The simmering tension over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) issue in Assam has now boiled over, as the July 30 deadline for the publication of its final draft is upon us. The NRC will decide who is a genuine citizen and who is an illegal immigrant from neighbouring Bangladesh.
The issue is a political hot potato in Assam and has been for decades. The Congress party has always been suspected by the Assamese of relying on the votes of illegal migrants. And, as the general elections 2019 approaches, the politics over illegal influx is growing.
The BJP, right from the days of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani, had sided with the people of Assam in their fight to get rid of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. When the All Assam Students Union, launched a massive popular movement against influx of foreigners into Assam and into the electoral rolls, BJP leaders regularly visited the state to show their support.
The agitation ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in August 1985 between the students, the Centre and the state government. All alleged Bangladeshi migrants who entered Assam before midnight of March 24, 1971 was accepted as Indian nationals. The cut off was chosen as March 25 was the start of Pakistani operations against the people fighting for independence. All those who came in after that date were to be regarded as foreigners.
Updating of the NRC was part of the accord. But there was no political will to implement any of this, till the Supreme Court finally stepped in.
In the 2014 national elections, Narendra Modi promised to send foreigner nationals packing to Bangladesh. The BJP now is in ruling in Assam and much of the support is due to the belief that a Hindutva government would be more inclined to solve the problem of Muslim migration from Bangladesh.
At the heart of the problem is the latent fear of Assamese Hindus that they would be reduced to a minority in their own land and Assam would become the second Muslim majority state in the country after Kashmir.
Bengali-speaking Muslims, originally from across the border, but who have lived in Assam for generations are now living in fear. The British were the first to bring in Bangladeshi labourers to clean the malarial swamps of Assam and turn them into fertile agricultural land.
Since then there have been waves of migration from former East Pakistan, mainly for economic reasons. The problem is that the majority of the Bengali-speaking Muslims are both poor and illiterate. They have no papers to prove they are either Indians or Bangladeshis.
The revision and update of the NRC in Assam was ordered by the Supreme Court to settle the issue of citizenship. According to the Assam government notification, proof of a person being a genuine citizen can be established if a person’s name appears in the NRC of 1951. Those whose names appear in the electoral rolls up to March 24, 1971, people with land and tenancy records, citizenship certificates, government issued license, bank or post office
documents, birth certificate, educational certificates, court records, passport, government employment record and other such documents.
The problem is that most of the poor have none of this. They are running from pillar to post to get any of these papers but are coming up against a wall of sullen officials, who anyway believe that Bengali-speaking Muslims are Bangladeshis. Lakhs of people are afraid they will be dubbed as foreigners. In the absence of a clear picture, rumours are doing the rounds. There is talk of rounding up non-citizens and placing them in camps guarded by security personnel. None of this is true. But rumours have led to large-scale panic and fear of communal riots in certain areas.
The Congress, batting for potential voters, have written to Home Minister Rajnath Singh. The issue was also raised in Parliament. In an effort to assuage these anxieties, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said on Sunday that the NRC draft could be challenged and revised to ensure that all citizens would get justice.
The government was there to see that every “individual gets justice and is treated in a humane manner. All individuals will have sufficient opportunity for all remedies available under the law.” He added that “adequate opportunity for claims and objections will be available. All claims and objections will be duly examined,” before the final list is published. Singh claimed that the entire revision and updating of the NRC was carried out transparently and with utmost care.
The question remains what happens to those declared foreigners? India has excellent ties with the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh. Yet, it is unlikely that Dhaka will accept the migrants as their citizens as they have no documents to support their case.
Bangladesh High Commissioner Syed Muazzem Ali said last month that the NRC is an internal matter and has nothing to do with his country. India has not spoken of deportation of illegal migrants. The mechanisms on the border are already in place, he said.
But the question remains how India should tackle those thousands declared illegal. A huge humanitarian crisis could unfold. Will these people be declared stateless, like the Rohingyas of Myanmar? The Centre needs to think through what it wants to and not make provisions as it goes along. The people of Assam are bracing for what unfolds after July 30 when the final draft will be released.