It is no surprise for a nation of million quarrelling voices to denounce the draft list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), published on July 30, 2018, which identifies residents of Assam as citizens and foreigners. Our problem is that we hesitate to take pride in our national identity and prefer to live in a state of constant denial. It eminently suits the political opportunists and forces that benefit from fishing in troubled waters to keep the status of Indians vague and their Indianness submerged in permanent uncertainties. But people of Assam chose not to allow this ambiguity to haunt them for ever.
After independence, original residents of Assam kept vociferously demanding identification of infiltrators in their state. In response, a National Register of Citizens was prepared in 1951, which left them more agitated.
In later years, the state witnessed a huge influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, deepening their fear that they would soon be marginalised in their own land. Consequently, an unprecedented violence rocked the state for weeks, that forced the late Congress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to sign the Assam Accord on August 15, 1985. It stipulated that the NRC of 1951 would be updated with names of only those which had appeared in the electoral rolls of March 1971 or who had clinching proof to support their claims of being original residents.
But the intent of Congress to do an honest job of the Accord was never there. Since illegal Bangladeshi Muslims formed their captive vote bank, they could not afford to take the process of updating NRC to its logical end. There were, of course, a few in their ranks who saw a danger to the national security from the unabated invasion of illegal migrants, but they had no defining say. The Ministry of Home Affairs also put up a number of assessments, based on inputs from intelligence agencies to highlight the adverse impact of illegal migration on the country’s security and territorial integrity but of no avail.
The Supreme Court finally took a call on a petition by the aggrieved Assamese people and passed an order in 2013, directing the Registrar General of India to update the NRC of 1951 as per the criteria, laid down in the Assam Accord. The Congress once again delayed the process, apprehensive of its adverse impact on the parliamentary elections in 2014 and the state elections, a year later. However, with BJP forming its government both at the centre and in the state NRC updating picked up steam. By December 1st, 2017 vetting of the claims of 1.9 crores out of a total 3.29 crore applicants was completed and on July 30, 2018, the second NRC draft was released after verifying claims of the remaining applicants. 2 crore 89 lakh and 83 thousand persons were found legal residents, while 40 lakh 7 thousand were declared ineligible. Two lakh 48 thousand voters whose names had been listed in the electoral rolls as on March 24, 1971, were identified as ‘doubtful.’
However, all those who missed the list have been given another chance to submit their land records, passports, birth certificates, education certificates and at least one document that links them to their ancestors to prove their bona fides as Assamese citizens. The final NRC list is due for release in December 2018, thus bringing curtains on the confusion prevailing since 1947 as to who is an Indian citizen in Assam and who is a foreigner.
The reactions to the publication of NRC have been diverse but mostly myopic. Congress is caught in a bind of its own making as it cannot support preparation of the NRC list for fear of losing Muslim votes, particularly of illegal immigrants, nor reject it outright as it had initiated the process. It has therefore latched on to omission of a few names from the list and criticised the entire exercise as communally and politically motivated. It has also found fault with the application of criteria in determining the eligibility of applicants. Some discrepancies are indeed glaring but in any enumerative exercise of this magnitude and complexity, such errors are common. The July NRC list is not cast in stone and will surely be corrected under the Supreme Court’s supervision to ensure that all genuine claimants make it to the final list in December this year.
For BJP, a fierce and consistent opponent of Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, NRC has come very handily. It seems determined not to allow protests to prevent the publication of the final list in December 2018. With a large number of illegal migrants, mostly Muslims, disenfranchised, it is electorally a win-win situation for the party.
The irrepressible West Bengal Chief Minister Ms Mamata Banerjee has her own reasons to see nightmares. She hallucinates that NRC will unleash a bloodbath and a civil war in the country. Ms Banerjee seems unaware that the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migrants hardly affects the lives of ninety percent Indians. She goes on to accuse that names of Bengalis have been deliberately excluded to keep Assam only for the Assamese people. This trend, she argues, will irreparably harm internal migration which is required for the country’s economic development and social cohesiveness. She conveniently ignores the fact that it is not only Bengalis but the names of several people from Nepal and other parts of India that do not figure in the July NRC list. In fact, she herself is to be partly blamed for the exclusion of Bengalis because her officials are yet to verify particulars of over 1.5 lakh Bengalis and submit those to the Registrar, in charge of the NRC. Her fear is that if the demand of NRC picks up in West Bengal and gets implemented, she may see the end of her electoral dominance.
