By: Jayant Muralidharan
The tinderbox-like border state of Assam has had a tenuous, simmering and violent history of societal unrest pertaining to the issue of illegal immigrants. The genesis of these tensions dates back to the steady influx of refugees from ‘East Pakistan’ (later, Bangladesh) into the states of Assam and Bengal, almost immediately after independence. A big surge of up to 10 million refugees crossed into the porous Indian borders, immediately preceding the 1971 Indo-Pak war that ultimately led to the formation of Bangladesh. However, the inflow of refugees continued through the 1970s and in 1979, the Assam movement against foreign immigrants took a serious turn with the agitation crippling law-and-order, civil life and societal discourse. The infamous Nellie massacre of February 18, 1983, where thousands of people were killed, symbolised the irreconcilability of various groups within Assam who were claiming and counter-disputing citizenship. The agitation and violence were soon followed by the Assam Accord of 1985 that temporarily led to the cooling of tempers. While the demographic impact of illegal immigrants in Assam is undeniable, it has now acquired an inflammably divisive and overtly political dimension. This political angularity has also taken the issue beyond its black-and-white realm of legality and has superimposed a dangerous sweep of religiosity and ethnicity- the political ramifications and gratifications of which are obvious, even beyond the state of Assam.
Today, the latent though entirely combustible emotions have re-awakened with the publishing of the latest list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that effectively strips nearly two million people of citizenship. The fact that Bangladesh claims to have been given a reassurance that the ongoing NRC initiative in India has no bearing or implication on Dhaka and is only an ‘internal’ matter of India. This inevitably renders those who have failed to prove the citizenship documents stateless, pending appeal against their exclusion. The handling, fate and management of those identified as ‘non-Indians’ is an extremely delicate matter that is susceptible to partisan politics of the worst instinct.
Already innuendoes, aspersions and interpretations are agog among the competing political groups that are further polarising the environment towards their electoral calculus and deemed advantages. Even though the NRC initiative is getting conducted under the watchful eye of the Supreme Court, it cannot be insulated from politicisation. The parallel passions and developments on the new citizenship amendment bill, when viewed in conjunction with the NRC initiative, is further fuelling concerns on political intent, constitutionality and the end-game of the exercise. The tragedy of governance and the existing political culture is personified with the vested-angularity that can be affixed on to any routine administrative exercise like the identification of illegal immigrants. As it is, the entire process of furnishing documentary proof that the said individuals were citizens or descendants of citizens in 1971 (as mandated by the Assam Accord) is hardly a foolproof parameter. This, given the limited culture of maintaining documents or the fact that such documents could have been ‘purchased’, as is the wont in those times and places. It basically makes the final decision inconclusive and questionable, let alone convincing, to all stakeholders. In such a complex administrative scenario, a certain procedural imperfection and missteps are inevitable and therefore, there is the necessity of a re-evaluation window and potential re-designation of citizenship, without any accompanying political blandishment or accusation.
Even internationally, a lot more is at risk in terms of relationship with countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar who cannot be coerced into taking back the identified illegal immigrants, as that is a practical impossibility. A more reassuring and reconciliatory note about the entire NRC exercise needs to be ensured so that these countries cooperate, understand and empathise with the Indian concern. However, the parallel noise that is accompanying such sensitive exercises is rife with loaded statements that are unfortunately alluding to regressive categorisation based on religious and ethnic denominations. The whole episode has also highlighted the absence of any thought-through mechanism for handling those who do not make the citizenship cut. India cannot afford the spectre of ‘detainment camps’ or prisoning up to two million of those who were identified in Assam, as the issue of illegal immigrants goes well beyond Assam, and the total numbers could swell into many more millions. Automatic disfranchisement is the most plausible option for these non-citizens that addresses the spirit of angst underlying Assam Accord, so as to deny the ability to influence local politics or local governance. The true deliverable of NRC lies in its prospective ability so as to counter all future illegal immigrations and yet address genuine concerns of citizenry, maintain societal decorum and healthy relations in the restive neighbourhood. The issue of illegal immigrants is of immense concern to a country like India that is struggling to meet its own commitments of civic facilities for its emerging population, yet the manner in which we address the issue decides the ultimate narrative, tonality and impact that it generates. The entire exercise ought to unite the citizenry and not divide, as is unfortunately the predominant instinct at play, currently.
Herein, any political move that dilutes the constitutional spirit vitiates against the black-and-white necessity of controlling illegal immigrants. Historically the Hindu-Muslim dimension has been deliberately nurtured, pandered and reaped by politicians, and the same continues with the political classes of today, as well. While some believe in the necessary exercise of NRC that needs to be expanded to the entirety of the nation, it has already run into rough weather in Assam itself, where all political groups across the divide are busy contextualising it towards their own preferred interpretation and narrative. The ultimate onus is on the Central government to posit the workings of the NRC in a manner that is non-divisive, non-discriminatory and non-partisan – as the issue is beyond politics, and is rooted in the rightful concerns of its citizenry, progress and security. (INAV)