CAA and the probable chronology in which they might occur in West Bengal.

 

Experience of NRC in Assam:

 

Assam, rocked by ethnic conflicts and violent agitations by the Assam nationalists, was the first state where NRC was done under the supervision of the Supreme Court of India, to identify infiltrators or “illegal settlers.” All Indian citizens, including their children and descendants who moved to Assam post 24 March, 1971, were eligible for inclusion in the updated NRC, on producing satisfactory proof of residence in any part of the country (outside Assam), as on 24 March 1971. About 3 crore 20 lakhs people submitted their documents (from the approved list of 21 documents) to prove their forefathers, or they themselves, have been residents of the state before 25 March 1971. Work on NRC started in 2012, and when the final list was out on 31 August 2019, names of 19, 06, 657 people were excluded from it.

 

Without doubt, these 19 lakh people who were excluded from the NRC were legal inhabitants of Assam, but were not able to provide documents deemed to be proofs of residence prior to the cut-off date. Most of the excluded people are economically marginal, women and from tribal communities. Interestingly, according to unofficial sources, out of these 19 lakhs excluded, 17 lakhs were Bengalis, to be more specific, 12 lakhs Hindu Bengali and 5 lakh Muslim Bengalis, and the rest were Gorkhas, tea garden workers, various indigenous tribes and Assamese. Maximum number of those left out were women and children. In numerous families, while the husband’s name was on the list, the names of their wives or children were missing or vice versa. Names of prominent citizens, from ex-president of India Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to the names of high-ranking army officers, judicial magistrates and even family members of BJP MPs-MLAs, were found missing from the final list.

 

The entire exercise in Assam went on for seven years, the government spent Rs 1602.66 crores on it. It is estimated that people had to dish out about 8000 crores from their own pockets, as expenditure incurred to travel, bribe officials and collect and submit documents for the purpose of NRC. Many were forced to sell off their land and houses, jewelleries and other valuables. Many were also forced to take private loans in order to bribe the officials to make corrections and to arrange missing documents to prove their citizenship. The fear, panic and anxiety resulted in about 120 people committing suicide. More than 30 persons have died so far in detention camps set up across the state, and in these camps there are also many Hindus, like 102 years old Chandranath Das, 65 years old Dulal Biswa and 72 years old Falu Das.

 

The final list busted the myths and the lies propagated both by the Assam ultra-nationalists and the BJP. While the ultra-nationalists had claimed the number of illegal Bengali settlers in the state to be about 1 crore, the BJP has propagated that the majority of them are Bangladeshi Muslims.  Even this list of 19 lakhs is under controversy. On 3 December 2020, Hitesh Debasharma, the new coordinator of Assam NRC, told the Guwahati High Court in an affidavit, that the list published on August 31 was ‘supplementary’ though the former coordinator, Pratik Hajela, had called it the ‘final’ list.

 

BJP was caught in a quagmire. With assembly elections to the state coming up, it became imperative to keep both the Assam nationalists and the Hindu Bengalis appeased. Their rage needed to be contained and prevented from exploding in the ballot box. Consequently, the Assam BJP appealed to the Supreme Court demanding re-verification of 20% of the approved names in the final list. This case is still pending. The distribution of ‘rejection slips’ to those left out, has been kept in abeyance. In the Bengali dominated Barak valley, BJP kept assuring the Hindu Bengalis that CAA will protect them, and they will be granted citizenship. But the rules of CAA have still not been framed, though the law was passed in December 2019. As part of its election strategy, the BJP in its election manifesto for Assam, kept silent on the question of CAA.

 

Reports are coming out that as soon as the elections were over in Assam, on 6 April, the state administration has again started sending notices of ‘D’ voters or “doubtful” voters to Bengali refugees in many districts like Cachar, Bongaigaon, Dhubri, etc. Most of the notices have been sent to the Hindu Bengalis, who just before the assembly election were promised citizenship by the Prime Minister himself, while campaigning for votes for his party. Now they will have to rush to the foreign tribunals and if they are unable to prove their citizenship, they will be sent to the detention camps. Fear and panic has again gripped the Bengali settlers, both Hindus and Muslims, in Assam. Doubtful voters are those persons who are identified during electoral roll revision, cases of which are pending with the Foreigners Tribunals or those declared as foreigners by the Tribunal. There are over 1.08 lakh people in Assam who were barred from casting their votes in the just concluded election, because the Election Commission of India (ECI) has identified them as Doubtful voters.

