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New Delhi's Options Post the Publication of the NRC in Assam

Dr. Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for details profile
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  • August 02, 2018

    The second draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam was published on July 30, 2018. Of the 3.29 crore persons who applied for the inclusion of their names in the NRC, 2.89 crore have been included as citizens, leaving out around 40 lakh persons. This draft of the NRC is however not final and people can still appeal against the non-inclusion of their names in the NRC. The final list of the NRC containing the names of all Indian citizens in Assam is expected to be published by December 2018 after disposing off all claims and objections in final registers at various levels. Not surprisingly, the exclusion of some 40 lakhs names from the second draft of the NRC has generated mixed reactions. Some political leaders have criticised the NRC updation, referring to it as an exercise that will make the Bengali speaking people “refugees in their own country”. Others have welcomed the NRC, terming it as the right of the people of Assam and essential for national security. Many others have raised doubts about the manner in which the entire process has been conducted and even accused the NRC team of deliberate malfeasance.

    Notwithstanding these criticisms, the updation of the NRC is a positive step in a number of ways. Firstly, once the draft is finalised, it will provide a much needed perspective on the extent of illegal migration that has taken place into Assam in particular and the country in general. Since the days of the Assam agitation against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, there have been wild speculations about their actual number. The uncertainty about the number of illegal migrants was compounded by the absence of official estimates. This allowed political parties to often exaggerate the numbers, polarise voters and exploit the issue for electoral gains. An updated NRC is likely to put an end to such speculations and provide a verified dataset to carry out meaningful debates and implement calibrated policy measures.

    Secondly, the issue of illegal migrants has remained an emotive one in Assam since independence. It had even created a divergence of opinion between successive central and state leaderships as the former continued to be accommodative towards migrants describing the mass migration from East Pakistan as “homecoming”. Much to the dismay of the people of Assam, some central leaders even went to the extent of denying that any illegal migration from Bangladesh has taken place into the state. The publication of an updated NRC will vindicate the long held argument of large sections of the people of Assam that unabated infiltration from Bangladesh has indeed taken place and that it has upset the demographic profile of the state’s population, especially in the border districts. This, they note, has been causing intense competition and conflict between the indigenous people and migrants for access to resources.

    Thirdly, the publication of an updated NRC is expected to deter future migrants from Bangladesh from entering Assam illegally. The publication of the draft NRC has already created a perception that staying in Assam without valid documentation will attract detention/jail term and deportation. More importantly, illegal migrants may find it even more difficult to procure Indian identity documents and avail all the rights and benefits due to all Indian citizens. Last but not least, the inclusion of their names in the NRC will provide respite to all those Bengali speaking people in Assam who have been, hitherto, suspected as being Bangladeshis.

    What next? Persons whose names do not feature in the final draft of the NRC are apprehensive that they will be declared as foreigners, sent to detention centres and finally deported. However, the fact remains that the publication of the final draft of the NRC in Assam does not settle the issue of who is a citizen and who is not. The authority to declare anyone a foreigner rests with the Foreigners Tribunals for Assam, constituted under the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964. Persons whose names do not figure in the final list of the updated NRC have the right to appeal to these 100 odd Foreigners Tribunals. It is only after one of these Foreigners Tribunals declares someone a foreigner that the government can detain and deport him or her. But this entire process could be a long drawn one as the disposal of lakhs of cases is likely to take years to complete. The real test for the Union government will come only if substantial numbers of persons are finally declared as foreigners by these Tribunals, because it does not have a clear policy on how to deal with them.

    There are some options which the government may consider, though these are fraught with problems and likely to prove quite difficult, if not impossible, to implement. The first option is to deport the illegal migrants to Bangladesh. This course of action is, however, a non-starter given that Bangladesh till date has refused to even acknowledge that its citizens have migrated illegally into India, let alone expressing any indication that it would consider taking them back. New Delhi is also reluctant to raise this tricky issue lest it jeopardises relations with Dhaka. In the absence of a formal agreement, India cannot forcibly push the illegal migrants back into Bangladesh. Such an attempt would not only damage bilateral relations but also sully the country’s image internationally.

    The second option is to allow the illegal migrants to reside in the country on humanitarian grounds, but after stripping them of all citizenship rights. The government can grant them a modified version of work permit and let them stay on as guest workers, albeit in different states. For this, the Union government will have to enter into negotiations with state governments that are willing to accept these illegal migrants. On their part, state governments have to maintain a proper database and a strict vigil on these illegal migrants lest they disappear without a trace. But this option is likely to create a new problem: in the absence of Bangladesh acknowledging that these lakhs of people are its citizens who have migrated to India, granting them work permits will render them stateless and cause a large-scale humanitarian crisis.

    The third option is to grant the proclaimed illegal migrants amnesty and, after a process of naturalisation, Indian citizenship. Such an option would not, however, be welcomed by the people of Assam who are at present protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016, which proposes to grant citizenship to all refugees (except Muslims) who have fled religious persecution in their home countries. In fact, a case challenging the decision to consider migrants from East Pakistan, who had entered India before or on March 24, 1971, as Indian citizens is presently pending in the Supreme Court.

    Given all this, the best way forward for India appears to be to initiate talks with Bangladesh and seek a mutually acceptable political solution for the issue of illegal immigrants. To begin with, India needs to convince Bangladesh to undertake a domestic verification process for determining who among those not finally listed in the NCR are its own citizens. The next step would be to work out a deal for repatriating these persons to Bangladesh. Such a deal is in the realm of possibility given the fact that Bangladesh has agreed to take back 85 of its citizens this year after verifying that they had illegally entered Assam.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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