A political maelstrom is raging across India as the registration of citizenship being undertaken by the government in the northeastern state of Assam has determined 4 million people to be illegal immigrants.
Opposition parties like the Congress have questioned the procedure of registration, accusing the government led by the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of “targeting” minority communities and those known not to vote for it. There are fears of a crisis similar to that of the Muslim Rohingyas who started fleeing a military crackdown begun against them in August last year in Buddhist Myanmar.
The process of registration was mandated by the Supreme Court, the highest court of the land, which sought for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) concerning Assam to be updated for the first time since 1951 to account for illegal migration into the state from Bangladesh.
Immigration is a deeply political and emotive issue anywhere it occurs. It has been influencing electoral outcomes across Europe, and has stoked fears of a humanitarian crisis in the United States where the policy to separate children from families crossing into the United States without documentation has been condemned by the outgoing U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.
The UNHCR chief says he is not seeking a second four-year term as his job has been rendered untenable by global powers retreating from their commitment to human rights. The Commission cites the highest levels of displacement at present, with 22.5 million refugees languishing in different parts of the world in search of a normal life. Many, however, deem this a gross underestimate.
The U.N. has also raised the subject of the Assam NRC with India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, writing to her: “The NRC update has generated increased anxiety and concerns among the Bengali Muslim minority in Assam who have long been discriminated against due to their perceived status as foreigners, despite possessing the necessary documents to prove their citizenship.”
As most Bangladeshi immigrants are Muslim, there are fears that this minority community is being singled out as it largely does not vote for the BJP that pursues a Hindu ideology. There are concerns that those deemed non-citizens may be disenfranchised as there have been numerous instances where even those providing legacy data of their forebears in India have been excluded from the draft registry. They have included public servants and their relatives as also family members of the late President of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, a Muslim, apart from those who have served with distinction in the nation’s armed forces.
As with the Trump administration that has not disclosed what might happen to the more than 2,300 children detained since its “zero tolerance” policy was enacted in mid-April, the Indian government too is silent on the fate of those it deems unlawful immigrants.
India’s Supreme Court-supervised NRC survey has its genesis in the India-Pakistan war of 1971 that was triggered by the mass intrusions into India by Bangla-speaking people escaping an ethnic genocide perpetrated by Pakistani forces in the then non-contiguous half of the country, called East Pakistan. The Indian government estimates the number of these escapees at 20 million, though unofficially it is reckoned to be at least twice that. Evidently, UNHCR ignores these figures in its estimates on worldwide refugees.
India triumphed in the war that lasted between March 26 and Dec. 16, 1971, and East Pakistan seceded from the Urdu-speaking western half to become the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
Though Bangladesh has provided refuge to over 800,000 Rohingyas whom it now wants relocated to Myanmar — while a further 40,000 have infiltrated into India — it rejects Indian claims of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants on its territory and has stalled all attempts by India to push them back across the border.
India is a signatory to the U.N. Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and by UNHCR estimates, has 109,000 Tibetan refugees, the Dalai Lama being the most eminent of them, 65,700 Sri Lankans and 10,400 Afghans, apart from the Bangladeshis and Rohingyas, and some others. It is often felt that a country as big as India (3.29 million sq. km.) with a population of 1.32 billion can withstand demographic changes, but the most populated country, China, has only a slightly larger population (of 1.38 billion) across a territory that is exactly three times larger. India is besides a developing country where critical government services often fall short in reaching its own citizens.
To allay all apprehension, the BJP has clarified that the NRC is yet at the draft stage and those whose names do not figure on the list will neither be detained nor lose their citizenship rights. The four million exclusions have been permitted to file claims and objections until 28 September, after which the final NRC will be published by December 31.
However, the NRC has had its sinister fallout already, with mobs of vigilantes in states neighboring Assam accosting people in the streets and questioning their identity.
There are fears of a conflagration if any of the four million do not again find their names on the final list.
• Sarosh Bana is executive editor of Business India.
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