 

BJP’s Rhetoric in West Bengal:

 

The massive anti-NRC/CAA protests that erupted all over the country, including West Bengal unnerved the RSS/BJP. In West Bengal, BJP lost a few by-elections in regions that were known to be their stronghold. These defeats were attributed in part to the fear and panic amongst the people about the NRC. Suddenly, the rhetoric changed. The central leaders started telling that there is no plan for NRC in West Bengal as of now. The government will only prepare NPR, and collect data for it along with the census. To the Matuas, they kept promising citizenship through the CAA, while the BJP leaders’ threats of deporting back Muslim “infiltrators” continued unabated.

 

The BJP is doing everything to win over the Matuas, their votes being decisive in at least 30-40 odd assembly constituencies in the bordering districts of the state. BJP’s top central leaders are frequently visiting Thakurnagar – the headquarters of Matua sect – in North 24 Pargana district. The Prime Minister, to woo the votes of the Matua community, even timed and used his official tour to Bangladesh in March, to visit Orakandi, the ancestral birthplace of Harichand Thakur, the most revered figure of the community, on the first day of polling in West Bengal. But how true are their promises?

 

The election Manifesto for Bengal

 

The promise to implement CAA in the first state cabinet meeting, if BJP wins Bengal elections, is simply meaningless. Citizenship is a subject under the union list. The state governments simply do not have any say or power to make laws in this matter. If the state’s opinion should mean anything in the matter, then the West Bengal Assembly has already passed an unanimous resolution opposing the implementation of CAA in the state. The assembly resolution is actually more tokenistic than having any real legal implications. So, even if BJP wins the election in West Bengal, how it will implement the CAA in the state is anybody’s guess! JP Nadda, the national president of BJP, while releasing the party’s poll manifesto in Assam, had categorically said CAA cannot be implemented through a state legislation. So, election related political compulsions have dictated the BJP’s strategy to maintain silence on the CAA issue in the poll manifesto in Assam, while aggressively championing it in West Bengal.

 

Further, the amended law was passed in the Parliament in August 2019. What has prevented the BJP government from granting citizenship under the act to the Matuas and other Hindu refugees till now? The truth is, the Union government, because of the political protests by the Muslim community and the Assam nationalists, has so far not even framed and published the rules of the amended law. It has cited Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse.

 

On February 11, 2021, Amit Shah, while addressing a rally at Thakurnagar had said that the CAA will be enforced once the country’s entire population has been vaccinated, and the Covid-19 pandemic has come to an end. But with the second phase of the pandemic spreading like wildfire, the threat of lockdowns looming large on the horizon, and the Covid-19 vaccination marred by scarcity of vaccines in many states, the CAA implementation, even if Amit Shah is to be believed, is not going to happen in the near future, though it will continue to be used as a hanging carrot before the Hindu voters before every election. Also, it is surprising that a government which could bulldoze three controversial farm laws in Parliament, pass labour code bills and a plethora of other legislations during the pandemic, could not frame the rules for a law it had passed one and half years back.

 

The truth is that NRC/CAA is a project of the RSS/BJP duo to seize political power by simultaneously orchestrating communal polarisation in the name of Muslim ‘infiltrators’ and hanging the bait of citizenship to the Hindu ‘refugees’. To understand the possible blueprint of what might unfold in West Bengal in regard to citizenship issues, we need to understand the complexities and interconnections between the NPR, NRC and CAA.

 

NPR – the first step towards NRC

 

NPR is the register with names and details of all residents (citizens and non-citizens) of India. On 31 July 2019, through an Extraordinary Gazette Notification, the government had announced that between April and September of 2020 NPR will be prepared in the whole country (except Assam). But it got delayed due to the Covid-19 epidemic. The process has, for now, again started online and the government has even allocated about 4000 crore in the budget for the project.

 

NPR and NRC are actually interconnected. In 2003, Atal Bihari Bajpayee’s government brought an amendment in the citizenship law of 1955. The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issues of National Identity Card) Rules, 2003 were framed. The rules lay down guidelines for the government to prepare the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRC). They contain detailed descriptions of both NRC and NPR. The clause 3(4) of Citizenship Rules, 2003, clearly states that in order to create NRC, the Central Government had ordered the preparation of NPR. They state that a house-to-house enumeration of the details of individuals and families (including name, place of birth and citizenship status) should be carried out.

