India’s biggest dilemma vis-à-vis the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh is that its all-weather ally Dhaka never acknowledges this as their problem. And following the ‘flop show’ over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, aimed at detecting foreigners, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could wash its hands of the entire exercise, as if nothing happened.
India’s Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora announced on Wednesday that people whose names were excluded from the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC), but figure in the voters’ list, will be allowed to exercise their franchise in the upcoming Assam assembly polls. This indicates that the Rs 1,200-crore exercise involving 52,000 government staff and spanning over 10 years to identify foreign nationals was far from foolproof and the northeastern state has been left to fend for itself vis-à-vis the illegal immigrants.
This will be the first major election in the state since the final list of NRC, aimed at weeding out illegal immigrants, especially from neighboring Bangladesh, was published on August 31, 2019. The Assam-specific exercise, carried out under the supervision of India’s Supreme Court, had sparked a massive controversy with opposition parties, international media, activists, and human rights groups smelling an anti-Muslim plot behind it.
Needless to say, the NRC was neither the brainchild of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nor is it an instrument to harass Muslims. The narrative constructed by a section of Indian activists, academics, and NGOs has distorted the complex socio-political history of the multi-ethnic state. And there’s no denying the fact India’s rightwing has hijacked the issue, thereby showing Assam’s indigenous people and their legitimate demand in poor light – that they are communal and xenophobic.
It is worth mentioning that demand for detection and deportation of illegal immigrants from Assam has always been irrespective of religion. It is the rightwing elements that have been trying to distort this concept, giving it a communal color.
To make matters worse, the federal government has brought in the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that led to nation-wide protests. Assam and the rest of the Northeast were up in arms against the legislation fearing it would not only nullify the entire concept of NRC but encourage more immigrants to this frontier region and create a demographic imbalance.
CAA grants Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities such as Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Christians from neighboring Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan who entered the country on or before December 31, 2014.
A Problem Linked To Bangladesh
Assam is the only state for which the federal government had first announced an NRC containing names of Indian citizens in 1951.
“The only time that a National Register of Citizens (NRC) was prepared was in 1951 when after the conduct of the Census of 1951, the NRC was prepared by recording particulars of all the persons enumerated during that Census,” according to the official portal of the Government of Assam.
The current NRC is an updated version to include the names of those persons (or their descendants) who figured “in the NRC, 1951, or in any of the electoral rolls up to the midnight of March 24, 1971, or in any one of the other admissible documents issued up to midnight of March 24, 1971, which would prove their presence in Assam or in any part of India on or before March 24, 1971”.
The cut-off date of March 24, 1971, denotes that those entering India after Bangladesh became independent (March 26, 1971) would be excluded from the citizens’ register.
Needless to say, the migration from the neighboring country still continues although the numbers seem to be on a decline due to the socio-economic progress Bangladesh has made over the years. Ironically, Dhaka has never acknowledged that Bangladesh is the source of millions of suspected illegal immigrants living in India.
Assam is among the five states that share a 4,096-km border with Bangladesh. In Assam, out of a 263-km border, 144 km is a land boundary and 119 km is a riverine one which is largely porous, making it easier for illegal migrants, human traffickers, terrorists, or subversive elements to enter India at will.
Past Tense, Future Imperfect?
The influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) was the first to raise the demand to update the NRC way back in 1980, amid the six-year anti-foreigner movement, also called the Assam Agitation.
AASU functionaries had met then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi demanding that all illegal immigrants, irrespective of their religion, be detected and deported on the basis of 1951 NRC. However, the student outfit finally agreed to the March 25, 1971 cut-off date during the signing of the 1985 Assam Accord with the Rajiv Gandhi government that brought an end to the agitation.
Since then, successive governments at the Centre had been dilly-dallying over the matter. In 2010, the Manmohan Singh government decided to run a pilot project in two districts in Assam but abandoned it after violence broke out in Barpeta. Four persons were killed in clashes between police and activists of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union that opposed the move to update the NRC.
On December 5, 2013, the Registrar General of India issued a notification on starting the NRC update process afresh, and subsequently, India’s Supreme Court started monitoring the exercise.
However, the issue got politicized when BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014 and claimed credit for this. So much so that a few party leaders spoke about the possibility of a nationwide NRC, much to the discomfiture of genuine Muslim citizens of the country. This prompted academics, activists and media, and human rights organizations to brand Assam’s NRC exercise as anti-Muslim.
Why BJP Wants To ‘Disown’ NRC?
The final NRC that came out on August 31, 2019, had upset the indigenous organizations and the civil society of Assam as it excluded 1.9 million people, a large section of whom are believed to be genuine citizens including the tribal population of the state.
This drastically low number took many by surprise as earlier government estimates put the figure of illegal immigrants in Assam at 5 million. Alleged bureaucratic lapses and errors in legacy data were largely to blame. Such a mess was the last thing Assam wanted after so many years of protest and agitation.
Tribal organizations and rights groups claim that hundreds of thousands of genuine citizens were excluded – most of whom are from indigenous communities such as Bodo, Karbi, Rabha, Mising, Ahom, Matak, and Reang among others.
While the saffron party started questioning the whole exercise, the AASU and the Assam Public Works (APW), an NGO, pleaded with the top court for a re-examination of the final draft, which they alleged was “not prepared” according to the court’s directives. APW is a primary petitioner in the NRC case in the Supreme Court.
Adding to the complexity is the fact that state NRC authorities have not yet issued ‘rejection slips’ to those excluded from the citizens’ register. A rejection slip will explain the reason why an applicant has been rejected from the list. While the Covid-19 pandemic has been cited as the reason for this delay, there is another twist to the NRC saga.
Last month, the Assam NRC coordinator filed a “strongly-worded” affidavit in the Gauhati High Court, stating that the Registrar General of India has kept the NRC anomalies under wraps, a serious allegation that could create a huge legal issue.
It is yet to be seen what the RGI, the country’s top authority responsible for census and demographic data, has to say about this. But one thing is sure – that the BJP would try to disown the entire issue in view of the upcoming assemble polls in Assam.