Finally, on the 30th of July this year, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was released – the register which states with certainty who a citizen of Assam state is. Paradoxically enough, the document has raised more questions than it has been able to answer.
Earlier, India was able to deal with the problem of refugees from Tibet, Burma and Sri Lanka earlier largely on account of its innate resilience. This time around, however, the problem is not only assuming worrying dimensions financially, but is also threatening to affect internal security. What first appeared as the problem of Assam has already spread to other northeastern states, Bengal and all the other states to which such unlisted persons migrate to. Unfortunately the issue is being treated purely from the narrow political angle.
The issue of illegal migrants has not abruptly arisen now. India left its 4000 km border with Bangladesh (the then East Pakistan) porous, not securing it as it did the one with Pakistan on the west. Several governments came and went but this shortcoming was never set right.
Assam was the worst sufferer because of its 143 km easily crossed border. As on date the number of Assamese forms only a third of the population of the state. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) earlier agitated on this issue and, after coming to power on that plank, entered into an agreement with the central government in 1985 that those who came after the 25th of March 1971( i.e. after the formation of Bangladesh), were to be identified and sent back to their country. Even after 33 years, the agreement remains unimplemented for want of commitment on the part of the government.
The present exercise was taken up because of a public interest litigation (PIL) petition filed in Supreme Court, which directed that a first draft of the register be prepared by 2017 December, and the work completed fully by 30 June 2018.
The first draft was released on 31 December 2017. Out of 3.29 crores of applicants, 1.39 crore people were denied citizenship. In the revised list, only 40 lakh were left out - meaning that, 99 lakh citizens were wrongly deleted earlier - including names of the family members of some MLAs, a former president of India and a former Chief Minister of Assam! One wonders how a so-called ‘scientific’ process, costing Rs.12220 crores, could contain such a colossal mistake.
Since the first list was displayed in the public domain, and attracted criticism, the government this time around decided to intimate the 40 lakh people individually, to submit appropriate documents before the August 30 deadline. The amusing part is that the Ministry of Home Affairs of the Government of India appears yet undecided about what to do with those 40 lakh people, what to call them, or even whether they would be categorised as Indian citizens or not!
Given this confusing situation one wonders whether the government is keen at all to bring this colossal exercise to its logical end. If, for instance, these people are to be treated as illegal immigrants, will it be possible to persuade the Bangladesh government to take them back? India has no treaty with that country to send back refugees. And, while the Government of Bangladesh emphatically states that no citizen of their country is in India, the government of India made a statement in Parliament in 2006 that there are nearly two crore Bangladeshis in India.
Refugees or illegal immigrants pose a serious threat to the local population. In their eagerness to survive, they work as cheap labour, accept low paid jobs or become petty traders, thus adversely impacting the employment opportunities of local persons. Some do not hesitate to take up illegal activities like smuggling and law and order problems. Naturally, while the local population does not mind a temporary intrusion by the refugees, on humanitarian considerations, it is right to object to their permanent settlement.
Even a country such as the USA, which is a strong financial power with many resources, is unable to tolerate the presence of immigrants from Mexico. Similarly every European country which is beset with the refugee problem is threatening to them drive away. Though it is hardly four or five years since the Syrian refugee problem started, the whole of Europe is agitatedly discussing the subject. The Bangladeshi refugee problem in India, on the other hand, is four to five decades old and the influx is constantly increasing. The problem is not only straining the already fragile social fabric, but is also impacting the economy. The youth, in particular, is enraged at the political leaders who have converted the immigrants into a vote bank.
The amendment of the 1955 citizenship law, piloted in July 2016 by the NDA government, enabling non-Muslims immigrants from certain countries to become citizens, gave rise to the suspicion that a religious angle was behind it. Similarly, the All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC) appeal to be viewing this from a Bengali angle. Mamata Banerjee, who demanded expulsion of all the Bangladeshis and even resigned her cabinet berth a few years ago, has now become the messiah of the Bengalis and comprehensively opposed the very idea of the NRC, calling it another “Bengali Kheda” (drive Bengalis out) movement. To push her further into a corner and paint her pro-Muslim, BJP leaders are calling for an NRC exercise in Bengal too.
The common Indian citizen knows that India has enough problems including a rapidly deteriorating financial situation. It would, therefore, be hardly be fair to expect the country support large numbers of immigrants, whether legal or otherwise. He is crying out loud that the government should look after the basic needs of those at home first and then only think of the guests. One can only hope his voice is being heard.