Fear and disquiet have gripped nearly two million residents of Assam, and their loved ones, after their names failed to show up in the final updated list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). But the unremitting tragedy of the Bengali-origin people of Assam is that even those whose names appear on the list have no assurance that they will not be deemed ‘illegal immigrants’ sometime in the future. They are a people for whom there is still no closure, no prospect of permanent security and dignity of citizenship.
Anxieties about land, culture and migration have, over decades, created entrenched fissures in the social and political life of Assam. People on all sides of these bitter divides had hoped that the conclusion of the six-year-long process of updating the 1951 citizen’s register in Assam would resolve finally this long-festering dispute. But despite the immeasurable toll of human suffering that the process extracted from millions of very impoverished people, it is evident that it has resolved nothing.
For supporters of the Assam agitation, it is an article of faith that millions of immigrants from Bangladesh have continued to ‘illegally penetrate’ the porous border which Assam shares with Bangladesh, and that these immigrants will submerge their culture and language and edge them out of their lands and forests. Estimates of the numbers of these ‘illegal immigrants’ that their leaders have tossed around range from five to 10 million. The final figure of less than two million has sorely disappointed, and enraged, them.
BJP’s core agenda
For the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) establishment in both Assam and at the Centre, expelling ‘infiltrators’ from Bangladesh has been as integral to their core agenda as abrogating Article 370 and building the Ram Temple. But in their definition, it is only Bengali-origin Assamese Muslim immigrants who constitute a threat to the Indian nation; Bengali Hindus are not infiltrators but ‘refugees’ for whom India is their ‘natural home’. We do not yet have an official break-up of the 1.9 million people excluded from the NRC, but indications are that more than half of these are Hindu.
Assamese sub-nationalism was never communal: its supporters are agnostic whether Bengalis are Hindu or Muslim. For the BJP, on the other hand, disenfranchising or deporting Bengali Hindus would be political suicide, sacrificing its core constituency. Therefore, BJP leaders in Assam and Delhi are today disingenuously rejecting the process their own government drove as ‘biased’. The only way in which the NRC could work for them would be if they could pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, giving citizenship to undocumented immigrants if they are Hindu, but not if they are Muslim.
The Bengali-origin Assamese, on the other hand, have long maintained that the estimates of illegal immigration are grossly exaggerated, and that most Bengali-origin people in Assam are descendants of people who came in legally when this was one country, and that since the cut-off date of 1971, illegal immigration has been small. The relatively low final tally, even after a highly flawed process which was entirely loaded against them, seems to vindicate their stand. But this is cold comfort and assures them no security, because demands are being raised for re-verification, especially in districts with a high Muslim population.
It is also important to observe that the flawed process of NRC was monitored and, indeed driven, by the Supreme Court of India, in ways that did little to defend the constitutional rights of the residents of Assam. The burden of proof was shifted to the residents to prove that they were citizens, based on documents such as those linked to birth, schooling and land ownership which impoverished and unlettered rural residents anywhere would find hard to muster. Even when residents succeeded in producing these documents, they were often rejected for small discrepancies, such as in the English-language spelling of Bengali names or in the age even though it is well-known that most rural people do not know their dates of birth. Many of them do not have legal land records. And in the middle of the NRC process, an arbitrary category was introduced of the ‘indigenous’ Assamese, who were treated much more leniently even when they could not produce the required documents.
What the future holds
What does the future hold for the Bengali-origin people of Assam? Those excluded from the NRC will have the option of appealing to Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs). This is a frightening prospect for them, because the FTs have operated in openly hostile and arbitrary ways. The presiding officers of FTs are often lawyers with no judicial experience and appointed with no security of tenure by the State government, follow no due process, and are reportedly driven by informal targets to maximise the numbers of persons who they deem to be ‘foreigners’.
There is also the enormous workload that the appeals will engender. There are today 100 FTs. An average case in one FT might take one year or longer to dispose. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation that even if there are 1,000 FTs which decide one case every working day, it would take more than six years for them to decide 19 lakh cases. Given their actual rate of disposal, it could take three or four times this period.
Even more worrisome is that it is not just people whose names have been excluded from the NRC whose cases will be considered by the FTs. Disappointed by the smaller numbers of Bengali Muslims in the final list, the State government has already indicated that it will continue to verify even those whose names have been included, and if it believes that they could be foreigners, it would refer them as well to the FTs.
Citizenship without rights
The biggest question relates to what would be the fate of the people who, at the end of this process, are declared ‘illegal immigrants’. There is no question of Bangladesh accepting them: the Indian government is not even negotiating this with Dhaka. The Assam agitation was clear in its demand of ‘detection, deletion (from electoral rolls) and deportation’. Home Minister Amit Shah declared in Parliament that he would deport illegal immigrants from every square inch of Indian land. How would this be accomplished? Would these millions be pushed forcefully into Bangladesh? Or would they be locked in massive detention centres? If yes, for how long? The realistic probability is that, in the end, they would be allowed to live in India, but stripped of all citizenship rights. They would be a ‘marked people’, powerless and susceptible to social violence and intense state scrutiny.
Think then of the demand — and the promise by Mr. Shah — of extending the NRC to all of India. Think of this being done with amendments to the citizenship law which accepts all undocumented immigrants as Indians except those who are Muslim. Think of throwing sections of Indian Muslims into the vortex of human suffering caused by the NRC and FT processes. This would mean the destruction of the secular Constitution of India, an end to India as we know it, a country which belongs equally to people of every faith.
Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace worker, writer and teacher