 

Further, however much the government of India and BJP claim, that NPR is an exercise for the preparation of census data, and it has nothing to do with NRC and accuse the opposition of spreading rumours and lies, in this context, it needs to be reminded that Census is an exercise carried out under the Census Act, 1948, while, NPR, on the other hand, is being carried out as per the 2003 Citizenship Rules. Census is based on self-declaration made by the persons without verification. Also, the intention behind the currently gazetted NPR becomes clear if we compare the questions listed in this round with those in 2015-16 (which were the same as those asked in 2010). There are 21 questions in the NPR 2020 form. Besides, usual information like date and place of birth, educational qualification, religion, mother tongue etc., what is significant is the query to provide details of one’s father, mother and spouse (if married). Previously, only the names of father/mother or spouse were sought. The government claims that this is not mandatory but the NPR Manual, 2020 (page 23) instructs that under this query, the place of birth and other details of father/mother and spouse have to be collected. The manual also clearly states that if one records one’s nationality as Indian in NPR, it does not automatically make one an Indian. A person will have to separately prove one’s nationality to be enlisted in the NRC.

 

 

A person will be registered in the NRC only after verifying the information collected from him/her/them in the NPR. Therefore, the documents for the information sought in the NPR will have to be submitted and verified during NRC, including those of the father, the mother and the spouse. We must not forget that the Home Minister himself said on the floor of the Parliament, “accept that NRC is coming to the whole country”. He was right, and NPR, the first step in that direction, has already been started.

 

It is true we don’t need to show documents during NPR. However, the real game will start once the NRC is implemented. If a person born between 1987 and 2003 has to register in NRC, then it is not sufficient for that person to prove that he or she was born in India; in addition, it needs to be proved that one of the parents, at least, was a valid citizen of India. If one was born after 2003, then, in addition, one must prove that the parent who is not a valid citizen of India, was not an illegal migrant. That is, one must prove one’s citizenship through a process that involves proof of the citizenship of one’s parents.

 

Now, most refugees from Bangladesh living in West Bengal and in other states, will be endangered when work on NRC starts after NPR. From the Assam experience, it is easy to understand why large numbers of refugees including Matuas will not be included in the NRC. Most of them will not be able to submit the required documents. Since the majority of the Matuas came after 1971, it will not be possible for them to show any resident proof or name in the voter list before 1971 (assuming the cut-off date is 1971, like in the case of Assam). Those who came before 1971, will also not be able to prove their details, let alone their parental lineage.

 

The BJP knows this, and so do the Matuas. That’s why the party has assured them that in West Bengal, CAA implementation will precede the NRC. The Hindu refugees will first be granted citizenship through CAA, before work on preparing NRC starts. So it is important to understand what CAA is, and how feasible it will be for BJP to keep its assurance to the Matuas.

 

CAB becomes Law

 

Since, after the 2003 amendment, it was near impossible for those who entered India without valid documents or those whose documents expired, to get citizenship, another Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) was proposed in 2016. But, it could not be passed in the Rajya Sabha at that time, because BJP didn’t have the majority support, and so the bill was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) for scrutiny. That committee placed a report in January 2019. The same bill was passed by both houses of Parliament in 2019, and with the consent of the President, it became an Act. The CAA says that:

 

Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Parsees and Christians who entered India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan on or before 31/12/2014 will not be considered to be illegal immigrants. If they have stayed in India for 5 years or more and if they qualify according to the third schedule of our constitution then they will be declared citizens of India through the principle of ‘naturalisation’.

 

While the amended law does not mention the criteria of ‘religious persecution’ or ‘fear of religious persecution’ as the reason for entering India by the persons of these six communities, the point 2 of the Statement of Objects And Reasons of the Amendment Bill makes it clear that the law was meant primarily to provide citizenship to the Hindu refugees who entered India because of religious persecution or fear of such persecution in East Pakistan and later Bangladesh.

 

If the amended law is read in isolation, it will seem that it is meant to provide citizenship mainly to the Hindu refugees who entered India from the three neighbouring countries. But from the Assam experience and the threat of NPR/NRC in West Bengal, it is clear the real purpose is to exclude Indian Muslims from the NRC, without threatening Indian Hindus. The CAA needs to be seen in this context and read along with the NPR and NRC. BJP’s politics on “infiltration” is primarily centred on the Bengali Muslim “intruders” from Bangladesh.

