What about the rights of the Assamese people?

Gitanjali Hazarika

The storm’s passed by. What lies in its wake now is the question of some 40 lakh names that couldn’t find a place in the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). At a time when there are haunting stories of divided families and agony, one question that probably assaults all Assamese minds now is: 40-odd lakh! Or, Odd! 40 lakh? It’s significant. The answer may be contentious, but the reasons behind the conundrum are not far to seek. Be that as it may, it’s surely a momentous occasion for the state and its embittered natives whose existence had been under threat due to large-scale cross-border infiltration from Bangladesh over the decades.

However, one can’t be oblivious to the fact that a massive drill of this magnitude, unprecedented in the country’s history, may leave a margin of error — some genuine, others not so. But, the list isn’t final. Affected genuine people will get ample opportunity to contest the draft and establish their citizenship by December 30, the latest deadline served by the Union government.

Aftermath of NRC

Propaganda machines are working overtime to churn their views, mostly biased and devoid of substance, making the already muddied waters of the Brahmaputra now look sinisterly murky. At this juncture, the governments, both at the Centre and the state, should stand guard against misinformation campaigns propagated by the parallel anti- forces, and so should the saner elements in society to nip dissensions in the bud.

What was the necessity?

The NRC exercise is the bedrock for Assam’s peaceful and progressive socio-political future. It is definitely not a whimsical arbitrariness of the government concerned. A look at the changing demographic equations in many districts of Assam can be largely attributed to the unabated illegal influx taking place over the decades. Matters worsened thanks to the abject insincerity in detecting and deporting the infiltrators by the state government, for reasons that are definitely not rocket science. This was even pointed out by the Gauhati High Court time and again. Even the Supreme Court had taken a serious stand on the illegal influx equating it to an infringement on the country’s integrity and sovereignty. And, those critics who believe large-scale influx from Bangladesh is a myth would do well to take a leaf out of a recent UN report that has ranked the Bangladeshi influx into India as the biggest such migration in the world. The NRC would also act as a deterrent for future illegal influx from the neighbouring country.

Under the strict monitoring of the Supreme Court, the NRC is a much-needed exercise to prepare an authenticated list of Indian citizens and identifying the illegal migrants who are estimated to have settled in Assam in large numbers in the last few decades. The verification process for enrolling one’s name in the NRC is being done on a strictly legal basis. Authorities have sought help of citizenship-related documents, census data, family linkage with ancestors as per the 1951 census et al.

Detecting, verifying and repatriating the illegal immigrants may prove to be truly daunting task for the government. The problem begins with the not-so-discernible differences in dialect and accents, food habits make them akin to Bengalis. Another disturbing trend of these illegal migrants holding ration cards, voter identity cards, and in most cases now even the Aadhaar cards further compounds the mess. In most of the cases, it was seen that in the massive exercise, illegal Bangladeshi immigrant were seen producing more is Indian identity documents than the natives, said an officer on condition of anonymity who is associated with the NRC exercise.

However, the Union home ministry has advised the Assam government not to take any police or administrative action on those whose names did not figure in the draft NRC. Till proven otherwise, there is no question of referring these people to the Foreigners Tribunal, nor should they be referred to as ‘bidexi’ or foreigner and sent to detention camps.

What now? The road ahead

The Centre should proactively put pressure on Bangladesh to accept its illegal migrants. It should urgently take up the matter of deportation of the detected foreigners with the Bangladesh Government. Dhaka has always failed in taking cognizance of India’s dialogue on the large number of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants living in India, nor has our neighbour ever proactively taken any effective measures to stem the tide of migration. Just a day ahead of the NRC final draft publication, on July 29, 52 Bangladeshi nationals detained in various detention camps across Assam since 2012 had been deported through complete verification process by both the countries. This goes to prove that the issue of deporting illegal migrants is anything but mission impossible. What then stands out in this context is the decades of apathy shown by consecutive governments in taking up the cross-border infiltration issue with the Bangladesh government. The absence of an extradition treaty and a dedicated national refugee law, too, has been a stumbling block in deporting illegal migrants, posing serious economic threat to India’s own native population. The delay in addressing the illegal influx problem has only made matters worse in case of Assam.

Above all, the slack overall border vigilance mechanism, which was the moot point in the 1985 Assam Accord, too, demands total overhauling. Mere erecting a barbed-wire fence along the border have failed to produce the desired results as even today, large stretches, particularly in the unguarded 1,016 km of riverine and 63 km maritime areas, still remain painfully porous.

The Assam Accord (1985)

Bringing an end to the tumultuous Assam Agitation between 1979 and 1985 against undocumented immigrants in Assam, a memorandum of settlement (MoS) was signed between representatives of the Government of India and the leaders of the Assam Movement in New Delhi on 15 August 1985. It may have ended the protest, but even after three decades a few of the key clauses are yet to be implemented, keeping a few issues festering. The accord said all those foreigners who had entered Assam between 1951 and 1961 were to be given full citizenship, including the right to vote; those who had done so after 1971 were to be deported; the entrants between 1961 and 1971 were to be denied voting rights for 10 years but would enjoy all other rights of citizenship as per Section 6A of Citizenship Act, 1955 and Assam Accord.

The section 6A in the Citizenship Act, 1955 contains the provisions with respect to citizenship of persons covered by the Assam Accord (1985). This section was introduced through an amendment made in 1985, in the Citizenship Act, 1955.

Why choose 1971?

On March 25, 1971, Pakistan Army began full-fledged operations against East Pakistan and civilians fighting their war of independence had to flee to India in large numbers. According to the Accord this populace was to be detected, their names deleted from the electoral rolls, and subsequently deported under the Foreigners Act, 1946. But, it remains only on paper.

And finally, even the UN is worried!

The exodus from Bangladeshis into India was termed by the United Nations as “the single largest bilateral stock of international migrants” in the eastern hemisphere and also in the developing world. 2013 data revealed by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA) shows that India was home to 3.2 million Bangladeshis. According to a 2017 International Migration Report there were 3.9 million Bangladeshis living in India.

If you think, Bangladeshi immigrants are only Assam’s headache, think again. For the last few censuses suggest with reasonable certainty that the number of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants exceeds 15 million across India with some subsequently moving to other parts of the country as well in search of menial jobs in cities, thereby making natives lose out on viable employment opportunities. The immigration has also not only proved to be a huge challenge for India’s resources – both land and economy – but in matters of national security, too. Illegal influx has fueled insurgency, particularly in the eastern states. But that’s another story…

(The author is the Executive Editor of DB Post)

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