What is the way out?

NRC Conundrum

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

The politics over the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam is turning into a hot potato. While the media is rightly focussing on it, there is confusion and nagging apprehension of what is to follow. The Supreme Court too is peeved for its two court-appointed officers –Assam State coordinator and Registrar General of India are only adding to the conundrum.
Recently, it pulled up the officers for stating to the media “documents, which were earlier not accepted, would now be accepted at the stage of claims and objections and persons who raise this will be given extensive and numerous hearings.” This is beyond their brief as the apex court is yet to hear from the Central government about its standard operating procedure (SOP) on claims and objections. Thus, they were barred from speaking to the press.
But, who will rein in our political leaders, whose statements are only adding to the nagging fear of the 40 lakh people left out of the NRC? The safety and security of the people staying in a country cannot and should not be denied. Though it is believed that a large part of Assam’s 3.3 crore population may comprise what is being termed “illegal immigrants” coming from Bangladesh, can these migrants be pushed back after staying in the State for over two or three decades?
Political analysts have started wondering the real intention behind such a move. Moreover, it is understood that the Central government is fore-warning of a similar Register at the national level, but saying that Indian citizens would not impacted. On its part, the Opposition sees it as yet another issue to take on the Modi government. Recently, 11 political parties, including the Congress, submitted a joint memorandum to the President seeking his intervention.
Though the question of migration from neighbouring Bangladesh is well known, the governments of this country – whether at the Centre or at the State — has allowed this and no strict action has been taken in this regard. Electoral considerations may have encouraged this to happen. Ironically, it is the Congress, that signed the onerous Assam accord in 1985, remained indifferent to such migration. But the migration was due to factors such as communal tension i.e. torture on Hindus in Bangladesh, poverty and lack of opportunities of the minority community there to earn a decent livelihood.
However, at this juncture implementing the accord may be quite inhuman. The most-affected would obviously be Bengalis, whether belonging to Hindu or Muslim community, and for this West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is protesting vehemently by warning of a ‘civil war’ taking place if the NRC was not rectified. Experts say even if 20 lakh residents are accommodated in the revised NRC, what will happen to the remaining half?
Assam was a part of undivided Bengal before partition and lakhs of Bengali population have been residing in that State for generations. Thus, the draft NRC, where names of thousands or lakhs of people have been omitted appears no doubt discriminatory and against the basic norms of human rights, as per the United Nations guidelines. What will the international community view this matter as reports reveal that 4.5 lakh Indians have taken the citizenship with firms that facilitate “citizenship by investment”, reporting a 40 per cent increase in applicants?
In the name of nationalism, sovereignty and protecting the rights of Assam people, the exercise is undoubtedly arbitrary and smacks of political agenda and religious bias. Where would Bengali Muslims who have come from Bangladesh go for no fault of theirs? Moreover, if other States follow the Assamese example, there would be large scale displacements, leading to chaos and civil instability, which is most unhealthy for our country.
The religion of a community should not be any consideration “illegal migrants” as they may have been staying in the State since say 1980 or 1985 or even later. The cut-off date, as suggested by many commentators, should have been revised at this point of time and brought forward to say 1990 or any date around that time.
The NDA government’s anti-secular policies have created lot of controversies over the past few years as they want to promote Hindutva in an aggressive manner to cash in on the Hindu vote bank. But for this, some of the actions towards the minority community go against the basic principles of human rights. This has also come to the notice of the international media and there is much criticism. The migration problem in Assam cannot be treated in isolation as this has happened in Bengal, Tripura, Punjab and Kashmir but there is no such problem there.
By taking a firm and clear stand, the BJP wants to live up to its reputation of being a tough party that is headed by a decisive leader, who is not afraid of taking difficult decisions. Coming at a time when the Modi government has been in the firing line over the poor state of the economy, the agrarian crisis, growing unemployment and the Rafale deal, the publication of the citizens’ list in distant Assam has provided an opportunity to the BJP to change the national political discourse and return to its communal agenda.
The BJP apparently is worried that Muslims constituted over 34 per cent of Assam population in 2011 – and may now be anything above 36 per cent – up from 30 per cent in 2001 and have become a majority in some border districts. However, one cannot ignore communities fearful of being overwhelmed and converted by immigrants, obviously from Bangladesh.
It is thus necessary to read the NRC alongside the pending Citizenship Amendment Bill which offers fast-track citizenship to people belonging to six religions – excluding only Muslims – from three countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, on the ground that they are minorities in their own countries.
Further, if the so-called illegal migrants cannot be given citizenship, they may be given green card equivalents and allowed to stay and work in Assam as before. Their right to livelihood should not be taken away. It is thus the duty of the Centre to settle the matter judiciously.
The present problem poses a challenge before the government as this involves not just questions pertaining to human rights but relations with Bangladesh. Pushing back residents to that country is not easy and these may have to be allowed to stay on. An option would be to settle them in States where population density is low and where there is scarcity of farm labour. It should not be forgotten that India is country with diverse communities and religions and all of them have equal rights to citizenship.
Keeping in view the fact that the tradition and heritage of our country focuses on brotherhood and fellowship – which are key tenets of Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and even Islam – the present leadership should not do anything to disturb our present status. Thus, the question of migrants has to be tackled with care. Political parties must put aside their vote bank politics and think and act in the larger interest of the nation.—INFA