By: Dr Walter Fernandes
The final draft of the National Register of Citizens for Assam, published on July 30, is a good document with some shortcomings. But the real problem is the fear-mongering by many Indian media outlets outside the North East. Some TV channels have even claimed that there will be a bloodbath in Assam because lakhs of its residents have been left out of the NRC, an exercise aimed at listing the registered Indian citizens in the state and identifying undocumented migrants.
This fear-mongering, which began before the draft was published, spread to some foreign countries too. A European human rights group asked me whether seven million Muslims would be excluded from the NRC, jailed, and eventually sent to Bangladesh. I told them that based on my examination and calculations of Census data, the number of Bengali speakers and their children (who some have clubbed under the umbrella term “Bangladeshi migrants”) cannot exceed 40 lakh. But some leaders speak of almost every Muslim as an “illegal” Bangladeshi, leading to the high numbers being banded about.
The question of undocumented migrants was where the NRC was born. In response to constant agitations by students’ unions over fears that the so-called illegal immigrants would outnumber the indigenous people of Assam, the Supreme Court in 2014 ordered that the NRC, first prepared in 1951 but riddled with problems, be updated by January 2016. The first list was out on December 30, 2017 and the final draft was released last week. Of the approximately 3.29 crore applicants, 40 lakh people have been excluded from the list and will now have to submit fresh documents to prove citizenship.
The media ignored the fact that it is the final draft, not the NRC itself. To find place in the NRC, every resident had to apply and prove that the names of their ancestors were found in the 1951 document, or, in other words, prove that their grandparents lived in Assam. This even though the cut-off date for citizenship in Assam has been affixed at March 25, 1971, in keeping with the Assam Accord.
The problem is that India does not have compulsory birth, marriage and death registration and many citizens, being illiterate, are unable to produce any record. Some others are too poor to argue their case and do not have enough legal assistance to prove their citizenship.
That has serious implications for a large number of Muslim and even some Bengali-speaking Hindu residents. The 40,07,707 people who have been left out of the NRC include former President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed’s brother’s family, which claims to have lost its documents in the floods in 2000, Azmal Haque, who retired from the Indian army after serving for 30 years, an MLA of the Assam government and the wife of another legislator, both Hindu. Thus, there are many anomalies that can lead to much injustice.
So the next question is: What happens to people excluded from the NRC? The Supreme Court has said that no coercive action is to be taken on them because this is only a draft. Action has to wait till the final list comes out, due on December 31. Thus, fear-mongering and talk of bloodshed are not justified, but are problematic and dangerous. Equally dangerous are statements of some leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party that they completed the NRC while the Congress, which began the exercise in 2005, did not do so because they wanted to protect “illegal Bangladeshis”.
I do not want to get into the Bharatiya Janata Party-Congress dynamic and instead focus on facts.
First, the NRC is not the initiative of any political party but the result of a Supreme Court order, in response to a clutch of petitions and in the wake of many years of student agitations against what they considered an influx of foreigners into the state.
Secondly, a myth is being created that “illegal immigration” began after India’s Partition and is a Pakistani conspiracy to destabilise the North East. In reality, immigration from Bangladesh was a response to the 1891 British policy that encouraged peasants from East Bengal (most of which now falls under Bangladesh) to migrate to Western Assam to grow more food to offset a famine, caused by land takeover by British for tea gardens, by cultivating what they called wastelands
These territories were in fact the lands shared by the Bodo and Rabha tribes inhabiting the region, and were their source of livelihood. Hence, from the outset, the conflict has been around land. Secondly, 90% of the East Bengal peasants were Muslims and that was the proportion among the immigrants too. This added a communal dimension to the land issue. Their number kept growing because they were landless labourers coming in search of fertile land. But in the 1930s, in the context of the debate on the Partition, some leaders of the freedom movement feared that Assam was becoming a Muslim majority province. So they encouraged Hindu peasants from Bihar to migrate to Assam. It added to the communal dimension.
Immigration has continued after Partition from Bihar, Nepal and Bangladesh. Today, Hindu Nepali and North Indian immigrants comprise around 60% of migrants and Bengali speakers are around 40%. Even today, the people of Assam are concerned mainly about their land and identity. But the focus of Centre’s leaders is on those they brand as illegal Muslim immigrants and term a threat to national security. One has said that all of them should be deported. The same government has, based on the electoral promise of the present prime minister, introduced an amendment to the Citizenship Act making it easy for minorities (read Hindus) ostensibly fleeing persecution in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to become citizens of India. The people of Assam oppose this amendment because they fear that the Assamese speakers, who are only around 60% of its population, will be reduced to a minority mainly because more and more land hungry Hindus may migrate to Assam, declare themselves victims of persecution and become citizens.
But some political leaders are using the NRC as a tool to talk about expelling “illegal Muslims migrants” to Bangladesh, though many of them may be Indian nationals who cannot prove their citizenship. Bangladesh will not accept them and they have nowhere else to go. Migration from Bangladesh, with a population density of more than 1,200 per sq km, to Assam, with a density of less than 500 per sq km, can even be a mode of demographic balance. Moreover, around 20% of Bangladesh is expected to submerged by climate change within the next two decades. Where will its people go?
Detention camps can be a temporary solution. A long-term plan is required. Ways have to be found of accommodating them, perhaps with a work permit without voting rights. After all, a major attraction for the Bihari as well as Bangladeshi migrants to Assam is unskilled work. More importantly, the defective land laws that make encroachment easy have to be changed. Many migrants get pattas (ownership documents) for their encroached land by bribing government officials. One can also ask whether such large scale cross-border migration can be possible without bribing the border guards. It means that corruption has to be tackled. The economy has to be developed in order to provide a livelihood to everyone and that can satisfy the Supreme Court definition of Article 21 on right to life as everyone’s right to a life with dignity. Bloodshed and fear-mongering are not the answer.