Her other secular compatriots in the SP, BSP, RJD, JD(S), NCP, AAP and CPM, must oppose because they cannot afford to be seen towards working against the interests of Muslims for their electoral survival. MIM and Muslim clerics go to another extreme. They smell a sinister design by the BJP to use NRC to drive out Muslims and start Hinduizing Assam and later, the rest of India. The reality is that the list has made no distinction between illegal Muslim or Hindu migrants from Bangladesh.
Views of liberal columnists are simply grotesque. A writer peevishly chooses words like arbitrary, divisive, whimsical, inhuman and unimplementable to describe the NRC. The Supreme Court which is monitoring this exercise should take an umbrage to this. An imaginative commentator believes that BJP is master at inventing enemies prior to elections and this time it has invented Bangladeshi immigrants in the garb of NRC as its enemy, eight months before the 2019 parliamentary elections. A political commentator mocks that Assam has no business ‘whining’ when far greater numbers of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants have infiltrated in West Bengal. He conveniently forgets that the cultural and linguistic ethos of people in Assam and West Bengal are vastly different. What agitates an Assamese is not the growth in Muslim population which went up by 63% vis-à-vis Hindus that grew by 34% during 1971-2012 but the assault that illegal migrants have launched against their hearth, culture and language. The number of those who spoke Assamese was 61% in 1991 but got reduced to 57% at the end of 2012 while Bangla speakers rose from 27% to 31% during the same period. This situation was unacceptable to genuine residents of Assam.
The host of cynics and baiters have several questions to ask the union government, if the final NRC list gets published. For example, is it right to turn citizens into refugees in their own land. Why is the world’s largest democracy rendering lakhs of its people stateless and forcing them to live the life of political, social and economic exclusion? How can people be denied of citizenship who have worked, voted and paid taxes? Will those excluded from the final list be declared stateless and deprived of voting rights, social welfare benefits, employment and all fundamental rights? With Bangladesh refusing to accept any illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, will they still be forcibly pushed back and killed if they resist deportation? Will they be kept in detention camps, devoid of basic amenities? Is the government not deliberately creating a reservoir of disconnected, angry people to become the breeding ground of terrorists? Is it necessary to create a situation which is bound to be universally condemned by the watchdogs of human rights? And finally, why can’t the present demographic changes be accepted as fait accompli and a system be put in place to ensure that the need for NRC never arises by reinforcing border policing and making punitive provisions for those who encourage, shelter and settle illegal immigrants from across the border? These questions are like putting cart before the horse and, living numb in the fear of unknown.
The time is not for dwelling on fears but cracking the whip. The NRC list needs to be published on schedule and Assam be given the right to know who amongst them, is an Indian citizen and who is a foreigner. The people, parliament and the judiciary can subsequently decide where to settle the illegal residents and what rights can be given to them. If they are unable to find a way out, then they can draw lessons from Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, US, UK, Canada, France, Germany and other European countries on how to treat illegal migrants, who remain deprived of the protection of citizenship from the country where they come to, and the nationality of the country from where they come from.
There is no dearth of choices as to how far a country can go in accommodating interests of stateless persons. These include treating them as pariahs or aliens, putting restrictions on their movement, the number of children they can have, kind of employment they can take up, education, work and on acquiring property, providing them social security and health care benefits and opportunities of working in non-government sectors, naturalizing them but not letting them vote or join civil services and security forces and whether to deprive them of life, liberty and property without due process of law.
The country can choose any or most of these options, keeping in view its civilizational values, security concerns and its economic and social capacity to absorb the illegal immigrants. To many, even these measures may appear insufficient. But it needs to be understood that if we prevaricate and postpone taking a tough decision for fear of what may or may not happen, we will create more problems for the safety, stability and economic progress of the country in the long run. Instead of drowning NRC in our petty squabbles and warped priorities, we should seriously consider extending this process gradually to all states in India. It will have two salutary effects. We will have an identity to call ourselves as citizens of India and foreign immigrants will think twice before stepping illegally into India due to the huge uncertainties that will await them on their arrival.
(Amar Bhushan is former Special Secretary of the Research and Analysis Wing)