WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
The demographic exercise that we are going through in Assam—namely the updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of 1951—is not something that is done periodically in many other countries. In most cases, countries have their list of citizens to which names are added as and when necessary or deleted upon the death of citizens or when citizens migrate permanently to other countries. This is an on-going process with the necessary information of births and deaths or migrations being duly reported to the department that has to do with keeping count of the citizens. With the advent of computers, this process has got further simplified in most countries.
In India, the business of updating the National Register of Citizens has not become an imperative task in most of the States. However, Assam has been faced with serious demographic problems due to huge and unchecked illegal immigration emanating from former East Pakistan and present Bangladesh mainly from the early 1960s, and the total failure of our administration to deal with the situation over the years. Finding fault with politicians for this is a futile undertaking, because politicians of Assam were found to be only too eager to have foreign nationals coming into the State in very large numbers (actually in millions) and adding to the size of their vote banks. What passes the understanding of lay citizens is how illegal migrants from other countries could get their names included in the electoral roll of the State so expeditiously and without any action from the Election Commission of India. It should also be evident that the inclusion of the names of foreign nationals in the electoral roll of Assam in such large numbers and with such quiet efficiency and haste could have been possible only with the command and supervision of some very important politician(s). It is also evident now that the burden of shame over the bureaucratic neglect of several decades has become too heavy for bureaucrats to bear and that they are now being compelled to take responsibility and some remedial action, regardless of how cosmetic they may turn out to be. One such remedial action proposed and insisted on by the BJP (against strong opposition by the people of Assam) is the automatic grant of Indian citizenship to all Hindus from Bangladesh. This is a move that will result in the grant of Indian citizenship to about 1.5 to 1.7 million Bangladeshis. A sizeable number of such Bangladeshi Hindus are already in Assam as illegal migrants. The BJP keeps arguing that this is a means of balancing the Bangladeshi Muslims who are already in Assam and other States of India. What the BJP government at the Centre seems to overlook is that Assam is already overburdened with about six million Bangladeshis who are in the State illegally. This is a burden of foreign immigrants that has already become impossible for the State to bear. In fact, Assam is already beginning to look like a dumping ground for foreign immigrants illegally residing in India. Their religion has ceased to be of any consequence for the people of Assam. The State cannot be burdened with an additional number of over a crore of Bangladeshi Hindus. And there can be no doubt that people who migrate to India from Bangladesh will tend to flock to States like Assam and the other States of the Northeast because they are the closest to Bangladesh. Such a move will take away Assam from the map of India and create an unfamiliar and un-Indian State in its place. In any case, the Centre is not empowered to do such a thing in respect of any Indian State without the consent of the people. The Centre dare not seek such consent through any referendum because it knows what the consensus of the people will be. And it cannot force its will on the people of any State because it cannot afford to forget that India is the world’s largest democracy. It has the responsibility of ensuring the people’s will and consent before embarking on a move that will be cataclysmic for the people of Assam. Considering the load of Bangladeshi immigrants that Assam has had to bear for quite a few decades, it might appear reasonable to let the Centre get away with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 as long as it adds the proviso to the Bill that it shall not be applicable to Assam and the other States of the Northeast. But the people of Assam are opposed even to this. After all, how can they give their consent to a legislation that does great injustice to Assam for any of the other States of India. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 is a condemnable piece of legislation and it should be scrapped. What is somewhat heartening is that one by one other States of India too are beginning to oppose this black law. One can be reasonably assured that if the Bill were to be made a law, the people of Assam will oppose it tooth and nail—far more vehemently than anything they have ever opposed.
There is much belated concern about the names of Indian citizens that will eventually appear in the updated NRC. This is the legitimate concern of people who can rightfully claim inclusion of their names in the updated NRC. Unfortunately, neither they nor the officers of the government whose duty it is to ensure that the names of all genuine Indian citizens living in Assam get included in the updated NRC have paid much attention to ensuring this legitimate obligation. Then there is also the responsibility of ensuring that the names of foreigners (regardless of how long they have lived in Assam as illegal migrants from Bangladesh or elsewhere) are not included in the updated NRC. On the other hand, the most vital objective for any illegal migrant from Bangladesh would be to get his/her name included in the updated NRC. They are a far more desperate lot because most of them believed that they could get their names included in the updated NRC by hook or by crook. And there is every reason to believe that quite a lot of fake certificates and documents have been used in order to get the names of as many non-Indians included in the NRC as possible. That the rate of success among such undeserving aspirants has been rather high has been proved by the fact that thousands of names have had to be deleted from the updated NRC. But there is the legitimate fear that many names of foreigners have remained in the updated NRC despite the commendable steps taken by State NRC Coordinator Prateek Hajela to keep the names of non-Indians out of the updated NRC. He had issued a notification on May 2 this year instructing all deputy commissioners not to include the names of any persons declared as foreigners or doubtful voters and members of their family in the NRC being updated. And even though Hajela’s notification was challenged by one Ajijul Haque in the Gauhati High Court, the High Court responded by issuing a fresh note upholding Hajela’s notification of May 2.
And that leaves us with the letter written jointly by four special rapporteurs of the United Nations to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj raising concern over the fate of the Bengali Muslim minority in Assam and seeking a report in 60 days. It is important to bear in mind that the United Nations has rather foggy notions about what the real situation is in far-off Assam, and can merely respond to appeals made by members of a larger linguistic community. The United Nations has a tendency to go by numbers rather than by the merit of most conflicts. Besides, it lacks punitive powers to penalize any entity that it might regard as having committed any crime. Since no crime has been committed in respect of Assam’s handling of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, the United Nations must be told in very categorical terms to refrain from meddling in issues about which it has the most scanty and most unreliable information. We are aware of how ruthlessly most European countries handle the problem of illegal immigration. It will simply not do for the UN to pretend that only the stands taken by Asian countries on issues like illegal migration are flawed or questionable. Such double standards have gone on for far too long. There is no room for them any more.