Being human in Assam

Being human in Assam
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India can’t strip the citizenship of people who have built a life here for 47 years

Chetan Bhagat,

A lot of us know there’s a refugee problem in Assam. But last week, with the severely delayed updation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), we might have made the problem a lot worse and potentially created a time bomb in the state.

A large part of Assam’s 3.3 crore population is supposed to comprise illegal immigrants, most of them from Bangladesh. The problem became so big that it led to the Assam Agitation against illegal immigrants, which ended in August 1985 following the Assam Accord, which was signed by leaders of the agitation and the Government of India. This 1985 Assam Accord, signed 33 years ago, is finally being implemented now and creating a whole new set of problems.

According to this Assam Accord, only those people who can prove to be on the electoral rolls of Assam prior to 24 March, 1971, or those who can prove to have ancestors in those electoral rolls prior to 24 March, 1971 are eligible to be in the updated NRC.

What about the ones who can’t prove this? Even now nobody knows exactly what will happen to them. They could appeal or they could lose all property and voting rights or they could be deported or maybe another scheme will be worked out. There is no clarity.

It is said that Congress encouraged illegal migration in the past, because most of the migrants were Muslims from Bangladesh, more likely to vote Congress. Ironically it is Congress itself that signed the onerous 1985 Accord, enabling the stripping of citizenship from people who failed the 1971 test. Of course Congress never went about implementing the NRC updation. Things stayed in a limbo, which is usually not a good thing but often works in an easy to agitate country like India.

Serious work on updating the NRC only began in 2015. The resulting first draft has excluded 40 lakh current residents of Assam. After giving people a chance to file objections, the final draft is expected to be published in December this year. Experts say the overzealousness in publishing the draft NRC now is because it suits the agenda of BJP, which is currently in power.

What is fact is that this whole exercise has led to millions of current residents of Assam being labelled illegal immigrants and non-Indians. Imagine living in a place for 40 years, creating a family, and then being told you don’t belong. For that is what will happen to people who moved here in 1978, well after the 1971 cutoff. Imagine not having the documents to prove that one of your ancestors was on the voting rolls in 1971, and hence being wrongly declared illegal.

Imagine the opportunity for touts and agents who will work with people updating the NRC, and will sell you a great grandfather’s name from 1960 for a price, unless you want to be declared illegal. Imagine the discrimination, the human rights abuses that may follow once people are officially declared as ‘illegal’, especially when they already happen to be from a minority religion.

In the name of nationalism, sovereignty and protecting the rights of Assamese people, we are doing an exercise so arbitrary, so divisive and so difficult to implement that it will create far more problems than it can solve.

Even the upset people of the Assam Agitation had the sense to keep a citizenship cutoff date of 1971, only 14 years in the past when they signed the accord in 1985. Today, while we are implementing the same accord, we have not moved the cutoff dates. Are we that silly?

How can we strip someone of citizenship when they have worked, voted, built assets, paid taxes, created families, and lived a life in India for 47 years? If we delayed the implementation of the Assam Accord, shouldn’t we have automatically moved the cutoff date too? An equivalent date today, in line with the 1985 accord, would be 2004. So anyone who can show that they (or their parents) were living and voting in Assam before 2004 would be a legal resident. Doesn’t that sound a lot more sensible?

At a broader level we do need to control illegal immigration. For that we must have better border protection and more robust Indian IDs. We must also have a policy of what to actually do with illegal immigrants who somehow make it to India. Do we arrest them? Deport them? Shame them and make them live as second class citizens? Or can we be greater than that?

We know the situation in all our neighbouring countries. Do we shoo out people who run to us for a better life, or do we be the big brother and protect them? If we can’t give them passports and voting rights, can we give them ‘green card’ equivalents, the permanent right to stay and work as an alien? There are no easy answers to this one but India has to decide what it wants to be.

To be the regional big brother with a large heart could be one option. This would assert our power in the region as well. For now, in the specific case of Assam, we need to relook at the NRC process, and particularly amend the 1971 cutoff to lower the suffering. Of course this time the amendments should not take decades.

Courtesy: Times Of India