Communal polarisation, social conflict and the struggle for identity are not new to Assam. Way back in the 1920s, colonial policies led to a surge of immigrants into the region’s vast vacant tracts from densely-populated Bengal. The fear of loss of land and cultural identity was harboured by the political milieu among the local population and as a result, tensions between the Assamese and immigrants grew over time.
Various pre- and post-independence leaderships, on all sides of the border, tried to intensify and incentivise the discord. The tug-of-war over identity, ethnic tension, bloodshed and, for long, communal polarisation, have gone into creating the situation we see in Assam today.
Now efforts are on to implement, for the whole country, a National Register of Indian Citizens or NRIC. This register is maintained by the government of India (its contents supplied by state governments) as per the provisions of the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955. The register was first prepared in 1951 and has not completely been updated since then. The exercise will be conducted afresh in Assam as well. In Assam, it is being projected as a ‘solution’ for the influx from across the border, whose extent is still unknown.
Idea of citizenship
Some may say that the idea of citizenship satisfies the urge for seeking comfort in keeping one’s own kind close and the ‘others’ away. It is often argued that citizenship fosters in a climate of differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. But the idea of citizenship came to be deeply entrenched in India only after the emergence of a welfare state. In such a state, the government does not only act as an agency to maintain law, order and security for residents, but also actively works towards the enhancement of living standards of all citizens. As a corollary, citizenship comes with a cost attached to the government exchequer, that is, to public money.
However, this idea of citizenship is harder to implement than may appear. It not possible, or at least not feasible, to build walls around every country. Even if countries did try constructing physical barriers, the movement of people from one side to the other cannot be fully prevented. So, governments argue, they face the tough question of trying to identify citizens from non-citizens.
Now, in the context of Assam, the government has just completed, in August 2019, the five-year process of updating the NRC for the state under Supreme Court supervision. This register was supposedly meant to answer the question of who is a citizen. The criteria for being a citizen, in this case, was having your name on any of the electoral rolls published for any of the then Assembly constituencies within the territorial limits of present-day Assam. Considering the history of immigration and almost a century of politics around it in the state, and in light of the recent amendments to the Citizenship Act, any person who has documentary proof of being a citizen before 25 March 1971 or a decedent of such a person, was considered a citizen. After going through this arduous process, 19 lakh failed to qualify.
The Implementation Nightmare
The idea of NRIC may sound rosy, but considering the demographics of Assam, below national average rate of literacy, population density higher than the national rate and the remoteness of many of its regions, flawless implementation is going to be a Herculean task to say the least. Already, a huge chunk of the population has been left out of the just-completed NRC. The government can say in its defence that these people can contest their exclusion before the concerned authorities, such as the 500-odd Foreigners Tribunals, but that is where the problem actually starts.
Poor illiterate people cannot be expected to have preserved all the documents necessary to prove their residence, over generations and decades. Moreover, the amount of money and time it requires to go to the authorities and present the claims of being a citizen is huge, considering most of the excluded individuals and families can barely afford a living. Another important consideration is geography. Assam faces massive floods, and when one hits, the focus of people turns to saving lives, their own and of their loved ones. Documents come low on the list of priorities.
The Constitution of India confers certain basic fundamental rights to all citizens, but some of these rights are considered so basic for all that they were not restricted by Constitution-writers to citizens only. Such rights are available to everyone in the country, irrespective of their nationality. One such right is to equality, conferred under Article 14, and it includes protection against arbitrariness. Even if a person is declared a non-citizen, the fact that he or she is being put through such hardships at the hands of the government—such as detention— is itself a violation of the Constitution.
What after NRC?
The NRC for Assam left out just over 19 lakh people. The question is, what happens to them? There are only a few options with the government: deporting them to Bangladesh, sending them to detention centres, or to grant them citizenship rights. None of these are actually applicable if the purpose behind the NRC is kept in mind.
If those declared non-citizens are to be sent back to Bangladesh, they can only do so through means of a treaty between both countries. No such agreement exists between India and Bangladesh today. Also, chances that Bangladesh will agree to such a treaty are slim. People cannot be forced into Bangladesh without valid citizenship of that country.
The second option, to throw all excluded people out of the country, leave them to find refuge elsewhere will lead to a major humanitarian crisis and violate their right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. This is another right available to non-citizens.
The third option is to send people to detention centres. As of November 27, Assam has 988 alleged “foreigners” housed in detention centres, and inhuman conditions in them are already raising a hue and cry. Imagine hundreds of thousands in detention centres—what would that be like? Even if living conditions are decent, the possibility of which is negligible, it would still be a violation of right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution.
The last option of the government—and the only feasible one—is to give citizenship rights to all those who have been left out of the NRC. But again, how far does this serve the purpose of conducting the NRC exercise in the first place.
Ultimately, the ‘plan’ seems to be to disenfranchise the so-called non-citizens. These smack of a scheme for vote-bank politics, where the government’s idea is to take away the voting rights of minorities and please its constituencies to gain even more votes.
Nationwide NRC and the dream of Hindu Rashtra
India is planning an NRIC and it is not hard to imagine what an implementation nightmare that would be, with more than 1.3 billion people to cover. But the bigger concern is the manner and intention with which this is being implemented. In November, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom described NRIC as a “tool to target religious minorities, and, in particular, render Muslims stateless”.
Multiple instances of alleged discrimination against Muslims under the NRC in Assam appear to form a pattern—one can see the idea of a Hindu rashtra guide the entire process.
What gives even more strength to this assertion about the real intention of the government is the new Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. This Act gives a free citizenship card to select non-Muslim minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. These minorities, according to the statement of objects and reasons accompanying the bill, are those who have been “persecuted” in these three countries, except the Muslims.
If the intention was to assist persecuted minorities, why have Ahmadiyyas of Pakistan been left out? Or Sri Lankan Tamils? Or Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar? We can try to look away from this and refuse to draw the natural conclusion, but these (and other) omissions are screaming in our ears.
Right now, even though a pattern seems to be emerging, the fate of a national NRC still floats in mid-air. What will happen to the people left out of NRC in Assam? Will the national NRIC solve the long-pending problem of immigration into Assam? Will there actually be a NRIC? Now that the CAA has been passed, is India heading towards becoming Hindu rashtra? These questions are big and concerning, but each answer we shall get only when the plans are put into action—unless they are not.
Tamanna Pankaj is an advocate. The views are personal.