A precarious future ahead for ‘foreigners’

It is symptomatic of the malaise of communalism in India that the publication of the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam may well open up what could manifest itself as a can of worms. As many as 1.9 million residents of the state face the spectre of statelessness and with politics impinging on every aspect of life there is no knowing how vote bank politics can be avoided, giving rationality a go by. It is some relief that those who do not find inclusion in the voter’s list will have a window of 120 days to file appeals against their exclusion from the final list, and a set of Foreigners’ Tribunals will examine their cases.

Knowing how corrupt our systems are, there would be conscious efforts to keep certain sections out of the voters list, making the whole exercise of identifying ‘foreigners’ look suspect. Yet, it is clear that no country can afford illegal immigrants in massive numbers. That Assam has been a major victim of illegal immigration and of the influx of refugees from across the border in the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in the late 1960s and early 1970s when West Pakistan had unleashed repression on a massive scale is a reality. Now Bangladesh refuses to accept that they had migrated from the eastern part into India in impoverishment and penury.

For India, it is a huge problem because these immigrants have inevitably deprived the locals of jobs on a big scale and created conditions of law and order bordering on anarchy. Electorally, they are influencing the pattern of future governments. Most of them chose to settle down in India where economic conditions were better and it has taken so long to identify them due to various strands of political patronage that they regard India their permanent home.

While the BJP which is seen with suspicion by Muslims per se wants large chunks of Muslim immigrants to be pushed back into Bangladesh and disenfranchised in India, the Congress party, which has over the years reaped rich dividends by patronising these minority voters want them to continue to enrich its vote bank. Even as some BJP leaders in Assam are worried about the leanings towards the Congress of these voters, they want the Hindu immigrants from the eastern part to be treated on a different footing, with all privileges of genuine refugees resulting from grant of citizenship.

Getting the National Register of Citizens updated is not a new idea since the Assam Accord in 1985 had decided that this would be done. The NRC had got initiated as early as in 1951 when the BJP’s predecessor the Jana Sangh had a minor presence. It was only in 2018 that the National Register was updated. It is odd indeed that there is no transparency in regard to the future of these ‘illegal immigrants’. Governments in the State and at the Centre are wary of committing how the ‘illegals’ would be dealt with---whether they would be deported or herded into refugee camps or merely be disenfranchised.

In the normal course, the declared illegals would be able to exercise all their rights as citizens—including the freedom of movement, until they have exhausted all remedies including the legal recourse which ordinarily takes years. The bone of contention at present is Assam. What when the NRC starts the detection process across the country? In West Bengal where, for vote bank reasons, the current government of Mamata Banerjee is loathe to any action against Muslim migrants who form the backbone of the Trinamool Congress, the task would be difficult indeed. Ultimately, however, the will of the Centre through the instrument of the NRC will prevail subject to the necessary checks and balances of the judiciary.

The identification of the illegal immigrants by religious faith may suit the politicians of various hues but that it would affect communal relations. Infiltration from Bangladesh has been a cause of socio-ethnic tensions in the bordering states as the locals are apprehensive of being marginalised in their home state. In the 1980s, Assam had witnessed a six-year long violent agitation against the illegal migrants.

It is a requirement of law that before deporting a foreigner, the country of origin has to confirm the nationality of the foreigner. According to the affidavit by the state of Assam filed in February 2019 before the Supreme Court, only four declared foreigners have been deported since 2013. In a recent visit to Dhaka, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said that the NRC is India’s internal problem. To date, India has not spoken to Bangladesh about deporting “declared foreigners”.

Doubtlessly, the ball is in the apex court. Before there is any degree of finality on the future course that any action against illegal migrants would take, the court has to re-look at criteria and exclusions. All in all, there is a great deal of confusion on what lies ahead. There can be little doubt that vote bank politics has crept into the whole question and there are high stakes to be settled. What good, if at all, would come out of the whole laborious exercise is yet in the realm of speculation.

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