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Assam’s humanitarian conundrum

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Neither Delhi nor Dispur has been working on a proper plan for those who will soon be declared stateless

With the final date for publication of the National Register of Citizens drawing near, the dividing lines are becoming sharper. While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been expressing doubts about an “error-free” (read Bangladeshi free) NRC, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and minority organisations such as the All Assam Minority Students’ Union, the Assam State Jamiat Ulama and the All India United Democratic Front have welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to observe the August 31 deadline.

The two sides

The stand by the leading minority organisations points to their viewing the NRC as an instrument to remove the “Bangladeshi tag” from lakhs of Bengali Muslims. For the AASU and other ethnic organisations, the final register will be a closure of sorts to a long struggle against foreign influx and demographic change. Therefore, given their support extended to the NRC process, apprehensions of wide-scale social unrest on the final day could be incorrect.

However, what is worrying in the long run is that neither political parties and student organisations nor civil society groups seem seriously engaged with the major humanitarian crisis that is about to unfold as large numbers of people would be declared foreign nationals by the Foreigners Tribunals (FTs) following their exclusion from the NRC.

Although there have been vague assurances from the Central and State governments that the question of immediate detention and scrapping of rights does not arise with avenues of appeal being open to them, it is disturbing that neither Delhi nor Dispur has been working on any well-thought out humanitarian plan for those who will soon be declared as a stateless people. This becomes grave especially when there is awareness of there being errors in an exercise of such a scale.

Status before tribunals

On the contrary, statements from some BJP leaders that the country would be finally rid of the “termites” and that every single illegal infiltrator would be thrown out have only added to the overall panic and confusion. The resolution of the cases of these undocumented stateless people passing through the FTs, then the High Court and finally the Supreme Court would, naturally, take years, even if the final number of those left out runs into a few lakhs after all claims and objections are met.

Assam has 100 FTs, of which 70 may be said to be functional. The State has pledged to create 200 more FTs by September, but there is uncertainty over their being functional soon after. The Central government has approved 400 out of the 1,000 FTs the State government has asked for. The State government is not in a position to further increase the number of FTs because of infrastructural and administrative issues. Thus the process of deciding on the citizenship status of those left out of the NRC would be cumbersome, long, and involve suffering.

Finally, there would be lakhs of poor people without the means to seek judicial redress. For them, the decision of the FTs would be final and they would be sent to detention centres. Then, there are those who have already been declared ex-parte as foreigners but tagged as “untraced foreigners”. Clearly, the government has no mechanism in place to keep track of them; a State government affidavit in the Supreme Court cites a figure of some 70,000 people. Assam’s Parliamentary Affairs Minister recently said that FTs had identified as many as 1,17,164 persons till March 31. There is also the issue of ‘Doubtful’ or ‘D’ voters (some 1.2 lakh people) who would be left out of the NRC till the courts resolve their cases.

Legal issues

In addition to this is the yet unresolved issue of the children of those deemed non-citizens. Recently, there was a government notification on the basis of a Supreme Court order (based on Sections 3(1)(b) and (c) of the Citizenship Act of 1955) that births up to December 3, 2004 would be eligible for citizenship if either one parent was an Indian citizen. However, in the case of those born after December 3, 2004, the Supreme Court, on Tuesday, while categorically ruling out reopening or re-verification of the NRC, held that children born after December 3, 2004 would not be eligible for inclusion in the NRC if either parent is a DV (Doubtful Voter), DF (Declared Foreigner) or PFT (persons with cases pending at the FTs). This would virtually leave out those born within the last 15 years to those parents, either one of whose citizenship is in doubt.

Legal issues apart, it is absolutely critical that the government, in due consultation with political parties and civil society groups, draws up a viable plan to deal with those who would be declared stateless. The State government has limited its exercise to the setting up of more detention centres to house all those declared as foreigners by the FTs. The plight of detainees — some are to be released on certain conditions — has been made worse as they are not covered by the jail manuals which are supposed to ensure the minimum standard of dignified living. A full-fledged detention centre with a capacity to hold 3,000 detainees is under construction at Matia in Goalpara at a cost of approximately ₹45 crore; the State government has already sent a proposal to the Central government to build 10 more such centres.

What would be the infrastructural costs involved in holding these prisoners with basic dignity in place? How long would these detentions last especially when the question of deportation to the country of origin does not arise? What would the fate of these people be after they are released on completion of the specified period?

Apart from losing their voting rights, would they also be shorn of their rights to land and property? And will they be denied access to government welfare measures such as health and education both for themselves and their children? How would the state deal with those declared stateless but who already hold some cultivable land? There have been suggestions to declare those declared stateless not to be allowed to acquire landed property.

Potential crisis

The idea of holding lakhs of people in detention centres is bound to be a self-defeating and disastrous one which would go against all fundamental humanitarian principles and international covenants involved in the treatment of migrants, even if they happen to be illegal ones. The State cannot absolve itself of its responsibility by declaring someone a foreigner, placing him or her in a detention camp for a certain period to begin with and, after that, just allow him or her to continue to live on with some restrictions and without most of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

There is a lot of speculation that after all the claims and objections are finally met, the final number of the excluded might touch 15 lakh people, which would include the four lakh out of the initial 40 lakh people excluded who did not file any claims. In addition to this figure would be the one lakh people left out in a recent revision as well as ‘D’ voters. However, this is just an estimate. It is obvious that the State of Assam would be faced with a humanitarian challenge of massive proportions, one for which it seems least prepared.

Udayon Misra is a former National Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla

 

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 11:34:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/assams-humanitarian-conundrum/article29095073.ece

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