Blurred possibilities of Pan Indian NRC- Taking cues from NRC Assam.


 

The Indo-Bangladesh border has always been a matter of concern for the Government, its porosity being the most problematic of all other issues. A majority part of this border is riverine in nature. The situation worsens during the Rainy season, when the flood water uproots pillars of the Border fencing line. On top of that, the native people living near the river banks make things harder for the officials to keep an efficient border management system.

The Central as well as the State governments are determined to seal and secure the Indo-Bangladesh border line or at least the part of Assam that shares boundary with Bangladesh. Assam’s honourable Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, has already made it clear that securing the border line will be the priority of the ruling government in next two years. On June 02, 2016, a decision was taken during the meeting on border management by the Home Minister Rajnath Singh to bring this in effect. Bangladesh shares 4096 km of international border with India out of which 284 km is with the Indian state of Assam. Home Minister Rajnath Singh stated during the meeting that about 224 km of the border in Assam has already been fenced and sealed. However, it was also highlighted during the meeting that, “there are 122 locations (60.7 km) in Assam where physical barrier is not present”.

Now, we have to first realise that the border line shared by Assam and Bangladesh is only a tiny part of the vast Indo-Bangladesh border. Hence, even if Assam is made secure, then also other parts of the border will remain porous and the illegal immigrants can still infiltrate from other unsecured parts of the border through the country. There has been a growing uprising against illegal immigrants of Assam; however, this is not case in other parts of the country, especially in the state of West Bengal and Tripura. It has been evident in the past that political parties in various ‘Boundary-sharing’ states actually encourage infiltration and illegal immigrants instead of keeping a check on it as a part of their narrow vote bank politics.

In the absence of any solid agreement to act from other states, it would be difficult for the new government to even keep a check on this problem of illegal immigrants. Assam has ill-famously been the gateway for illegal immigrants, but today it has shifted to other, bigger areas. Today, it has become easier for illegal immigrants to come through unsecured states like West Bengal and then move on to the other parts of India, including but not restricted to Assam. Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh are smart enough to realise that if they want to be in India, they have to keep moving and this has led to the fact that today, one can find illegal immigrants anywhere in the country right from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

However, this does not, in any way, implies that illegal migration is insuperable and no solution exists. To overcome this, an efficient Border management system has to be set up with uniform policies for all the affected states- especially the bordering states. This means that the steps taken in Assam for solving the problem of Illegal immigrants and securing the border will have to be repeated in other Indian States bordering Bangladesh without any exceptions. Essentially, the approach of executives and the government institutions- responsible for checking illegal migration- also need a thorough change, in the absence of which any effort will go in vain.

 

What is NRC?

The first Census of independent India was completed in 1951 which was followed by the first ever compilation of National Register of Citizens. The need for this was realized because partition of the subcontinent had taken place that year which was followed by communal riots. All this triggered influx of foreign population into the Indian soil through the borders.

 After the war of 1971, Assam, particularly, saw huge cross border exchange of population which resulted in concentration of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the state. Fast forward to 1979, Assam witnessed its first organized anti-foreigners’ agitation.   There was a tussle regarding the rights of indigenous communities. It was contended by the Assam ethnic nationalists that the “Bahiragats” or outsiders have entered the electoral rolls and compromised their right to determine their political future.

The agitations, primarily led by All Assam Students’ Union, continued until 1985 when Assam Accord was signed with the state as well as central government led by Rajiv Gandhi. Under this, those who entered on the eve of the war (March 25,1971) were to be classified as foreigners and deported. Those who entered between 1966 and 1971 would lose their voting rights for 10 years and their names in the electoral rolls would be restored thereafter.

For decades, the issue of migrants has been a pressing one and need of listing Indian citizens was pertinent. The process of NRC initiated in Assam because it, as a state, had seen waves of migration as a colonial province in British India as well as a border state in independent India. After the order of supreme court in 2015, the state of Assam has since been involved in updating the 1951 register with the predominant aim of identifying and eliminating the illegal immigrants that have entered the state post the Bangladesh War.

The National Register of Citizens now takes its definition of illegal immigrants from the Assam Accord – anyone who cannot prove that they or their ancestors entered the country before the midnight of March 24, 1971, would be declared a foreigner and face deportation.[1] It implies that one can be born in India in 1971 to parents who entered India before March 24, 1971 and would still be termed illegal immigrant at age 48.

Process of NRC in Assam and the problems thereof.

