The Assam NRC draft will lead to more polarisation between communities

There is no way this government can implement an exodus like this.

 |  11-minute read |   06-08-2018
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In Assam, we are on the brink of a horror of unimaginable magnitude. 

One that is likely to surpass even the horror of Partition — and is likely to spread to the neighbouring states and evoke retaliation from Bangladesh.

Violence because of a clash between linguistic and communal identities took a huge toll on human lives between 1979 and 1985 amid political instability, collapse of the state government, and President's Rule. 

rajiv-gandhi-signing_080518062008.jpgThe Assam Accord was signed between Rajiv Gandhi and the leaders of the Assam Movement in 1985. (Source: India Today)

The Assam Accord was signed between Rajiv Gandhi and the leaders of the Assam Movement in 1985. A six-year agitation, demanding identification and deportation of illegal immigrants, was launched by the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) in 1979.

The accord then stated that all foreigners who had entered Assam between 1951 and 1961 were to be given full citizenship, including the right to vote. 

Immigrants who entered after 1971 were to be deported. 

Those who entered between 1961 and 1971 were to be denied voting rights for 10 years, but granted all other rights of citizenship.

Ram Pradhan, the then-Union home secretary, who had negotiated the accord, has said that the Congress government (and one presumes the subsequent governments) did not follow up the matter. "This was part of the accord, but they realised that the survey would seriously impair the vote bank of the Congress… There was huge anger among the Muslims and the Bengalis living in Assam as they felt that they had been living and working there, but were being asked to prove their identity," Pradhan said. 

As mentioned in The Sentinel on January 1, 2018, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government at the Centre in 1999 granted a sum of Rs 20 lakh to proceed with the procedure of NRC updation. As much as Rs 5 lakh of this amount was granted to the state government. 

Section 5.8 of the accord clearly states, "Foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971, shall continue to be detected, deleted and expelled in accordance with law. Immediate and practical steps to be taken to expel such foreigners (sic)."

On April 26, 2017, AASU general secretary Lurin Jyoti Gogoi, along with Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, met Home Minister Rajnath Singh with a memorandum of demands that ran into 90 points. Speaking to the press, he said, "One of the most important decisions taken Wednesday [April 26] was to constitute special task forces at the state and district levels to identify illegal migrants." 

rajnath-singh-690_080518063828.jpgRajnath Singh with Sarbananda Sonowal (Source: PTI)

Thus, the Pandora's box was reopened — and according to many in the Opposition, by the BJP at an opportune moment in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when their position is shaky with unkept promises, policy U-turns, communal unrest, loss of control on law and order nationwide, and a palpable decline in the popularity of their leading election campaigner, PM Narendra Modi.

Considering the bloody history of Assam, and its continuous demographic tensions between indigenous people and tribes, and settlers from outside — a vast number of whom are from Bangladesh (and Muslim) — this revival of the NRC exercise would give a clear signal to both Assam and the rest of India that the BJP means business. That, unlike the Congress, it cares for the indigenous population and does not shy away from alienating the Muslim vote bank.

However, after 30 years of the Centre letting sleeping dogs lie, and at least two more generations being born and brought up on the soil of Assam, the numbers have grown manifold. It is not only a humongous and challenging task to separate the wheat from the chaff, but one might dare say, well-nigh impossible.

Who is a resident and who is an illegal immigrant?

There are two requirements for inclusion of names of any person in the updated NRC:

a) The first requirement is collection of any one of the following documents of List A issued before midnight of 24th March, 1971 where name of self or ancestor* appears (to prove residence in Assam up to midnight of 24th March, 1971).

1) 1951 NRC OR

2) Electoral roll(s) up to March 24, 1971 (midnight) or

3) Land and tenancy records or

4) Citizenship certificate or

5) Permanent residential certificate or

6) Refugee registration certificate or

7) Passport or

8) LIC or

9) Any government issued licence/certificate or

10) Government service/employment certificate or

11) Bank/post office accounts or

12) Birth certificate or

13) Board/university educational certificate or

14) Court Records/Processes

Given the prevailing wretched state of illiteracy and poverty, how will the progeny of the poorest of the poor, or the landless, procure any of the above?

Though some refugees might still be lucky to have some documentary evidence, one doubts whether at their socio-economic level, in their daily grind for survival, they would be in a position to preserve such documents. Ask any LIC agent or CA and s/he will exasperatedly relate stories about even well-to-do clients unable to locate documents by year-end. One is certain that if one carries out this exercise in the rest of India among 'bonafide' citizens, one would have to exclude a large chunk of the population.

Moreover, a large number of those excluded from the NRC on these grounds have voter ID cards, ration cards as well as Aadhaar cards. Navaid Hamid, president of The All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, has condemned the whole exercise as full of faults for ignoring genuine and valid documents like passports and Aadhar cards as proof of citizenship. 

Describing it as a tragedy on a massive scale, he asks, "What about families of freedom fighters, descendants of great people who had confronted the accession of areas of Assam state to then East Pakistan whose names have been excluded in the proposed NRC list?"

K Surendran, a senior BJP state general secretary, claimed on August 2 that thousands of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants had reached the state with the help of fake documents and some were engaging in criminal and anti-national activities, affecting the safety and security of the people in the state. 

He said many of them had obtained ration cards and some had even enrolled themselves in the electoral list in the state. 

Even if that were true, how is that possible without official collusion?

