Waffling over Aliens

File photo


Influx from Bangladesh keeps the pot boiling for political parties in Assam, but the country’s highest court has to pull up the State government for its casual approach in detecting and deporting aliens. In its latest hearing, an exasperated Supreme Court had to remind the Assam government of its order in 2005 that the State is facing “external aggression”. But Dispur remains tardy in informing the apex court about the ‘number of persons declared foreigners by the tribunals, number of persons detained at the detention centres, number of persons sent back to their country of origin, number of foreigner tribunals considered to be adequate, and the number of additional tribunals required immediately and in near future’. The matter has come up in the course of the hearing on a PIL by activist Harsh Mander over the plight of inmates in detention camps. The Assam government has so far informed that more than 50,000 migrants have been declared as foreigners in the past 10 years, while around 900 of them are being kept in 6 detention centres. This naturally invited the question from the SC bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi about the whereabouts of the other foreigners. When 40 lakh people are left out of the draft national register of citizens (NRC), the foreigner tribunals manage to declare only 50,000 as aliens in a decade while a fraction of them are put in detention centres, surely the numbers game has been reduced to a joke by Dispur. During the earlier hearing on February 19, the apex court had asked whether there could be an alternative to housing declared foreigners in detention centres. After all, these detention centres are located in district jails, and their conditions are appalling. The court had also asked about the deportation process, after being told it is necessarily slow as other countries are involved. In this context, the SC bench had observed that the so-called ‘pushback’ process would require detailed consideration. This is the elephant in the room that no ruling dispensation in New Delhi, irrespective of political colours, has dared to address over the years, given the warming relations with Dhaka under Sheikh Hasina. The two neighbours never had any repatriation or deportation treaty worth the name, so those declared foreigners here would simply be ‘pushed back’ across the no man’s land at the Indo-Bangla border. Since no human can survive there, they would at once sneak back into Indian territory (like Md Kamaruddin who tried to contest from Jamunamukh assembly seat in 1996, thereafter pushed back twice but returned both times, and was in possession of a Pakistani passport). Hopefully, a fully updated NRC in July this year will put a stop to such absurdities. We may even dare to hope that one day the entire border with Bangladesh will be sealed with smart technology to prevent infiltration, as the Union Home Minister promised recently while inaugurating the 61-km smart fencing section in Dhubri district. But what is to be done with those finally identified as illegal aliens here after the final NRC is published on July 31 next, the deadline set by the apex court? If they number in lakhs, will Dhaka accept them back? The orchestrated chorus over NRC and citizenship amendment bill should not distract us from the really knotty questions in Supreme Court having serious implications for Assam. In April 2017, a 5-member SC bench had framed 13 questions for a constitution bench which included the constitutional validity of Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, 1955 (as to whether Assam can be singled out from the rest of the country with a special citizenship law which pegs 1971 as the cut-off year for foreigners). Considering the complexity of these questions, it is surprising that the State and Central governments do not even take minimum care to present basic facts and figures about the foreigner problem before the apex court. This allows vested interests championing the cause of foreigners to trivialise issues, hijack the discourse and twist the narrative to their own ends. Sections of the media, unwittingly or willingly, are playing into their hands, which is a pity.