In order to address the loaded issue of migrants in Assam, a tripartite meeting was held in 2005, chaired by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It was attended by the Centre and Assam Government and All Assam Students’ Union. The judiciary came into the main frame much later, when Assam Public Works filed a petition. Their main demand was to strike the illegal immigrants off the electoral rolls. Ultimately, in 2013, the apex court ordered the centre to finalise the modalities to update the national register of citizens. The final task began with full force in 2015 under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court.

The counting process was mammoth. It was undertaken in different phases. First was of data collection. Most individuals applying for inclusion in the new NRC had to prove two things; their ancestors lived in Assam before 1971 and their relationship with such ancestor. Second was the verification process where documents were sent for verification to the issuing authorities and NRC officials conducted ground level verifications and enquiries. Once data was submitted by an applicant, his blood relations were plotted in a family tree.

Bengali Muslims, the community most often branded as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, felt that they were put under a greater scrutiny than other groups. These fears were deepened with the sudden appearance of an “original inhabitants” category in 2017. Prateek Hajela, state coordinator of the National Register of Citizens, admitted that people internally classified as original inhabitants faced less scrutiny. It was rumoured that no Muslims had been included in this category.[2]

The first draft was published on July 30,2018 where 2.89 crore people made it to the list as against 3.29 applicants, leaving over 40.07 lakh excluded ,including army veteransgovernment employeesfamilies of former presidents and Assam’s only woman chief minister. There is no official community-wise or district-wise data, but anecdotal evidence suggests Bengali-origin communities were overwhelmingly affected.[3] Those excluded were told to make fresh claims.

Over past few years, NRC officials in Assam started accepting ‘objection forms’ allowing people to highlight “ineligible persons” alleged to be mistakenly enrolled in the register. Recently, in the month of June, around 1 lakh applicants were told they were included erroneously in the first draft and thus required to make fresh claims.

The final NRC list will be deciding the fate and future of more than 41 lakh people- a population larger than any of the other North Eastern states. In fact, the population affected by NRC in Assam is nearly as large as the population of Kolkata and roughly half the size of Switzerland.

Alarmingly, neither the state nor the Centre government has clarified what happens to those who lose their cases in the Foreigners’ Tribunals, whether they will be detained, sent back or allowed to stay on with limited rights and privileges of Indian citizenship.

In the past, people deemed to be illegal immigrants have been sent to detention camps in the state, which are carved out of local prisons. There are six such centres across Assam, and building of the State’s first standalone detention camp was sanctioned last year. The so-called ‘foreigners’ have withered here for years in abeyance. Meanwhile, the State has declared them as foreigners; however, there is no sign of Repatriation treaty with which they can be deported back to their homeland.

 

Why the need for pan-India NRC?

Last year, 29 Bangladeshis were arrested by the ATS for staying illegally in Maharashtra. Three out of them were suspected of having connections with a banned Islamic extremist organization- Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), which has been inspired from Al Qaeda. This report was published in Hindustan Times dated April 20, 2018 which further stated:

“There are suspicions that ABT has set up sleeper cells in India. In August 2017, the Uttar Pradesh ATS arrested Abdullah Al-Mamon, a member of ABT, in Muzzaffarnagar. He told the ATS that his job was to organize fake identification documents, like Aadhar, for ABT members when they came across the border… It’s difficult to identify these terror suspects because not only do they blend in easily with Indians in different parts of the country, but they also have paperwork, like Aadhar and ration cards, which effectively makes them Indian citizens.”

In 2016, Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju informed during the session in the Upper house that there were around two crore Bangladeshis living as illegal immigrants in India, which is a sharp rise from the previous mentioned numbers. Back in 2004, the UPA Government had pegged the number of Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrants at over 1.2 crore. The mind-boggling number should propel any conscientious and efficient Government to act. However, instead of taking the matter seriously and taking any action, the UPA government chose to embarrassingly withdraw the statement under the pressure, which were made by its own Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Jaiswal. In contradiction, Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor mentioned that “some 20 million Bangladeshis are reliably estimated to have slipped into the country over the last two decades”, in his book- Pax Indica. It was clear that the people within the Congress were well aware of the astounding facts and figures, and instead chose to turn a blind eye to the matter. The UPA government has always taken an unclear stand in the entire issue of Infiltration, sacrificing Nation’s security for petty vote-bank politics.[4]

In the long-term perspective and in the national interest, it is imperative for State Governments, including the Government of Delhi, to initiate a similar exercise to identify illegal immigrants, and take steps for their expulsion. Now, even though the process of NRC has begun in Assam, it is insufficient to fix the problem even in the state since the illegal immigrants can easily move from one state to another. This is what brings in the necessity of application of NRC in the entire country alike. If NRC is implemented only in numbered states, the illegal immigrants can easily escape the liability by simply travelling to a state where NRC doesn’t exist at all. For example, to escape the plight of NRC in Assam, an illegal immigrant can escape to West Bengal where the Government openly advocates illegal immigrants guided by vote bank politics.

