More than 40 lakh residents of Assam who applied did not find a place in the draft list of the NRC (National Register of Citizens) released on 30 July, 2018. The actual number of excluded people would be more, since not everyone applied. The claims and objections process is yet to begin. Many of the excluded would be inducted through “claims”. There are hurdles on this path though. When the excluded applied to know the reason of rejection many received absurd responses: “no reason”, “technical error”. Doubts thus remain if the redressal mechanism would function well.

The Jugasankha, an Assam-based Bengali newspaper reports on “no reason”

It is also possible that some who have found themselves in the draft would be eventually excluded due to “objections”. The final list of the NRC may exclude several lakhs – if not millions – residents of the state. The excluded would have the option of legal remedy. It is doubtful how many indigents would avail the expensive, time-consuming litigation process. When all options are exhausted, the people who would be declared non-citizens may still outnumber the population of many small-sized countries. What awaits such a large mass of humanity? We shall probe some possibilities in this article.

First, deportation. In its judgement ordering the NRC updation in 2014, the Supreme Court directed the government to initiate talks with Bangladesh on deportation: “we direct the Union of India to enter into necessary discussions with the Government of Bangladesh to streamline the procedure of deportation. The result of the said exercise be laid before the Court on the next date fixed.” What transpired on the “next date” is anybody’s guess. “The issue has not been raised at the official level by the Government of India with the Bangladesh government at any stage,” the Bangladeshi High Commissioner has helpfully informed. There are reasons to believe that Bangladesh would not agree to take the NRC-rejects. Statements from Bangladesh indicate they consider the NRC as India’s internal matter. Bangladesh is already providing shelter to lakhs of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. It is unlikely that a country of straitened circumstances like Bangladesh would take few millions more. Moreover, there is a logical problem. If someone is excluded from the NRC it is ascertained that she is not a citizen of India. That does not imply that she is a citizen of Bangladesh.

India has not been making a lot of friends in the neighbourhood of late. Bangladesh has been a steady ally in these difficult times of geopolitical turbulence. So, there are reasons to believe that India would not press Bangladesh on this unpleasant topic of mass deportation. According to news reports, the Union Home Ministry has already intimated that no deportation to Bangladesh would take place. Mr. Ram Madhab of the BJP has declared that the NRC-rejects would be deported. As it is not clear where they would be deported to, such pronouncements could be treated as bluster.

Short of deportation, the next option could be to detain them. In an earlier attempt to cleanse the voter list in Assam, more than a lakh “doubtful voters” simply melted away. The suspects may have migrated to other states. To avoid such a predicament penning the NRC-rejects could be an options. Already nearly a thousand detainees, declared foreigners by Foreigners’ Tribunals, are lodged in six camps across Assam. The government is building a new 3500 capacity detention camp in Goalpara.

Detention Camp Number of detainees
Goalpara 251
Kokrajhar 154
Silchar 85
Dibrugarh 30
Jorhat 11
Tezpur 268
Total 899

The number of detainees in different camps; February 2018 data as reported by minister C M Patowary in the state assembly

The number of NRC-rejects is likely to be so humongous that this option is not feasible. There are two costs that are to be considered. The first is the direct cost of lodging them in detention camps. The second cost is the loss to the state GDP due to withdrawal of four million people from the economy. This is kind of implicit cost is known as “opportunity cost” in economics. Adding these two costs, assuming that four millions are to be detained, a back of the envelope estimate shows that the total cost is about thirty three thousand crore rupees, or nearly 15% of the state GDP. This does not appear to be a wise choice, even if one ignores concerns over violation of human dignity.

The third way out is to grant work permits. This proposal has been making the rounds for some time. When he was the Union Home Minister Mr. L K Advani mulled over giving such permits to Bangladeshi migrants to India. There are examples in other countries where foreign workers are given work permits. The foreign workers get a legal status although they may not enjoy the rights of a citizen. But there is a conceptual difficulty here. The NRC-rejects are going to be declared non-citizens of India. Since they do not have the citizenship of any other country they are going to be rendered stateless. A stateless person has no locus standi. A permit is a temporary arrangement, on the expiry of which the worker is to return to her land. Here she has no land.

A fourth way is to have different categories of citizens. This is short of throwing them out of the country or putting them in a holding pen. They can be given some rights of citizens, but not all. For instance, they can enjoy the right to live and work, but probably not to stand in elections, or to vote, or to buy properties. In Myanmar citizenship is graded in as many as three levels, Rohingyas are not even considered citizens. The trouble with this relatively “benevolent” proposal is, if parents are declared non-citizens, the children born to them after 1987 are going to be non-citizens. The lineage of non-citizenship would continue for generation after generation. A closure would be hard to obtain.

Considering the possibilities and hard realities, it appears that granting amnesty to the NRC-rejects is the only humane resolution of the imbroglio. Political parties and other stakeholders need to come to a consensus on the grant of amnesty. The stature of Assam would only enhance if we show large-heartedness at a predicament where so many stand to lose their country.

This does not imply that concerns over infiltration need to be swept under the carpet. There could be a humane and rational way to approach the problem. The police in assistance with the intelligence may file cases on the suspected foreigners based on specific information. Secondly, it has to be admitted that putting the burden of proof on the accused is incongruous with the principle of natural justice. Consider the fact that an overwhelming portion of the suspected foreigners come from poor and marginalised background, and the legal arrangement appears more egregious. Let the State prove that the suspect is a foreigner, instead of the suspect proving that she is not a foreigner. Third, a dialogue with Bangladesh over deportation and migration needs to begin, which both the countries have been avoiding. Fourth, it has been widely reported that the existing legal structure of Foreigners’ Tribunals is not doing a great job in terms not punishing the innocent. That this a matter of utmost gravity has failed to register. This must be corrected. The adjudication can be brought under the monitoring of a standing joint parliamentary committee. The citizenship of India, after all, concerns the Union of India.

However, it would be wrong to expect that such a legal route would resolve the immigration issue plaguing the state for decades. It is the political sphere from which the issue receives its nourishment. Fracas over immigration are perhaps not due to the flow of immigration (which may not amount to much), but the stock of the migrants. A political and social process of integrating the migrant setters could bring about a resolution. This cannot happen unless the son-of-the-soil politics hanging like an albatross around Assam’s neck is got rid of. This deleterious politics weaves a narrative that paints the migrant working people as the adversary of the local working people, rather than their comrades. By constructing this false narrative, the powers that be get away with plunder of natural resources and ruthless exploitation of labour. A substantive development of Assam can materialise only if the peoples inhabiting this land forge a unity against the politics of distrust and xenophobia.

(Translated, excerpt – suitably edited – from Bengali booklet “Assamer Nagorikponjir Saatkahon” – The saga of the NRC in Assam.)