Through the National Register of Citizens update and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party government is trying to communally polarise a state which doesn’t have a history of any major communal incidents except for the 1983 Nellie massacre. The six years agitation launched by All Assam Students’ Union demanding identification and deportation of illegal immigrants which culminated in the 1985 Assam Accord with Rajiv Gandhi was against all Bangladeshis, not just Muslims. Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh has been running a campaign even in other parts of country for deportation of Bangladeshis, targeting only the Muslims, for long and BJP came to power in Assam on this promise. But what people of Assam were not prepared for was the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill which provides for Hindus from Bangladesh to obtain Indian citizenship. The popular Assamese grassroots leader Akhil Gogoi held a big protest against the Bill on the eve of Amit Shah’s recent visit to Assam. If BJP loses the next election in Assam this will be an important factor. The Assamese resent the historical attempts at cultural and linguistic dominance by Bengalis, mainly Hindus.
3,29,91,384 people had applied for citizenship of which 2,89,83,677 made it to the second draft list published on 31 August, 2018. Of the 40.07 lakhs left out include 2.48 lakhs who have been put in the category of ‘doubtful voters.’ The excluded list contains both Muslims and Hindus.
To be eligible for inclusion in NRC it was required to produce either a proof from 1951 NRC or one of the twelve forms of identity documents dated before 24 March, 1971, a date decided by Assam Accord. Those left out are presumably mostly poor as it is quite unlikely that people would have been able to preserve documents for 48 years in a state prone to frequent floods.
It is well known that to get a residence proof certificate from the local administration, especially for the poor who have migrated in search of employment even within states is a nightmare. It usually requires a bribe or a clever advocate or middleman to get the job done.
Assam is the only Indian state which is carrying out an updation of NRC after 1951. Otherwise, normally it is part of Indian culture that foreigners have been accepted. Throughout history, whether as aggressors or persecuted, people have come from outside and have assimilated in the local culture.
The Hindus from East Pakistan who came to Assam at the time of partition and were promised rehabilitation found it difficult. The Angarkata satyagrah is just one of their documented struggles. Later Bangladeshis came in search of employment and they still continue to cross the border, some only for temporary period regularly with no desire to settle in India.
Bengali speaking Muslims with Assamese identity cards can be found in other parts of India mostly picking up garbage. They are fulfilling a need of Indian cities because the traditional sanitation workers have either moved up the ladder to obtain government jobs or are pursuing other non-demeaning vocations.
Bangladeshis coming to India seeking employment are no different from Indians going to Dubai or United States, sometimes illegally, to eke out a living. Indians have been to all over the world since ages and most of them have not only settled in their respective chosen countries of employment but some of the adventurous ones are even holding or have held high positions in governments. Imagine the tragedy if all these countries decided to deport the illegal immigrants from India.
The more sad case is that of Rohingyas. They are a persecuted lot and unlike Bangladeshis, their decision to leave their motherland, Myanmar, was not voluntary.
To even treat Bangladeshis or Rohingyas as security threat is making a mockery of their abject poverty. There are more well to do citizens of India who are engaged in activities, like committing financial fraud or provoking violent incidents, detrimental to the interest of country. So, being a citizen or not has no relation to how much of a security threat one can pose to a nation. We are also witness to how little the rich like Mehul Choksi care about Indian citizenship, in order to escape the law of the land. Vijay Mallaya and Subrata Roy, before they ran foul with the government, used to project themselves as great patriots.
However, Assamese have a genuine fear of being demographically overtaken by outsiders. There is a provision for Bangladeshis who came to India before 1971 to register themselves with Foreigners Regional Registration Officer with no voting rights for ten years since registration.
If the people of Assam feel that they have more than their share of foreigners, they could be distributed among other states of India. Mamta Banerjee has already made an offer to accept the Bengalis. In any case, a number of them are working outside Assam in other states.
Instead of putting people, who’ll not find a place in NRC after objections and claims have been entertained, in the doubtful voter category or ‘declared foreigners’ they could be issued work permit visas without voting rights, as is the vogue in United States, so that they don’t live under the fear of deportation or have to spend time in detention camps, which are actually jails, and can lead a respectable life with their families like other India citizens with equal access to benefits of education, health care, public distribution system and housing. After all, whether a citizen or not, everybody has a human right. Similar to the present rule for people who came to India before 1971, such people should be reconsidered for voting rights after a period of ten years. This is the only humane way of solving Assam’s problem.