At this juncture, the issue of illegal immigration has to been seen without a political lens. It is amply evident that illegal immigrants pose a serious threat to the security of the country. This, though the most serious concern, is not the only one in line. Apart from alleged (or occasionally proven) terrorist links, this group indulges in various forms of organized crimes: human trafficking, animal trafficking and counterfeiting to name a few. The minority concentrated in a particular territorial area is highly united, this not only facilitates organized crimes but often fuels communal riots resulting in loss of life and property of the natives. The disruption of peace in heavily infiltrated states is more common.

Economically speaking, this surplus population eats up the employment opportunities meant for the indigenous citizens. These immigrants provide an alternative cheaper labour base as against the natives. Additionally, they increase the burden on resources which hardly even suffice the citizens, who have rightful claim on them. Due to absence of any identification of illegal immigrants, government resources are spent on equally on citizens as well as non-citizens.

However, no matter how urgent the need to implement NRC may be, a hastily or inadequately implemented NRC can result into some serious consequences and the government might even have to face the embarrassment of granting citizenship to illegal immigrants and denying the same to genuine citizens.

Thus, it becomes imperative to sincerely consider some points before chalking out the plan for pan-India NRC.

a.      Institutional Requirements: For implementation of NRC, the government will have to disburse huge funds. Funds as well as human resources would be required for establishing quasi-judicial tribunals and other relevant machinery including administrative officers and easily accessible redressal mechanism. The documental requirements and grounds for declaring or denying citizenship shall not be frivolous and be well thought out. The institutions which would thus be set up shall be equipped with impeccable and advanced technological tools such that margin of error is reduced to the minimum possible extent. Thousands of crores have been spent and thousands of government officials have been employed in the state of Assam.

If the need be, a separate national body can be established to supervise the implementation of NRC considering the mammoth task it is going to be for a country of more than 137 crore inhabitants.

b.     Consequence of errors in the procedure: Any error in the process will result in gross violation of fundamental rights of the subjects. The process will determine the fate of citizenship of Crores. Citizenship, in the current socio-political scenario is tainted with the idea of nationalism and ethnocentrism. In the era of growing nationalism, people who do not find a spot in the NRC would be subject to marginalization in the society. This situation is very undesirable as it will open gates for increased hate crimes. Citizenship is also a factor with which an individual identifies herself or himself and attaches a sense of pride. Taking away citizenship from a genuine citizen due to lack of proper machinery or otherwise would result in great psychological trauma and the threat of this will result in anxiety in the atmosphere while the process is being carried out. Such anxiety will fuel dissenting political elements to ignite anti-NRC propagandas and adversely affect the process.

 There have been sundry instances in Assam where genuine citizens were pushed to the extent of committing suicide either due to harassment caused while enrolling in NRC or denial of their citizenship and lack of redressal mechanism. This can give rise to direct infringement of right to life with dignity of an individual enshrined under article 21 and right to equality before law and equal protection of law under article 14 of the Indian Constitution. It should also be noted that in the given case, such infringement will be very extensive.

c.      Fate of the non-citizens: The entire idea of NRC can prove to be a waste of resources, time and energy if it is not decided what is to be the fate of people not included in the NRC. In Assam as well as throughout the country, after determining who are illegal immigrants, such people are to be deported to their country of origin. For this, two things must be kept in mind; firstly, their country of origin must be traced through adequate proofs i.e., establishing a receiving country. This is necessary because according to international laws, deportation can take place only when there is a receiving country for the people being deported. Secondly, a corollary following to the first requirement is a repatriation treaty. For example, in case of Assam, where the illegal immigrants are to be deported to Bangladesh, India must have some sort of repatriation treaty with Bangladesh. Thus, the government has to use diplomacy in order to compel Bangladesh to accept its citizens. If we talk about pan-India NRC, the government has to consider that illegal immigrants across the country have different origins for example, infiltrators from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Myanmar. The government will also have to consider the possibility that the country of origin of every non-citizen cannot be proved. There is an apprehension that if NRC brings out even a crore of non-citizens in the Indian soil, it would not be possible to deport all of them and thus millions will be rendered stateless. The government should be prepared to avoid this.

