National Register of Citizens: Looking beyond politicisation
While the publication of two drafts of updated National Register of Citizens of Assam have sent the political temperature soaring and has become a highly emotive issue, this is a positive and much needed step. Media is usually focusing on the ‘loss of citizenship of 40 lakh persons’ and the clarifications given by authorities do not get the due attention that all would be given opportunities to represent their cases. The politicisation of the issue has led to accusations and counter- accusations, which have become shriller and louder, does not allow to see the issue of illegal immigration in proper perspective.
Migration into Assam from other provinces was taking place during the colonial period. The British encouraged people form present Bangladesh to come to Assam and work as labourers in the tea gardens of Assam. The partition of Bengal in 1905 and Assam’s merger with the Muslim majority province of East Bengal led to a popular resentment, which was finally annulled in 1911. The loss of fear of their identity by Assam indigenous people and being swamped by Bengalis goes back to this merger. The process of migration continued unabated even after the Partition of India.
The demographic pattern began to change in Assam and Jinnah just before the Partition boasted that Assam was in his pocket. Z. A. Bhutto in his book “Myths of Independence” written shortly after 1965 War averred that Pakistan had a good claim on Assam along with Kashmir on the basis of Muslim population. A few Bangladeshi intellectuals began to make out a case for labansraum (living room) for their country by merging Assam.
Illegal migration from Bangladesh to Assam and other parts has been taking place primarily for economic reasons. Bangladesh is most densely populated country with a population density of 1278 per sq. kilometre. Each year substantial part of Bangladesh gets inundated by floods displacing a large population. The erosion of land along the coast is also taking place producing ecological refugees in Bangladesh. Hindus come due to religious persecution and fear of forced conversions. The easy accesses to voter cards, ration cards and other documents in India encourage the illegal immigration. Ethnic, linguistic and religious commonality between the illegal immigrants and population on the Indian side enables them to find shelters and makes it difficult to identify them. However, an important contributory factor for illegal immigration is the support of political parties in India with a view of building a vote bank.
While no authentic census had been carried out to determine the number of illegal immigrants in Assam, on the basis of estimates, extrapolations and various indicators, it is assessed that their number runs into millions. In 1997, the then Home Minister Sri Inderjit Gupta, stated in the Parliament that their number was around 10 million in India. In Assam, the Muslim population between 1971 and 1991 increased by 77.42% and the Hindu Population increased by 41.89%. This gives some idea about the illegal immigrants.
The then Governor of Assam Gen. S.K. Sinha in 1998, narrated vividly Pak attempts to incorporate Assam and the serious consequences of the change in demographic pattern in Assam. He, quoting the Joint Intelligence Committee’s (JIC) assessment, had stated that about 18% population of Assam comprised illegal immigrants. Since I was involved in the massive exercise of JIC for making an assessment of Bangladeshi immigrants during 1992-94, in cooperation with BSF and Home Ministry that was based on extensive field visits and interviews, I can confidently say that this assessment was accurate.
Under the above conditions, it was natural for the indigenous population to take steps for safeguarding their identity. The ULFA movement was the result of this fear. The genesis of the demand for updating the National Register of Citizens of Assam of 1951 is to be found in the Memorandum submitted by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to the then Prime Minister of India on February 2, 1980. Later, 17 Members of the Assam Legislative Assembly submitted a signed petition in this respect. The discontent against the Bangladeshi settlers in Assam was rising significantly. On 18th February 1983, Assam witnessed one of the worst violent incidents known as Nellie massacre, which was seen as the fallout of the decision to hold the state elections which were boycotted by AASU and Indira Gandhi’s decision to allow 4 million Bangladeshi migrants to vote. More than two thousand men and women mostly Bangladeshi immigrants were killed. In December 1983, the Parliament passed the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act (IMDT Act) was passed to detect the illegal migrants. This Act was repealed by the Supreme Court in 2005 as it was hardly able to detect and verify illegal migrants.
In 1985, the Assam Accord was signed in view of increasing agitations by AASU. While the accord did not specifically mention about updating the National Register of Citizens, it was agreed that the illegal immigrants would be detected, their names would be deleted and they would be expelled in accordance with law. No effort was made to update the NRC and the situation was allowed to drift. As it was considered a serious security issue, in 1992 the JIC was asked to make a thorough assessment. The results of this exercise have been indicated above.
The next step was taken in May 2005 by UPA. At a meeting between the Centre, Assam Govt. and AASU, the progress made after the Accord of 1985 was assessed and it was decided that the State Govt. would complete the process of updating the NRC within two years. But no follow up action was taken. In 2009, when the ASSU raised this issue in a meeting, the Assam Govt. gave an assurance to take further steps. In 2010, it took up the pilot study in two districts – Barpeta and Chayagaon. But this was suspended after the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) indulged in violence alleging anomalies in the process.
The present process was taken up after the Supreme Court ordered that the process of updating the NRC be accelerated while hearing a clutch of petitions. Accordingly, the Ministry of Home Affairs, in consultation with the Ministry of Law and Justice, issued the notification for starting the work of updating the NRC and appointed Prateek Hajela on January 28, 2014 as the State Coordinator for the NRC. The Supreme Court also constituted a Committee “to take care of any clarification that would be required with regard to the modalities in the preparation of the NRC.” Initially, the draft was to be prepared by 2016 but later it was extended by two years. So far two drafts have been presented and the third would be prepared soon.
While so far no violent incident has taken place on this issue, the political parties are raking up the issue. There are political leaders who warn of civil war and that they would not allow the return of 40 lakh persons who have been so far not been included. There are allegations that it is ‘an illegal report’, ‘heartless bureaucratic exercise’ and ‘against the Indian Constitution”. The fact is that political parties feel that this a vote bank and they would need them in the elections. The release of the second draft has triggered a political slugfest with both ruling regime and the different political parties trying to corner each other. While the Assam PCC chief termed the non-inclusion of 40 Lakh persons ‘a motivated exercise’, the All India United Democratic Front cautiously pointed out that leaving so many persons is not a small matter. BJP has been blamed for double standards. They accuse BJP for ignoring democratic and humanitarian rights of the people. The reactions of all parties reflect their opportunistic approach rather than placing it on a larger canvass of national security.
The authorities have assured that these 40 lakh persons would be given every opportunity to represent their case even after the final report. There had been several faux pas in the preparation of these drafts which are bound to happen in a massive exercise like this. There is no need to over project them as has been done by some political parties to embarrass the ruling regime. The moot question is whether it would be possible to declare even a fraction of them as illegal immigrants beyond doubt. The answer is in negative. Bangladesh would not accept them as its own citizens. The Bangladesh authorities have already declared that there are no Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in India. The past experience of efforts to send back the identified illegal immigrants do not generate any optimism. Then why this exercise? The real significance of this exercise needs to be seen that in future illegal migrants would find it difficult to get them themselves declared as Indian nationals. Keeping this in view, this effort should be given a greater push and efforts to politicise or communalise the issue should be abandoned. This issue matters not only to Assam but to the rest of the country. Unfortunately, in the past successive governments could not gather courage to take up this issue.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.