The Financial Express

Creating a stateless status in Assam would only create a human tragedy

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People stand in a queue to check their names on the draft list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) outside an NRC centre in Rupohi village, Nagaon district, northeastern state of Assam, India on August 31, 2019.             —Photo: Reuters People stand in a queue to check their names on the draft list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) outside an NRC centre in Rupohi village, Nagaon district, northeastern state of Assam, India on August 31, 2019. —Photo: Reuters

After constitutional changes in Kashmir, India has now generated more debate and controversy in international relations with its dealing with of Assam. On  August 31,  India published the final version of a citizines' list which effectively strips 1,906,657 people in that State of their citizenship. This number includes about 1.1 million persons of Hindu faith and about 500 thousand of Muslim faith. A draft version of a similar list published last year had excluded about four million people.

The controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC), includes a list of people, who according to relevant Indian administrative authorities, have been able to prove that they were inhabitants of that State by March 24, 1971, a day before Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan. Measures taken since 2018 to identify illegal Bangladeshi migrants have already led to detention of some 1,000 people  as foreigners who are lodged in six detention centres located in prisons.

The process of having the NRC started in 1951 after the partition of India to determine who was born in Assam and was therefore Indian, and who might be a migrant from neighbouring East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.  Steps have now been taken to update this register for the first time.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long railed against illegal immigration in India and has been using this as a political weapon for the last three years in particular. Since the beginning of this year the NRC has assumed priority.

Such an approach with regard to Assam has generated frustration and anger as this is one of India's most multi-ethnic states where marginal people from different ethnic backgrounds and diverse Indian regions - West Bengal, Cooch Bihar and Orissa - had gone for more than eighty years ago to work in that State's vast tea gardens and also in big agricultural farms. Consequently, the question of having to prove their identity and citizenship has led to vexation among Bengali and Assamese-speaking Hindus and Muslims, as well as a medley of tribespeople most of whom are descendants of immigrants who settled there under British rule or many decades ago.

Some Hindu nationalist forces have in recent times been pointing towards Bangladesh, which shares a 4,000-km-long border with India, for being responsible for massive illegal immigration into Assam.

Residents excluded from the NRC can appeal against the administrative decision to exclude them from the NRC in the specially-formed courts called Foreigners Tribunals, as well as subsequently in the High Court and Supreme Court of India. Analysts have however observed that this denotes a potentially long and exhaustive appeals process with the Indian judiciary already overburdened and clogged with tens of thousands of cases. Those seeking justice will be mostly financially challenged and in all likelihood have difficulty in raising money to fight their cases.

The media has reported that the process for setting up special courts for initiating this adjudication process started in 1964. Since then they have declared more than 100,000 people foreigners. In this context, those identified as foreigners have also been classified as "doubtful voters" or "illegal infiltrators" who need to be deported. However, the workings of such specially formed Tribunals, which have been hearing the contested cases, have been mired in controversy.

There are more than 200 such courts in Assam today, and their numbers are expected to go up to 1,000 by October. The majority of these tribunals have been set up after the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP came to power in 2014.

Media has openly accused such Courts of not only bias but also for often being opaque and riddled with inconsistencies. Legal journalist Rohini Mohan analysed nearly 500 judgments delivered by such Courts in one of Assam's administrative Districts and found that 82 per cent of the people on trial had been declared foreigners. She also found more Muslims had been declared foreigners, and 78 per cent of the orders were delivered without the accused ever being heard in the Court. The police subsequently alleged that they were "absconding". However, Ms Mohan has claimed that she found many of them living in their villages and unaware that they had been declared as foreigners and needed to defend themselves from such an accusation.

In June this year a decorated Indian army veteran Mohammed Sanaullah spent 11 days in a detention camp after being declared a "foreigner". This led to a nation-wide protest in India.  Human rights activist Harsh Mander who has visited two detention centres has spoken about a situation of "grave and extensive human distress and suffering". Detainees have complained of poor living conditions and overcrowding in the detention centres.

Such an evolving scenario both in the drafting of the citizen's register and the functioning of the tribunals has sparked fears of a witch-hunt against Assam's ethnic minorities. Many local Assam politicians have remarked that the list has nothing to do with religion. However, analysts and human rights activists are now commenting that this is a format that is targeting the state's Bengali community, a large portion of whom are Muslims. Some observers like Ms Barooah Pisharoty have also noted that the BJP since the election has slightly changed tack. They are trying to exclude Bengali-speaking Hindus from the list because the Bengali Hindus are a strong voter base of the BJP.

The principal opposition Congress party in the Indian Parliament said last year that it was not enough to allow people left off the list to file appeals. It called on Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to ensure that the process is fair -- and that it doesn't discriminate against people based on their religion, a concern voiced by many given Assam's multi-ethnic make-up.

This approach was taken following comments made by the then BJP Party President Amit Shah, presently the Home Minister in Modi's new cabinet. He sparked outrage with comments like infiltrators - in an apparent swipe at undocumented Muslim migrants - being 'termites' that need to be destroyed. He indicated that "We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs".

It may be recalled that in addition to the NRC, a controversial India-wide Citizenship Amendment Bill was also introduced in 2016 that was aimed at offering Indian citizenship to Hindus and other non-Muslim migrants from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries of Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was passed in the lower house in January but failed in the upper house of India's Parliament.

One thing needs to be understood by the state government of Assam, presently in control of the BJP. Trying to deport allegedly illegal Muslim immigrants from Assam to Bangladesh will not be a suitable cup of tea in the context of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations. Densely populated Bangladesh is already suffering from having to look after more than a million illegal Rohingya immigrants from the Rakhine State of Myanmar. They were allowed entry into Bangladesh on grounds of human rights and in their effort to save themselves from genocide, ethnic cleansing, arson and rape. The effort of Prime Minister Hasina's government in this regard has been universally acknowledged as an example for the rest of the world to follow. Those in Assam need to understand that. 

The Indian government and the State government of Assam should also remember that more than two million people of Indian origin have entered Europe as migrants, most of them illegally. They are now settled as citizens in United Kingdom as well as in different countries in Europe. That is also true of Indians who have entered Canada, Australia and the United States and settled down there. All of them enjoy equal rights.

Consequently, India and the State government of Assam instead of generating more despair, anxiety and anger might consider giving those designated as stateless people, participatory presence within the Indian paradigm after their release from detention centres.  This move will be beneficial for the sub-region.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at [email protected]

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