 

The opposition parties criticized the amendment as communal for adding a religious criterion to India’s citizenship laws, and thereby, threatening the country’s secular character. The CAA singles out mainly non-Muslim refugees from three countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – and intends to expedite only their citizenship. Not only the Muslim, the law also kept the Tamils of Sri Lanka and Rohingyas of Burma outside its purview. It is clearly intended to project BJP and the government led by it as the champion of ‘religiously prosecuted’ Hindus in the three Muslim majority countries in the subcontinent. The immediate object was to placate the fear and anxiety of the Hindus left out of the final NRC list in Assam, and to lure in the large Matua community of West Bengal before the crucial assembly polls scheduled in 2021.

 

CAA-NRC and citizenship to Matuas

 

While many have criticized and raised concerns about adding religious criteria to Indian citizenship laws through the CAA, the vast majority of the protesters who came out into the streets have opposed the combination of CAA and NRC. They perceive and believe that these two will permit any Hindu who has been left out of the NRC to just claim they are “refugees” and get citizenship, while the government will use NRC as a tool to take away the citizenship of the Muslims, regardless of their ancestry. The government and BJP leaders have insisted that it is mischievous to link CAA with NRC, and the two are completely separate. In the absence of any rules for both being officially announced, the statements made on various occasions by Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, makes it clear that the NRC is directly linked to the CAA, and that the chronology of the two is crucial.

 

Another tweet from May 1, 2019 that caused massive outrage:

 

In December 2019, taking part in a debate over the CAA in Lok Sabha, Amit Shah said: “Maan ke chaliye NRC aane wala hai (But you should keep this in mind that NRC is about to come).” In an election rally in Jharkhand, he even set the year 2024 as a deadline for NRC.

 

From the above tweets it is clear, Amit Shah is not only linking the NRC with CAA, but he is also saying that the government will use the NRC to remove Muslim “infiltrators” from the country, except those that are Buddhist, Hindus and Sikhs, an exception that is included in the Citizenship Amendment Act. Also, Amit Shah in a public speech on 1 May 2019, in Bangaon in WB, had said: “First the CAB will come. All ‘refugees’ will get citizenship. Then NRC will come… Understand the chronology”. Let us see how true this assurance of providing citizenship to Hindu ‘refugees’ via CAA actually is. Will the Matuas get citizenship if BJP comes to power in WB?

 

The matter is still uncertain and ambiguous. The rules of the Act have still not been framed, and will most probably be made public depending upon the outcome of poll results in Assam and West Bengal. But granting citizenship, under the CAA, will not be that simple. In order to get citizenship under CAA, the Matuas will first have to apply for the citizenship, stating that they had come to India prior to 31-12-2014, specifically, from one of the three countries – Bangladesh in their case – and they have to prove that they belong to Hindu religion, and that they entered India because they were religiously persecuted or feared such persecution (though this is not mentioned in the law, but is in the statement of objects and reasons of the Bill). An applicant will have to prove the claims with documentary evidence before the appropriate authority.

 

Now what will happen to a person during the time period when citizenship claims are being verified? In India, we know this can take not only months, but years. What will be the status of the person during this period? Though the rules are not out in the public, the promise of Rs 10,000 per year for 5 years to those applying for citizenship in the election manifesto, has already raised many eyebrows. Does it imply that as long as an applicant is unable to establish one’s claim, one will not enjoy any citizenship rights and they will have to depend on this yearly grant, and that this period can be as long as 5 years? If their citizenship claim is under verification, can’t we assume that the government can, if it so desires, confiscate their voter card, ration card, Aadhar card etc. during this period, and they will be restored only if and when the claims are duly accepted?

 

What will this mean in real life? A complete dependence of the applicants on the government officials, the police and intelligence agencies, and above all on the ruling party, which controls them. The IB, RAW and the police would verify the claims and documents. What will happen to those whose claims can’t be verified, or those who do not have documents? A member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) had commented “nothing has changed for persons who do not have documents. He will be back in the Foreigner’s Tribunal; the only difference is that this time he has to prove to be a Bangladeshi National”

 

If one thinks that these are all rumours and fears being spread by the opponents of the Act and the BJP, they can read the 438 page report submitted to the Parliament by the JPC which scrutinised the CAB 2016, the same bill that was passed as Law in 2019 as CAA. Let us see what this report has to say on this issue of verification of citizenship claims.