Firstly, the authorities would need to prove that people holding voter ID cards and with their names on voter lists are prima facie non-citizens. Once the government of India issues you a ration card/voter ID card/Aadhaar card, you have been recognised as an Indian citizen — whether your grandfather jumped the fence or not.

nrc-assam-690_080518062327.jpgOnce the government of India issues someone a ration card/voter ID card/Aadhaar card, the person has been recognised as an Indian citizen. (Source: PTI)

Due diligence at the time of issuing these markers of civilian and citizenship identity is the government's onus. 

Retrospective action going back generations is not legitimate.

This should be the legal thrust of the argument by activists.

More to the point, if repatriations are directly proportional to immigration, here's government data to prove that migration has actually plummeted over the years.

In a piece in The Print, Yogendra Yadav points out that according to Census data, between 1991 and 2001, the Assamese speaking population in the state dwindled from 58 per cent to 48 per cent, whereas the Bengali-speaking population went up by seven per cent.

Indeed, there is an economic thrust to the argument for including many people who have been left out from the NRC too.

For a significant number of years, in no matter how meagre a way, irrespective of the above, if one has contributed to the economy and GDP of the land one has made one's home, even if one has been selling tea by the roadside, one should ethically be recognised as a bonafide citizen and useful member of society.

In comparison, the UK has a more realistic approach as opposed to the knee-jerk and ad hoc approach India is adopting.

If an individual has resided in the United Kingdom long enough, he or she may be eligible to apply for a visa or even settlement. Here are the main routes when a person may be entitled to remain in the UK conditionally or indefinitely.

Essentially, continuous residence means residence in the United Kingdom for an unbroken period (including absence from the United Kingdom for a period of six months or less at any one time) provided that the applicant has an existing visa upon their departure and return. The period is considered to have been broken in few circumstances, including if the applicant has been removed, deported or has left the UK having been refused a visa, has been convicted of an offence and was sentenced to a period of imprisonment, has spent a total of more than 18 months absent from the UK during the period in question.

Leaving and entering the UK is permitted, as long as the person:

1) Has a valid visa when he or she leaves the UK;

2) Does not remain outside the UK for more than six months at any one time; and

3) Has a valid visa when he or she returns to the UK

Any absence of more than six months will break continuous residence. Total absence of up to 18 months in aggregate over the 10 years is permitted, but any more than that will break continuous residence.

The person is not allowed more than 18 months outside the UK in total, which is a period of 540 days. Days of departure and return do not count towards the total; it is only whole days outside the UK which count. However, if absences exceed the allowed limit, the Home Office may deem it appropriate to exercise discretion in compelling or compassionate circumstances, for example, where the applicant was prevented from returning to the UK through unavoidable circumstances. Caseworkers are instructed to consider the reason for absences and whether the applicant returned to the UK as soon as s/he was able to. There is little further elucidation of when discretion might be exercised, suggesting that it will be rare.

theresa-may-690_080518062738.jpgEven UK has a better system (Source: Reuters)

Finally, does India have the wherewithal and the power to push back 40 lakh 'illegal immigrants' into Bangladesh in a unilateral decision? A senior Bangladeshi minister has made a statement that the so-called 'illegal immigrants' were never citizens of the country, nor will Bangladesh accept them.

sheikh-hasina-690_080518062944.jpgNo, Bangladesh is not amused. (Source: Reuters)

Xenophobia, in the service of tribalism, ethnolingualism and subnationalism, has been fanned and old divides that bring to mind the Tarapur railway shootings of 1961 and the Nellie massacre of 1983 have been revived in this NRC exercise — the very thing that stopped past governments to move ahead with an agreement that was essentially a fire-fighting move in a very difficult situation.

BJP president Amit Shah flatly declared that those whose names do not figure in the rolls of the NRC are "intruders".

T Raja Singh, a BJP member of the Telangana Legislative Assembly, representing the Goshamahal constituency in Hyderabad, says, "If these people don't leave our country peacefully, I believe that there is a need to make them understand in another language, just like in other countries, they are shot and made to flee. In India as well, if they don't leave, there is a need to shoot them and make them leave with bullets." LINK

His sentiments are reflected by Abhijeet Sharma, a businessman and the head of an NGO called Assam Public Works (APW). A muscular supporter of the NRC, he has made roughly 50 trips to the Supreme Court of India from Guwahati, following up on a petition that demands at least 40 lakh residents of Assam be declared stateless, be stripped of civil rights and struck off the electoral rolls.

Consider his comment:

"Their land will be snatched, they will not get any medical benefits or other amenities that Indians do. They can't become government employees. The government can give them job cards. They will show us the job cards and they can work as labourers for us. Children of illegal immigrants will not get to become doctors, engineers or IAS officers."

There is no way this government can implement an exodus like this. 

You can't just wish away so many people. 

What the exercise will achieve is more polarisation between communities, the demonisation of minorities and another big diversion in the run-up to the 2019 elections on faux nationalism.

If the exercise is being initiated with an eye on the 2019 polls, the BJP should keep in mind that this may well backfire with several disenfranchised groups who form their voter base as well.

"An analysis of the last rural polls clearly shows that the BJP fared well mostly in places dominated by the Namasudras. It is because we as a community supported them," said Mukul Chandra Bairagya, working president of Sarva Bharatiya Namasudra Vikas Parishad… However, in Assam, as many as seven lakh members of Namasudra community have been excluded from citizenship. We do not trust the BJP anymore." (sic)

Also read: Muddying the Brahmaputra: How both Congress and the BJP are using Assam NRC draft for their own political ends


Gautam Benegal Gautam Benegal @gautambenegal

Award winning animation filmmaker, artist, author, and social commentator.

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