On 31 August, as had been declared earlier, India published the final version of a list which effectively strips 1,906,657 people of the north-eastern State of Assam of their citizenship. This number includes about 1.1 million persons of Hindu faith and about 5 lac of Muslim faith.
The controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC), it may be noted, 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 24 March 1971, a day before neighbouring Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan. It may be recalled that a draft version of a similar list published last year had excluded about four million people. Measures taken since 2018 to identify illegal Bangladeshi migrants have already led to detention of thousands of people suspected of being foreigners. They have been moved to temporary camps which are housed in that State's prisons.
The process of having the NRC started in 1951 after the partition of India and the creation of West and East Pakistan (presently Bangladesh) to determine who was born in Assam and was therefore Indian, and who might be a migrant from neighbouring 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 also a political weapon for the last three years in particular. Since the beginning of this year the NRC has assumed priority. To gain greater popularity, BJP has urged families in Assam in particular to provide documentation to show their lineage. This format has also underlined that those who cannot prove their citizenship will be deemed as illegal foreigners.
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 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.
Despite such a reality, in recent times, some Hindu nationalist forces, in communal tones have been pointing towards neighbouring Bangladesh, which shares a 4,000-km-long border with India, for being responsible for massive illegal immigration into Assam. Their argument is based on the principle that people of Bangladeshi origin, of both Hindu and Muslim faiths, had sought sanctuary in Assam during Bangladesh’s war of independence and had stayed behind.
Such an assumption can only be termed as debatable.
Residents excluded from the NRC are now being informed that they 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. 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.
In addition, there is also the possibility that if the applicants lose their appeals in the higher Courts, they might be detained in different detention centres indefinitely. It may be recalled in this regard that some 1,000 people declared as foreigners earlier are presently lodged in six detention centres located in prisons.
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 and their workings but also for often being opaque and riddled with inconsistencies. They have in this regard pointed out several factors- firstly, the burden of proof is on the accused or the alleged foreigner; secondly, many families are unable to produce documents due to poor record-keeping, illiteracy or because they lack the money to file a legal claim. Reports have also surfaced that people have been declared as foreigners by the Courts because of differences in spellings of names or ages in voters’ rolls, and problems in getting identity documents certified by authorities. Amnesty International has described the work by the special courts as "shoddy and lackadaisical".
Another interesting comment was made by a legal journalist- Rohini Mohan. He took on the task of analyzing nearly 500 judgements delivered by such Courts in one of Assam’s administrative Districts and found that 82% of the people on trial had been declared foreigners. She also found more Muslims had been declared foreigners, and 78% of the orders were delivered without the accused ever being heard in the Court. The police subsequently commented 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.This has led Rohini Mohan to mention that the “ Foreigners Tribunal must be made more transparent and accountable."
In this regard one also needs to refer to the unfortunate judicial measure that resulted in a serious uproar and national outrage among human rights activists in June this year after a decorated Indian army veteran Mohammed Sanaullah spent 11 days in a detention camp after being declared a "foreigner". 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 also complained of poor living conditions and overcrowding in the detention centres. Activists have also reported that fearing possible loss of citizenship and detention after exclusion from the list, scores of Bengali Hindus and Muslims have committed suicide since the process to update the citizen register started in 2015.
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 partially 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 also indicated that "We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs".
It may also 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 neighboring 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 Assam Administration presently in control of the BJP. Trying to deport 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.
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. These grateful persons, enjoying basic rights, will then promote India’s successful democratic socio-economic development and stability instead of possible instability and violence. This 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.