Assam, a critical case

Migration & Citizenship

By Dr S Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

The deadline for the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam set as 30 June 2018 is nearing and once again several issues surrounding migration and citizenship have burst out.
A few days back, students of Dibrugarh University declared they would prevent Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal from entering the alma mater until the Union Government scrapped the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 now under consideration. It is also reported in some sections of the media that he would willingly step down if he could not protect the interests of the people of Assam.
An executive order of the Home Ministry issued in 2015 relaxed the provisions for persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan from entering and staying in India without proper documents. There are about 400 Pakistani Hindu refugee settlements.
For about 28 per cent of Assam’s population who are Bengali-speaking, the proposed Amendment of the Citizenship Act is crucial. They do not figure in the first updated NRC published in December 2017 implying thereby that they would lose their citizenship by end of June. They will have to prove their Indian citizenship to get enrolled in the Register. The omission includes 15 of 126 MLAs of Assam.
The Assam Government introduced a new rule making siblings of those marked foreigners ineligible for inclusion in updated NRC. It has also been sustained by the Guwahati High Court. Bengali Hindus are, therefore, worried about their future in Assam. The rule cannot be deemed as harsh as the attempt to separate children from migrant parents that was blocked in the US or the forceful advise of the US President that “people must simply be stopped at the border and told they cannot come into the US illegally”. But still, it betrays departure from traditional generosity of Indians in dealing with migrants. There are bound to be differences among the people of Assam over adopting a strong stand on the migrant problem.
The Amendment Bill proposes that six “persecuted minorities” – Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians, and Buddhists – from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who came to India before 31st March 2014, may not be treated as illegal migrants and seeks to grant them citizenship. It will mean that non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh will get citizenship of India which is contrary to the Assam Accord of 1985 that ended the long anti-foreigner agitation in Assam. It has raised protests from large sections of indigenous people on the ground that the move would make them a minority in their own State.
The Assam Accord has put the cut-off date as 24th March 1971 for citizenship. Those who entered after this date had to be tracked down and deported. It also provided for sealing of India-Bangladesh border. The extension of the cut-off date by over 40 years proposed in 2016 Amendment Bill would benefit several thousand migrants. Assamese are once again concerned about employment prospects – a worry that is bigger than their worry about the plight of their kith and kin abroad.
It is a complex issue involving people’s livelihood, human rights, nationhood and citizenship rights, and also relations with neighbouring countries. It is an issue in which citizenship and politico-legal interests are not in harmony with subjective factors like common religion, language, race, etc.
Any proposal coming from outsiders (including the Union Government) is not likely to please all the interested parties concerned in Assam. We have to find the most acceptable and least offensive formula. At the same time, the broader issues of nationhood and citizenship have to be kept in mind. The NRC, intended to cover the entire nation, is being prepared mainly for Assam under the amended sub-rules of Citizenship.
In the North-East Region, there are both migrants and refugees. Migrants do not enjoy protection and/or privileges under international law while refugees do. They move from place to place within a country or between countries by choice in response to pull and push factors and not under direct pressure of any persecution in their place like refugees. The receiving countries are free to legislate on migration and deal with migrants according to their own law. Refugees, on the contrary, have no choice in most cases, as they literally flee from their place to escape from some unlivable conditions.
Confusion over migrant and refugee status is a historic factor intensified in the influx of continuous stream of people from West Asia and Africa into Europe in recent years. Similar confusion in lesser degree exists in migrants in India also ever since the days of Partition.
Unfortunately, the plight of migrants and refugees is something to be experienced to be understood. So also, the problems of host States and communities who have to accommodate the uninvited guests are not fully comprehended by people living far away. In tackling such a problem, a heavy responsibility rests on concerned governments to approach the problem without violating the Constitution and laws and without affecting national interests or human rights and relationships.
In fact, identification of illegal migrants had always been difficult. The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act 1983 had to be annulled in 2005. The All Assam Students Union and 27 other organisations of indigenous communities are said to be opposed to the Amendment of the Citizenship Act. Political consequence on the alliance in power in Assam is also a factor that will play a role.
There is no provision for citizenship on religious basis in India. The Constituent Assembly rejected such an idea. The Asom Gana Parishad does not agree to grant citizenship based on religion as proposed in the Amendment. But, under prevailing conditions, India cannot open its land to any community suffering persecution in their land.
Entitlements deriving from citizenship are given to individuals irrespective of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. But these are in reality diminished by undue pressure of various authorities and the bondage of individuals to birth-based attachments like clan and community. Some thinkers distinguish between substantive citizenship and formal citizenship. Citizenship is not just political; it is a social and moral function. It is a serious issue in areas near international borders involving the security of a nation.
India is home for thousands of migrants and refugees from neighbouring countries arriving mostly in search of decent livelihood and peaceful life. They are unlike Indian migrants going abroad for employment who comprise from unskilled plantation labourers to highly qualified technical personnel.
The North-East has always been facing the problem of “outsiders”. Every State in the region is following its own way of dealing with migrant workers. Even a suggestion to grant State citizenship apart from national was mooted in Assam several years ago. In Manipur, for instance, the Meitis who are the most powerful group are demanding Inner Line Permits to regulate influx of migrants from other States.
The Assam problem cannot be solved by organising bandhs. National security has to be our primary concern while humanitarian considerations cannot be ignored. India has to maintain its moral stature and safeguard its material interests.—INFA