LAST week’s ‘eye-opener’ in the form of the ‘revised’ second draft of the National Register of Citizens for Assam was another pointer – a pointer to an urgent need for sitting up! And the Registrar General of India announced that out of 33 million ‘citizenship aspirants’ in Assam, a staggering 4 million were found ineligible. As expected, all hell broke loose with ringsides swiftly booked by rival political parties, each going for the other’s blood: how to convert these results to a grand instrument for polarising voters for 2019 mandate! I do not intend at all to delve into the political part, It is not my cup of tea; I would just like to examine this case – a case study on how we prioritise and deal with important issues of governance!
Examining Pandora’s box
Let us first recall – the first NRC was in 1951. It is baffling as why in 67 years we never updated it, although there have been seven decennial census exercises in between, 16 parliamentary elections, countless state elections and one UIDAI exercise, entailing crores of rupees of taxpayers’ money. Be that as it may, this exercise of updating the registry was on the directions from the Supreme Court in 2013.
I have to go back further now! It was on March 25, 1971 that president Yahya Khan of the then Pakistan junta let loose his Army on millions of hapless citizens in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) through the ‘Operation Searchlight’, which has been one of the worst genocides ever in the world. Rudolph Rummel in his ‘Democide: Genocide and Mass Murders Since 1950’ put the mortality of Hindus and Bengali-speaking Muslims at 1.5 million. As a consequence, around one million poor Bangladeshis (both Hindus and Muslims) entered Indian borders – mostly in West Bengal and Assam – for asylum. On December 3, 1971, prime minister Indira Gandhi announced war on Pakistan, much against US president Richard Nixon’s ‘advice’, and in just 13 days dealt Pakistan a crushing defeat leaving it decimated for ever – but that’s another story. Indira Gandhi however is on record in a BBC interview: “…There is no way we can sustain them (the Bangladeshi refugees) even now… refugees of whatever religion have to go back… I am absolutely clear on that…” Gandhi was in power through 10 years thereafter and the Janata Party leaders for three years (some of them are margdarshaks in the BJP today). Nobody really found it a priority talking to Bangladesh, about the refugees – nothing like say the EU-Turkey migration agreement, or say a common EU asylum system – in spite of a friendly regime there in Bangladesh till 1975.
It was 14 years later after the protracted violence in Assam and the loss of scores of precious lives that prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 agreed through the Assam Accord that those who did not figure in electoral rolls till March 24, 1971 (i.e. the day before the Pakistan attack), would be reckoned as immigrants and would face deportation. Typical of our order! We didn’t say how!
Bangladesh maintains it is an “internal matter” of India, vehemently denying any illegal immigration. For 24 years thereafter a studied silence followed – 15 years of Congress’ silence, five years of BJP’s silence and four years of silence by sundry political outfits that ruled India then.
In 2009 a petition was moved before the Supreme Court on the matter and the SC after four long years directed the Centre to update the NRC to identify illegal immigrants. The Centre took five long years to come out with a document, the veracity of which is under strong question today. Reports emphatically lay out cases where three of five brothers are citizens, two are not. Names present in the first draft in December 2017 now mysteriously go missing, so are those of kin of a past president of India, an eminent Assam citizen.
So, followed the familiar symptoms of distrust with an otherwise essential exercise on one side, and assorted actions on earning quick electoral
dividends, out of the mess on the
What lies ahead?
Assuming now a million of the missing 4 million names do manage to get back to the list after tedious and expensive processes of proofs, re-verifications and appeals, what really happens to the balance say 3 million? Who should answer for these 47 years of their lives suddenly going missing on records? If this happened 46 years back they could still have done something with their lives back at home!
Whereas I completely agree they are indeed illegal immigrants and should be sent “home” regardless of their religion and language, but after 47 years and which ‘home’? What happens to their children born here; are they citizens?
Under the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee shall be offered asylum on certain laid-out norms – but they are never equal to citizens. The position is now further complicated with the BJP’s (pending) citizenship amendment bill 2016, which looks loaded with palpable discrimination where persecuted people from neighbouring countries would be given Indian citizenships only if they belong to specified faiths (Islam not being one of them). Another handle for distrust!
The Union government has stated there will be no coercive actions on immigrants but there are voices heard saying they would be biometrically
profiled so that they do not spread out to other states. Where will all this finally end?
That’s the case study – the study of our governance – “put off for tomorrow” because that is another day!
Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara, I think, could not have sounded more familiar with her oft-repeated refrain: “I’ll think of it tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then… After all, tomorrow is another day.”
I say: retrieve trust, engage with Bangladesh, examine options of a UN Security Council reference, examine options at the International Court of Justice – but let us not sit tight putting Scarlett’s bad day off for tomorrow, enriching vote banks and polarising electors today, watching hapless humans scurrying in search of their lost identities.