More than four million people, nearly the population of Croatia, will no longer be Indian citizens, according to the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The decision was made by the state government of Assam recently when it announced its citizen list. This exercise has been conducted for the first time since 1951 in order to check the influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Some are calling it the largest disenfranchisement exercise in the recent history of the world. Some of those excluded include family members of a former Indian president and men who have served in the army. The process has seemed quite arbitrary.
Given this backdrop, two perspectives stand out.
One, this process has disenfranchised certain sections of the populace. Now we must ask – who are those disenfranchised?
In the beginning when the Assamese began to protest the presence of outsiders the target was illegal immigrants. Then it turned into people who came from Bangladesh, irrespective of their religion. And now this sentiment has turned against Muslims as a whole. The entire process doesn’t meet the test of equality before the law. One reason is the key criterion for identification of illegal immigrants is any individual who is not an original inhabitant of Assam.
And so the question is – who are the original inhabitants of Assam?
In 1947, when India was “created”, it contained many religious groups in Assam and other states. Now, it is often left for officials to interpret citizenship as they please. Here, people can become victims of discrimination. Someone with a traditional Muslim name may be excluded based on the suspicion that he or she is an illegal immigrant.
The second issue is that of naturally born Indian citizens. The influx of refugees occurred about 50 years back, in 1971. Even if we consider the exodus to have started in 1971 and continued into the 1980s, we must also consider the children of these original immigrants. According to India’s Citizenship Act – “anybody who is born before 1st July, 1987 irrespective of the status of their parents becomes citizen by birth”. It is on this basis that the Chakmas of Arunachal Pradesh have been granted citizenship. On that same basis, Tibetans have been granted citizenship and are living in Delhi, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and other states. Then how can the state government deny this right to the people born in the country to illegal immigrants? Regardless of their parentage, they are Indians. This is the standard across the world and must be taken into account.
At the end of the day, India is a country that is governed by the rule of law and it has to respect these laws whether it likes it or not.
We must also remember that the documents that are being cited as missing are the responsibility of the state to provide.
The current debate revolves around who is actually Assamese and who is an immigrant. This is something that has been happening for quite some time. It is important to remember that in the northeastern part of the country, Assamese is also a language spoken by a certain section of the populace. But, Assamese doesn’t just include those who speak the language. It includes the 20 listed tribes who reside in the state of Assam. At the same time, there is a Bangla-speaking population and over time many Hindi-speaking and Marwari-speaking groups have come to the area. The ‘Sylheti’ language, which is often associated with the Bangladeshi Muslims or so-called immigrants, has traditionally been spoken in the southern part of Assam. So, the true essence of Assamese community is not just the people who speak Assamese but also people who have resided in the area for extended periods. The Assamese community is made up of these tribes, ethnicities and linguistic groups together.
HOW IT AFFECTS BANGLADESH
Before coming to power, one of the election pledges of Narendra Modi and his party was to “evict Bangladeshis from Assam”’. The BJP also implied they were interested in evicting “Muslim foreigners”. Modi had been quoted as saying that he would “send these Bangladeshis beyond the border, bag and baggage”.
Interestingly, in a 2014 judgment, the Indian Supreme Court had also referred to illegal migrants in Assam as “Bangladeshis” and cited a number of state documents, official reports and previous decisions which had similarly referred to the illegal migrants as Bangladeshis. The 2014 judgment also discussed at length as to how the Indo-Bangladesh border could be better protected to control illegal migration from Bangladesh. Even now, after the publication of the NRC draft, many BJP leaders, activists, as well as a section of the Indian media are frequently referring to “Bangladeshis” as “illegal infiltrators” that the draft register had been aiming to detect.
In addition to being labelled illegal migrants, what is worrying for Bangladesh is that in search of an answer to the fate of these potential stateless individuals, the possibility of deportation to Bangladesh had been mentioned at various times. In December 2017, Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is also in charge of the citizenship register, was quoted by several media outlets as saying that identifying “illegal Bangladeshis residing in Assam” was the main purpose of updating the NRC—and that “all those whose names do not figure in the NRC will have to be deported”.
This piece will conclude with three observations. First, given the fact that India had never officially conveyed any concern on the matter, it seems prudent that the government of Bangladesh has also refrained from conveying any formal reaction or concern. Bangladesh is maintaining its silence regarding the debates around the citizen register in Assam.
Second, this is not the final NRC. It is only a draft. This is a part of a continuous process towards the final NRC. So, India has time to ensure the final version is all-inclusive. Considering how India has positively approached issues of humanitarian disaster and protection of the minorities in the past, it can be expected that the incumbent Indian government will show its political foresight in resolving this issue through a more humane approach, while bearing in mind the sensitive regional dynamics involved.
Third, it would be best for all involved if the due process was hassle-free. It should be convenient for the people and the civil society to participate in the process and to help the poor and illiterate people while the NRC should aim to make the process more convenient.