If you are reading this article, probability is high that by now you would be aware that the Assam government has released a list of people who it believes are "genuine" Indian citizens residing in the state.
This list is the second draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). It has been mired in controversies from the moment it was made public on July 30.
The register seeks to identify people who illegally entered India after March 25, 1971 (a day after Bangladesh gained independence), and declare them illegal immigrants. Once the register is updated - it was first done in 1951 - the 100 Foreigners' Tribunals in the state are likely to initiate cases against them, flood them in detention centres with utterly inhuman environment, and subsequently (if we ever reach there) deport them to their country of origin (in most cases Bangladesh).
Troops of the Border Security Force on a patrol in the waters of river Brahmaputra along the Indo-Bangladesh border. (Source: Reuters)
A total of 3.29 crore people in Assam applied for this citizenship test, and the second draft declared that 2.89 crore have passed it. They, the government says, are the genuine citizens of India — the true sons and daughters of Assam.
The drafts excluded nearly 40 lakh people, putting a question mark on their citizenship. The central government has said they will be given a chance to prove their citizenship claim.
The final list of “genuine” Indian citizens in Assam is expected to be out by December 31, 2018.
Consequences of this have been debated at length. What has also been discussed is the arbitrariness of the process that ended up excluding 40 lakh people—including army and air force veterans, sitting legislators, among others.
There have also been write-ups addressing questions like what will happen to those identified as illegal immigrants? Will they be detained and deported? Will Bangladesh accept them? Will they become second-class citizens? Etc.
However, a question that remains largely unaddressed is: What about the officials who, over the years, not only allowed Bangladeshi nationals to enter India, but also settle here?
A mother in Goalpara district arrives at a centre with her child to check if her name featured in the second draft of the National Register of Citizen. As many as 40 lakh people have been excluded in the draft. (Source: Reuters)
Will we ever know who these officials are/were? Will they ever be punished for their gross negligence? Or will they be allowed to lead a peaceful retired life with pensions and perks drawn from the taxpayers’ money, while the country suffers because of their misdeeds?
This is what I seek to discuss in this article.
Scale of the problem
The second draft of NRC identifies 40 lakh people as illegal immigrants. Once the claims process is completed, this figure will surely decrease. But, without an iota of doubt, there will still be lakhs who won't be able to make it to the list. This is largely because many of them did enter India illegally from Bangladesh.
Once in India, in connivance with local politicians and corrupt officials, they secured voter ID, ration card, Aadhaar card, utility connections, among others. In short, they settled down in India without a legal permission to do so. Political parties reaped the benefits electorally, local officials made merry with the bribes and the illegal immigrants could have nothing better than a new home - except that it was built illegally in someone else's homeland.
In the absence of any comprehensive data on the exact number of illegal immigrants at present, let us assume that as high as 50 per cent of these 40 lakh people are able to prove their citizenship claims. This still leaves us with 20 lakh people who would be identified as illegal immigrants -people who breached the international border and entered India.
Twenty lakh people (it being a conservative figure). This is more than the population of Swaziland, Bahrain, Mauritius, Bhutan, Maldives, Bahamas, Iceland, Trinidad and Tobago, Cyprus, and more than 40 other countries.
When 'watchful' eyes remained shut
How did lakhs of people manage to cross an international border over decades?
Remember, this is a border that is "guarded" by a central paramilitary force — the Border Security Force (BSF). In its task, the BSF is also assisted by the special border patrolling squads of the Assam Police. How could they allow lakhs of people to just walk into India?
It is true that manning the Indo-Bangladesh border, especially in Assam, is not an easy task. One of most common routes used by infiltrators to enter India are rivers over which fences can't be installed (of the 267.30 km-long international border in Assam, 44.23 km comprises river stretches). The situation becomes more difficult for the BSF during winter when visibility drops or during monsoon when rivers swell and overflow. Add to this poor equipment and shortage of staff.
But even if the BSF and special squads of the Assam Police failed to nab illegal infiltrators at the border, what were the district magistrates of Assam's bordering districts, local MLAs, revenue officers, station house officers of local police stations, district election officers, panchayats and civic bodies' officials doing all these years?
If revenue officials in the area were regularly and diligently inspecting land records, how could they not notice shanties/huts mushrooming overnight? If officials of the Election Commission were performing their duties, how could they gloss over the increasing number of names on the voter lists?
Here, we are not talking about a handful of people crossing an international border. We are talking about lakhs of them doing this over decades.
The motto of the Assam Police is 'Always at Your Service'. One wonders if it could allow lakhs of people to not just simply walk into the Indian territory, but also settle here and possess vital identity documents, who were they actually serving?
Will chiefs of Assam Police, down the years, care to enlighten us on what the terms "your" and "service" mean in their department's motto?
A day after the NRC was released, in a totally different case, the district magistrate in Jammu and Kashmir's Doda district suspended two tehsildar-level revenue officials. Their fault was that they failed to provide data on encroachment of state and common forest land and water bodies in their areas of responsibility. The suspension order reportedly said they were guilty of 'dereliction of duty'.
If this is 'dereliction of duty', what should the actions of officials who allowed lakhs of foreigners to enter and settle in Assam, possess vital identity documents, encroach upon government land, and in many cases even buy land, be termed as?
Why should the treatment be any different for all officials (civil and uniformed) who were posted in Assam's bordering districts after March 25, 1971 (the cut-off date for citizenship decided under the Assam Accord of 1985)?
