Of Assam’s current population of around 33 million, a little over four million do not figure in a National Register of Citizens that has lately been compiled in the Northeastern state. If on appeal these unregistered residents are unable to prove through documents that they or their family lived in India before 24 March 1971, they will be termed illegal migrants, liable in theory to be deported, presumably to Bangladesh.
In numbers not known to this writer, many alleged to be illegal residents have already been confined in makeshift detention camps near Assam’s border with Bangladesh and apparently marked for deportation.
Any attempt to forcibly deport even a few thousand individuals – let alone four million of them – would be a regional and global bombshell. It is not clear that such an attempt will be made, even though, at the end his 2014 campaign, Narendra Modi had asked ‘illegal migrants’ to pack their belongings and get ready to leave.
That in recent decades large numbers, most of them Muslim, have entered Assam from Bangladesh is undeniable. In response, Assam has witnessed a relentless‘detect-delete-deport’ campaign, in which deletion from electoral rolls has formed a vital part.
Migration from Bengal’s overcrowded plains and deltas to Assam’s valleys and hills and to other parts of the Northeast is however a very old story that started in the early 1900s. A steady increase in the Muslim percentage of Assam’s population is also not a new story. In the 2011 census, this percentage was 34. Now it may be closer to 35.
We learnt from Scroll.in on 16 January this year that the percentages of Assam’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have shown a similar or higher rise. (https://scroll.in/article/864879/illegal-bangladeshi-migrants)
It is not clear whether the contribution of illegal migrants to the growth rate of Assam’s Muslims is large, substantial, or relatively minor. In any case, when it comes to adding to their numbers, Assam’s indigenous Muslims, most of whom are poor, and the state’s similarly poor SCs and STs, have been more successful than Assam’s caste Hindus.
To ensure that non-citizens do not vote is certainly the government’s duty. It is also the government’s duty, and the duty of citizens, bureaucrats, the judiciary and the media, to ensure that no citizen is excluded from Assam’s NCR.
To demand documentary evidence dating to before 1971 from impoverished, possibly illiterate, and perhaps infirm individuals – who may form a significant portion of the excluded four million -- seems unfair to the point of being inhuman.
And what happens once a person is proved to be an illegal migrant? Does she or he lose the human rights that non-citizens too possess?
Trying to deport ‘illegal migrants’ to Bangladesh without an agreement with that country would damage relations with it. It would also at one stroke destroy years of efforts by Indian governments, including those led by the BJP, to partner with Bangladesh for the economic growth of the wider geographic region to which Bangladesh and India’s Northeast, a multi-ethnic region of enormous diversity, belong.
Such an attempt would, moreover, torpedo the impressive effort in Bangladesh to overcome violent Islamism, an effort in which India has a huge stake.
Writing in Indian Express (2 Aug 2018) that ‘perhaps deportation is not what anyone in authority has in mind,’ Sanjib Baruah adds that he is inclined ‘to read the silence on the question of deportation as a positive sign’.
Tied to the question of identifying illegal migrants is an older anxiety in Assam and the Northeast, dating back to pre-Partition times and enduring to the present, about ‘Bengali domination’. On my first visit to the Northeast in 1967, I ran into fears of the region being ‘Tripura-ized’, a reference to Tripura’s tribals being reduced to a minority in their homeland because of the influx, starting in 1947, of Bengali-speaking Hindus from what then was still East Pakistan.
Four years later, in 1971, when Pakistan’s crackdown against rebellion turned quickly into Bangladesh’s liberation struggle, millions of Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims escaped to the Northeast and West Bengal. Thereafter, the spectre of an ‘Islamic takeover’ of Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland and other regional ‘sisters’ joined the anxiety over ‘Bengali domination’.
To some, a ‘common Islamic threat’ offered a promise of deflecting disruptive currents flowing from the Northeast’s ethnic tensions and, simultaneously, of enlarging the BJP’s strength in the region. A recent central Bill that seemed part of such a strategy has, however, misfired.
This was the 2016 Bill to amend India’s Citizenship Act of 1955 so as to provide citizenship to migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan if they were of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian extraction. Muslim migrants are carefully excluded from this provision.
The Bill can be seen at http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Citizenship/Citizenship%20(A)%20bill,%202016.pdf
The Northeast’s Hindus and Christians were expected to welcome the Bill, which is yet to become law. They did not. They thought an influx of Bangladeshi Hindus could alter the region’s politics.
Opposition to the 2016 Bill was announced by two BJP allies – both supporters of the National Register of Citizens --, the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), a political party that once ran Assam after winning with an anti-migrant platform, and the All Assam Students Union (AASU), which spearheaded popular protests against uncontrolled inflows.
Instead of reinforcing each other, the Register and the Bill have collided.
India must of course admit any Hindus or other non-Muslims forced out of Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh. But must we shut the door to a Muslim who is forced out? Or to a Hindu one day forced out of Nepal (not mentioned in the Bill) or to a Hindu or Buddhist forced out of Sri Lanka (also not mentioned)?
If a tyrant takes over in Nepal or Sri Lanka, and Hindus or Buddhists escape into India, will they be pushed back into tyranny? I hope they won’t be, and I hope the reason won’t be that well, after all they are not Muslims.
Any proposed law to let non-Muslims enter but not Muslims would probably be found unconstitutional. It would violate the principles of equality and non-discrimination.
Illegal entry is an offence in India. Being a Muslim or an atheist is a social and political handicap but not yet officially a crime. If being a Muslim is seen as an offence by the government of India, which would seem to be the indirect meaning of the proposed Bill, then, among other possible consequences, we should say goodbye to friendship from Afghanistan or Iran and to facilities in Iran’s Chabahar Port.
And if being a Muslim becomes a legal handicap in India, troubles may fall on the heads of millions of Indians living in the Gulf and in the Middle East. Worldwide, obloquy will descend on India’s name.
Being a Christian is also a social handicap in parts of today’s India. Influential elements resent the presence of Christians. But they hope -- through measures like the Citizenship Bill -- to form tactical alliances with Christians in the Northeast, which contains substantial Christian numbers.
To see an illegal migrant from Bangladesh in every Muslim living in Assam is to falsify history and change India’s character.
It is a falsification and a change that powerful forces want. To them, some in our land are natural and automatic Indians, e.g. high-caste Hindus and those middle-caste Hindus for whom ‘Indian’ equals ‘Hindu’. In this view, others may be treated as Indians provided they do and vote as told or remain silent and at home on voting day.
Whatever the Constitution might say, women, Muslims, Christians, Dalits, tribals, and the physically or mentally handicapped are not, in this view, natural or first-category Indians. If, however, they march under a Hindutva flag, they may be regarded as Indians.
This hierarchy is a form of racism. It is what India’s national movement opposed and what the Constitution rejected. Even when facing illegal migration, Assam, the rest of the Northeast and India cannot afford to embrace it.