 

Plausible ways ahead:

Though NRC may be a complicated step involving even more intricate procedure, but its complexity should not be treated as a matter because of which it is avoided. NRC is a timely exercise. It was done once in 1951, and ordered by the apex court to be done again in order to solve the problems of illegal immigrants. Furthermore, it is completely democratic. The NDA government had endorsed the idea of pan-India NRC in its election manifesto, and the electoral mandate was clearly in its favour. Thus, the idea of pan-India NRC is backed by the will of people, which is the very essence of democracy.

Here are some points which may come out as prospective solutions to problems that might arise through the process or after it.

a.      Research committee: It is highly advisable that before commencing the process, an in-depth research is conducted. Considering the gravity of the situation as well as the vulnerability of the stake holders, it may be advised that a specific committee is formed for making enquiries, conducting research and giving suggestions with regards the application and feasibility of the process of making the national register for citizens.

The committee may consist of senior administrative officers, policy makers, lawyers and the like. The process is bound to be fragile and thus it is imperative to make it absolutely fool proof. A committee for this concern is required to assess the population of each state and union territory along with its demographics and suggest the expenditure, number of tribunals and offices thus required as well as number of government officials to be appointed for the purpose, accordingly. The political, economic, cultural and social features of every state is unique in India and these factors have to be considered while processing the NRC in a particular state or UT. The stake of implementing NRC is too high and no scope can be left for its inappropriate implementation.

 

b.     Fool proof mechanism: The consequences of an inadequately processed NRC have been highlighted above. Thus, the primary requirement from the part of state as well as central government is to devise a fool proof plan and machinery to undertake the task of making the NRC. Assam is a relatively smaller and thinly populated state of India, however, there is a chaotic situation regarding NRC there. Deaths due to stress and suicide has been recorded and grave fear of missing out family members from the NRC was in the atmosphere. The citizens throughout the country have to be kept away from such anxious atmosphere. NRC is a step towards enhancing the national security but the government must ensure that a balance is struck between national security and fundamental rights of the citizens. There have been instances in Assam where people unreasonably suffered because of unsophisticated software and technologies available to the NRC authorities as well as the election commission. Thus, before commencing the pan-India process, it’s imperative for the government to ensure that the authorities are technologically sound. Apart from this, adequate number of foreign tribunals and other quasi-judicial authorities and institutions have to be established in place.

 

c.      Residual non-citizens: at the end of the process, there may be millions of people classified as non-citizens or illegal immigrants. Hopefully, the authorities will be able to establish beyond doubt the origin of most of these immigrants and they shall be deported back. But there will still be people who cannot be deported back due to technical modalities. For such people, government may issue status of foreigner residents. There may be certain taxes levied on them and they can be allowed to remain residents in India without voting rights for a decided period of time. This will be in coherence to international laws relating to nationality and citizenship as well as International Convention on Statelessness. This will also be upholding the human rights and fundamental rights which are conferred by the constitution to persons including foreigners in the soil of India.

 

d.     Other measures: apart from this, there are several steps the government can take to enhance the national security. Firstly, steps have to be taken to prevent illegal immigration at source. India shares 4096 kms of its borders with Bangladesh. This includes forestland, rivers and grassland. The government had earlier promised of employing technology to secure these borders. This should be done on an urgent basis. Use of cameras, RADARS, drones can be made along with physical barriers and fences. This must be along every international border because Bangladeshi immigrants only constitute a part of the larger problem of illegal immigration and infiltration.



[1] Chakravarty Ipsita, Explainer: What is NRC?, SCROLL.IN, (July 15,2019 8:00 AM), https://scroll.in/article/930482/explainer-what-exactly-is-the-national-register-of-citizens .

[2] Bhat Mohsin Alam, The constitutional case against NRC, E&PW, vol 4 issue 3, 19 Jan 2019.

[3] Supra .

[4] Gupta Vijender, Why a pan-India NRC is the need of the hour?,  DAILY PIONEER, ( Aug, 19, 2018 10:00AM). https://www.dailypioneer.com/2018/columnists/why-a-pan-india-nrc-is-the-need-of-the-hour.html .