Much of the commentary around the citizenship debate on the second list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam seems to ignore the layers of checks and balances surrounding the process of recognising citizens of India.
Moreover, the question remains as to what happens at the completion of the process, and the final synthesis of the checks and balances.
One has to wonder how uninformed a political class and general commentariat can be when they start screeching at a legally mandated list of citizens being drawn up. The belief seems to be that those left out will be immediately deported.
The centre of this entire process is the Foreigners’ Tribunal set up in Assam. Three separate processes feed into this tribunal: the state-mandated NRC, the Election Commission-mandated doubtful voter list, and those detained by the Assam border police. Right now, as is usual in the Indian system, none of these three agencies talk to each other.
However, let us first focus on the NRC.
The first NRC list came out in December 2017, saying 139 lakh residents of Assam were listed as requiring additional verification. Those not on the list were asked to submit documentation, and the second list recently whittled down the number of suspected non-Assamese to 40 lakh. Again, what has to be stressed here is that this, too, is not the final list, which will come out later this year.
As the NRC has stated, around 20 lakh of these 40 lakh are on “standby”, pending administrative and judicial clarifications — that is to say another round of verification. In this case, the West Bengal government refused to verify more than 1 lakh requests for verification sent to them.
The obvious meaning of this is that the documentation problems and lapses encountered in the first two rounds will slowly be closed off in the coming iterations. Also, the nodal units of the NRC process not interfacing and communicating with the central node will be other aspects looked at to minimise mistakes and omissions.
This leaves us with a pool of around 20 lakh people in Assam alone whose citizenship is suspect. The point is, once the NRC process is over, only those without any documentation or references within India’s governmental paperwork would be brought before the tribunal. At the tribunal, one again has a chance to overcome any missteps or omission by the NRC, the Assam border police, or the EC bureaucracies.
From here on, it is fair to say that people who cannot show up relatives with documentation across any part of India, given the serpentine, paperwork-intensive bureaucracy we have, must indeed either be Jarawas, Onges and other undocumented tribes, or, very simply, illegal migrants.
It is here — at the culmination of the various refinements to the NRC, and the cross checks and appellate hearings by the Foreigners’ Tribunal — that the question arises: what is to be done with them?
For starters, what little services the state provides must be cut off immediately. These services, however rudimentary, are reserved for Indian citizens.
Second is the distortionary effect they have on electoral politics, essentially skewing laws and electing representatives with a vested interest in not enforcing citizenship laws.
Finally, what must be understood is that illegality is fungible. Illegal immigrants will always be at the mercy of touts and the likes, and will fundamentally be more prone to being conduits to crime — whether they are in fact criminal or not — given the leverage a tout gains with threats of exposure.
In short, they are a significant financial burden, a political distortion equivalent to, if not worse than, vote rigging, a captive constituency that will fundamentally vote to avoid enforcement of constitutional law, and a security threat — being at the mercy of criminal elements who run cross-border illegal movements, be it of people or goods.
Obviously, given the current political situation and a friendly government in Bangladesh, repatriating them is not an option. Letting them work — under close supervision, though — is the only route available to the government for the time being.
Their value to the state, however, increases significantly if the government in Bangladesh turns hostile, as indeed the government of Khaleda Zia was. Given the decimation of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, a powerful Islamist opposition seems to be gathering against the ruling Awami League — an Islamist opposition that will invariably act as a catchall for those who are disenchanted with the decade-old rule of Sheikh Hasina.
Should such a government come to power, this is when the deportation of said illegals makes eminent sense. Indeed, the mere threat of deportation alone can act as a powerful deterrent to any government in Bangladesh that subsidises wanton terrorism against India, as the BNP had done.
Expelling illegal immigrants, unlike blocking river waters, does not have significant international consequences any more. Europe is doing it and indeed America is doing it with a vengeance. International law and practice, therefore, is in India’s favour, and the US government can hardly punish someone for doing exactly what it has done (and was doing energetically under Barak Obama as well).
In short, the only people who really need to worry are illegal immigrants and their country of origin, which, as one left-wing “commentator” states, has significantly higher human development indices than India. In that case, Indians should migrate to Bangladesh, and repatriating them should be any humanitarian’s dream come true.