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NRC an internal matter of India, its ramifications for good neighbourly relations

Md Matiul Islam | Published: September 14, 2019 22:08:20 | Updated: September 20, 2019 20:45:12


The purpose of National Register of Citizens (NRC) update in the state of Assam was to identify illegal immigrants residing in that state i.e. those who entered into Assam after the midnight of March 24, 1971. During 1948 to 1971, there were large-scale migrations from the then East Pakistan to Assam and the Government of India by a notification in the year 1976 instructed the state government not to deport persons coming from Bangladesh to India prior to March 1971. Therefore, the foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 shall continue to be detected and expelled in accordance with the law.

The final NRC was published on August 31, 2019 after completion of all the statutory work as per various standard operating procedures. As per a press release by the State Coordinator of NRC, out of a total 3,30,27,661 applicants, 3,11,21,004 persons were found eligible for inclusion of their names in the final NRC, leaving out 19,06,657 persons who were not included.

No sooner the final NRC list was published than controversies with regard to its correctness erupted. Even some lawmakers openly came out criticising the document. A sitting member of legislative assembly (MLA) of Assam belonging to All India United Democratic Front, who found himself out of the NRC, alleged that thousands of genuine Indians, specially Hindus, have been left out of final NRC and many illegal foreigners have made into the final list. The Assam Public Works (APW), the original petitioner to the Supreme Court which led to the up-gradation of the NRC six years ago, said that the final NRC turned out to be a "flawed document". Cases were also reported where Muslim Indian soldiers fighting the Kargil war against Pakistan were also left out of the list.

More than 80 per cent of the 19,06,657 persons left out of the NRC were Bengali Hindus. On this, there is an interesting anecdote told by Mr. P.K. Lahiri, IAS (Retd.) who was out-posted to Mymensingh as a District Civil Affairs Liasion Officer (CALO) from December 18, 1971 to  March 15, 1972. Mr. Lahiri was Secretary, Ministry of Mines, in 1988-89 when I was posted in New Delhi as a Country Director for UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organisation) and developed close friendship with him. In his memoir titled A Tide In The Affairs of Men written in 2018, Mr. Lahiri recalls that five days before the surrender of the Pakistani Army to the Joint Command on December 16, 1971, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India created three posts of Commissioners and 19 posts of District Magistrates in anticipation that the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officers would be required to act as District Magistrates after liberation of Bangladesh in the newly independent country. However, it was soon realised that this was not necessary and the officers selected were designated as Civil Affairs Liaison Officers (CALO).

Mr. Lahiri was posted as CALO in the district of Mymensingh with the responsibility of helping local authorities in Bangladesh to restore civil administration, assist in the rehabilitation of refugees (returnees) from India and providing an interface between the Indian army and the local administration. About the returnees, Mr. Lahiri writes: "One aspect that struck me was that there were hardly any Hindu family among them. Of the persons who had taken refuge in India, there were a large number of Hindus, but not so among those that returned post cessation of hostilities. This was despite the fact that the new government headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was secular in its outlook."

The Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib in his bilateral talks with Mrs. Indira Gandhi in Calcutta in February 1972, where I was present, made two categorical statements with respect to the refugees from the then East Pakistan. One was that those who took refuge in India after the army crackdown on March 25, 1971 shall be fully rehabilitated by the Government of Bangladesh, but the question of accepting those who had migrated to India before the army crackdown should not arise at all. Sheikh Mujib's position on these two issues was clear and unambiguous.

However, the fact remains that many Hindu refugees who left after the army crackdown may not have returned to their homeland, as Mr. Lahiri observed in his memoir.

This possibly explains why more than 80 per cent of the 1.9 million people left out of the NRC are Bengali Hindus. Nevertheless, the Government of India plans to bring a Bill that will grant Indian citizenship to members of six minority communities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan even if they do not have valid documents. In that case, it is feared that 0.3-0.4 million Muslim permanent residents in Assam will be left out of the NRC and face with an uncertain future as "unwanted foreigners". Work has been on at a steady pace to build what would be the state's exclusive detention centres to house people declared as 'illegal foreigners'. It is this aspect of the problem that may be worrying for Bangladesh.

The issue was raised by Foreign Minister A. K. Abdul Momen with his counterpart from India Mr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. The Indian Foreign Minister assured our Foreign Minister that this was an internal matter of India. On the other hand, recently there was a press report that the Finance Minister of Assam was in favour of taking up the matter with Bangladesh. The Indian Home Minister Amit Shah during his recent visit to Assam declared that the intruders to the state shall be thrown out. He also hinted that after Assam, the government's plan is to locate and weed out illegal immigrants across India.

During the recent meeting between the Home Ministers of Bangladesh and India, the Indian side reportedly raised the matter of infiltration by Bangladeshis into the north eastern states of India, but Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal refuted the allegation. The Indian Home Ministry sources reported that Mr. Amit Shah is very serious about "infiltration" and NRC. India is likely to raise the issue formally during the impending visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India in October 2019.

Bangladesh should remain firm on the NRC issue as being exclusively an internal affair of India which should not be allowed to affect the very cordial relationship that exists between India and Bangladesh. 

Md Matiul Islam was the first Finance Secretary of Bangladesh.

chairman@iidfc.com

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