Why should they not face trial for their gross negligence and dereliction of duty that caused gigantic loss to the exchequer, compromised national security and law and order, fuelled ethnic clashes, to name a few?
Why should these officials be allowed to peacefully relax and enjoy a government-sponsored retirement life when the fact is that they miserably failed to perform their duties?
However, this does not mean that there weren’t officials who worked diligently, and shouldered responsibilities assigned to them. But the misfortune was that political patronage for illegal immigrants, because of them being a rich vote bank to cash in on, meant that the few officials who raised such issues were discouraged to act against them.
This opportunism by the political class was also highlighted by veteran journalist BG Verghese in his book ‘India’s Northeast Resurgent’. Verghese writes: “Addressing a conference of chief electoral officers in September 1978, the then Chief Election Commissioner, SL Shakdher referred to ‘the alarming situation in some states, especially in the Northeastern region, wherefrom disturbing reports are coming regarding large scale inclusion of foreign nationals in the electoral rolls..." "...Another disturbing feature is the demand made by political parties for the inclusion in the electoral rolls of the names of such migrants who are not Indian citizens, without even questioning or determining their citizenship status...The gravity of the situation calls for drastic and effective measures’.” But irrespective of this practice, political pressure cannot be an excuse for dereliction of duties by the police, election and revenue officials, among others.
The government is going gaga about the NRC. Through this, it is claiming to have acted tough on illegal immigration. Its toughness can however only be tested through what it does about those not on the list.
But what specifically has it done to ensure that present officials are deterred from doing what officials in the past did, that is, turn a blind eye to foreigners crossing the border and settling in Assam?
Even as you are reading this article, someone could be trying to cross the Indo-Bangladesh border to illegally enter India. Rest assured, at this very moment there will also be unscrupulous officials (civil and uniformed) who will agree to close their eyes once their palms have been greased.
Cost of negligence
In April this year, the central government said that updating the NRC comes at a cost of Rs 1220.93 crore. Add to this the swathes of unaccounted resources that were diverted to address issues arising from illegal immigrants settling in Assam over decades.
The 100 Foreign Tribunals (in a small state like Assam) and six detention centres that had to be set up. The human tragedies inflicted in the form of riots, clashes, murders, and now separation of families at detention centres, is all because officials miserably failed to shoulder responsibilities delegated to them.
Let us be very clear that they were not doing a volunteer work. It was their job. They were employed by the state and paid for this.
It is their nonchalance and callousness that over the decades, the problem of illegal immigration in Assam has prickled the state with needles of uncertainties, chaos and mutual distrust.
The Nellie massacre where more than 3,000 people (mostly of East Bengal origin) were killed is arguably the worst-known manifestation of this. This, clubbed with the countless small and medium-scale clashes, will take the number of people killed across the state to thousands.
May 4, 2014: Villagers wail upon seeing the body of a woman at a relief camp in Narayanguri village in Baksa district of Assam. More than 30 people were gunned down in three days in what police said were attacks by Bodo tribal militants, who resent the presence of settlers they claim are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. (Source: Reuters)
Precedents for punishment for dereliction punishment for dereliction of duty
Action against dereliction of duty is not an unprecedented step in India.
In July 2016, the Supreme Court in RR Parekh vs High Court of Gujarat held a chief judicial magistrate guilty of dereliction of duty after he was found to have delivered verdicts that defied well-laid legal principles and precedents. The court issued an order of compulsory retirement. The Gujarat High Court had earlier ordered that he should be immediately terminated from service and be deprived of pension and other benefits.
In 2001, the Election Commission of India initiated disciplinary action against officials of the Uttar Pradesh government after the Commission found that names of 15,800 people belonging to a particular community were deleted from the voter list of Thakurdwara Assembly constituency without any valid reasons.
In 2015, saying that mere suspension is not a sufficient, the Rajasthan High Court called for stricter punishment for policemen and doctors found guilty of dereliction of duty.
Three days before the second draft of NRC was released, the Madras High Court on July 27, 2018, ordered suspension of a panchayat secretary in Tamil Nadu's Trivallur district for dereliction of duty.
The way ahead
The problem of illegal immigration in Assam cannot be answered solely with a NRC. Exercises such as these will remain futile and confined to photo ops unless a mechanism is put in place that fixes answerability on those who allowed people to illegally enter and settle in India.
NRC has come at a whooping cost — financial and social. If we want to avoid doing a similar exercise afresh 20-30 years from now, the government must set up a tribunal that will investigate performance of all officials (civil and uniformed) who were posted in the bordering district of Assam since 1971.
If the government can put the burden of proof for establishing citizenship on 3.39 crore people in Assam, it is only justified that it is tasked with identifying and punishing its own officials whose negligence was the cause of the chaos we are witnessing today.
Nothing will be better than setting up a commission/tribunal that revisits files of all officials posted in the bordering districts of Assam on and after March 25, 1971.
As for the wrongs of the past, the present chief secretary, director general of police, director general of BSF, state chief election commissioner and the chief minister of Assam should tender a public apology stating that over the decades, the state's administrative machinery had been nonchalant, irresponsible and callous in shouldering its responsibilities.
This public apology should be accompanied with a promise that this will not be repeated and that anyone who breaches this, will be dealt with the strictest punishment.
Until then, exercises such as revising NRC will continue to remain populist, pointless and preposterous.