 

During its deliberations with the intelligence officers, the JPC enquired how the veracity of claims of people who said or would say in future, that they had migrated to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan for fear of religious persecution, would be verified. In answer, the IB officers stated that in the case of those who had migrated decades ago, particularly immediately after partition in 1947, the claimants did not have requisite papers and, hence, it would be difficult to verify their claims. Further enquiries would be made by the IB and local thanas, as to whether they have been involved in any illegal activities. Apart from these, all others will be new applicants (valid for the majority of the Matuas, since they came primarily after 1971 from Bangladesh), who claim religious persecution in their country of origin. The claims would be properly investigated, with due process before grant of citizenship. The IB also said that towards this end, the Home Ministry was drawing up a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), for verification of such claims. In support of such claims, documents would be demanded and the person would be investigated through a detailed investigation procedure. This investigation would be done either by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO), or the Foreigners Registration Office (FRO).

 

On being asked what if the applicant is unable to prove his/her/their claims? The IB officers said that such cases would be referred to the quasi-legal Foreigners Tribunal, and this tribunal would then examine all the claims under the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964. From Assam experience we know how these tribunals work. In other words, it would take decades to settle all the claims. If the FT too rejects the claims, they can be sent to the detention centres, as has happened in Assam.

 

Most significantly, the Committee enquired how many people would be able to avail of citizenship rights through this Bill (CAB 2016). That is, how many people have so far applied for citizenship claiming religious persecution or fear of persecution? The IB answered that 31,313 people had applied on these grounds (25,447 Hindus, 5807 Sikhs, 55 Christians, 2 Buddhists and 2 Parsis)

 

A reading of the JPC report will show that the principal concern of the intelligence officers was to ensure that the enemies of the country do not acquire citizenship taking advantage of CAA, so they categorically stated that all claims of citizenship lodged now or in future, would be investigated under the aegis of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and only then would any decision be taken. And given BJP’s obsession with national security, there is no reason to believe that these verification of claims will be waived off, and every Hindu including the Matuas applying for citizenship will get it automatically.

 

Conclusion

 

The Matuas will not gain anything other than being under the constant surveillance of the intelligence agencies like RAW and local police thanas? So, why will they fall for the bait of citizenship, when they are, right now, actually enjoying all the benefits of the state like other residents? But the fact is that Matuas, historically, ostracised by the upper caste Hindus, are now courting the BJP. Is it just for the CAA, or there are other factors underlying this shift of political loyalty? While the answer to these require deeper study, one thing is clear – today, the Matuas see themselves more as a part of the large pan-Indian Hindu Parivar than as a separate sect with a distinct identity. In Narendra Modi and his BJP, they find unapologetic articulation and expression of the injustices inflicted on them in Bangladesh. CAA to them is also an acknowledgement of that historical truth.

 

The NPR and NRC will identify and target the Muslims, disenfranchise millions of them, reduce them to second class citizens devoid of any legal rights? Thousands will be put inside detention centres which will become indian version of the ‘sweatshops’. The Prime Minister has time and again assured Bangladesh, NRC is India’s internal matter, and it will not affect Bangladesh, implying the threat of deporting or pushing back Muslim ‘intruders’ identified through NRC is just a political rhetoric. This also becomes clear from a report published in Hindustan Times on 9 December 2019, according to which, the Union home ministry informed the Lok Sabha that 1.3 lakh people have been declared as foreigners in Assam, but so far, only six have been deported. Out of these six, four belonged to Bangladesh and two were from Afghanistan. No doubt Muslims will be harassed, but lakhs of Hindus, Gorkhas, Adivasis, too, will suffer collateral damage like in Assam. The Hindu ‘sharnarthis,’ , who apply for citizenship, will come under the watch of the intelligence agencies and the whims of the political rulers. The party-state apparatus with connivance of already sold out institutions, will decide and control the fate of a vast majority of Muslims and Dalits through these troika of NPR, NRC and CAA. The implications will be, rendering millions into political non-entity without any rights, the use of fear, persecution and constant state monitoring to curb any dissent – a sure descent towards a Fascist Surveillance State – regardless of whatever chronology the rulers ultimately decide upon.

 

The rulers in Delhi and their collaborators in West Bengal need to be reminded that though Bengal was divided on the basis of religion in 1947, but within years, the question of distinct language and culture gained predominance over the issue of religious identity, and East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh. Those stoking the fire of communalism, and conspiring to tear apart the social fabric of West Bengal through NPR-NRC-CAA, should well remember, that the vast majority of Bengalis in West Bengal still share a common language, food and culture with their brethren on the other side of the border, and who knows, this common shared identity of hundreds of years, will once again, someday in future, not incite people on this side of the border to rise above the religious difference and craft a politics of a new dream of an united land of the Bengalis, bringing down those barbed wires.

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