Nobody is happy with the final list of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. They are unhappy for different reasons. It was Assam Public Works, an NGO, whose petition in the Supreme Court of India led to the updating of NRC. The NGO is unhappy that only 19,06,657 are excluded from the list. The excluded people, however, cannot be called ‘stateless’ or ‘foreigners’. They will have one more opportunity to appeal before Foreigners Tribunals within 120 days.
The NRC was prepared in 1951 which was now updated. The Supreme Court got involved in 2009 after Assam Public Works filed a petition asking for deletion of illegal immigrants’ names from voters’ list. The whole exercise began in 2013 and the government spent a whopping Rs 1,200 crore.
Most of the excluded people are from the Hindu community. The Assam BJP is also unhappy. From the beginning, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) never differentiated between Bengali Hindu and Bengali Muslim illegal immigrants. For them, the issue was of illegal immigrants and not of Hindus or Muslims. One can find names of some defence officials, police personnel and well-known people in the excluded list. These are significant omissions. Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s finance minister and BJP’s point-person in North-East India, expressed surprise with the list and said his party and government is thinking of some other mechanism to detect and expel foreigners.
It is not easy to deport people even after they fail to convince Foreign Tribunals about their Indian nationality. In this case, it means deporting to Bangladesh. In India, political leaders often make comments like more than a couple of crore Bangladeshi live in India. The AASU launched a movement against illegal immigration from Bangladesh in 1979 and compelled the Rajiv Gandhi-led central government to sign the Assam Accord in 1985. The Assam Accord says those who came to Assam from Bangladesh prior to January 1, 1966, would be given citizenship. Those who came between January 1, 1966 and March 24, 1971, their names would be deleted from the electoral list and they would remain disenfranchised for a period of 10 years. Those who came after March 25, 1971, would be deported. The 1971 deadline was kept during the Bangladesh freedom struggle when lakhs of Hindu and Muslim immigrants came to India as refugees.
India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar during his recent Bangladesh visit said the process of documenting and identifying illegal immigrants in Assam is an ‘internal matter’ of India. He made this statement as there is an apprehension in Bangladesh that India may try to deport these illegal immigrants to Bangladesh. Jaishankar’s statement ‘India’s internal matter’ was most significant. It helped in removing Bangladesh’s fear. Bangladesh is denying that their citizens migrated illegally to India after 1971. One cannot be deported to another country unless that country accepts the nationality of concerned persons. Already Bangladesh is having few lakh Rohingyas from Myanmar.
The centre may think of Contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill to extend citizenship to non-Muslims. The lapsed bill had provisions to amend the Citizenship Act, to make Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Parsi, Jain and Buddhist illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for citizenship. The bill suggested relaxing the eligibility criteria for Indian citizenship. Many parties opposed the bill saying giving citizenship on the basis of religion is against the philosophy of the Indian Constitution as it is a secular country.
Those whose names are not on the list will surely approach Foreigners Tribunals and so the number is bound to come down further. The issue that continues to sustain is what to do with these excluded people. It is a big challenge. North-East India is very important from the geostrategic point of view and creating confusion or hurting a large number of people is not advisable.