“The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan. Hence the need for intervention by the society and the state to make life a little less brutish and a little more tolerable.
But what happens when the State itself turns into an instrument of brutish behaviour in order to disenfranchise citizens and rob them of their rights? This is exactly what is happening in Assam right now, especially in the Barak Valley districts, where Bengalis ~ both Hindus and Muslims ~ are predominant.
At the discretion of the State, lives are being turned upside down, families are disrupted while thousands are being turned into stateless outcasts of society. The scale of injustice is precisely proportional to the distortion of reason is destroyed. This is bound to widen the schisms that already exist in this vulnerable borderland.
Strange solutions do not resolve a complex problem, they only make the problem more intractable. The root of Assam’s problem goes back to the turbulent days of 1979-85, when the state was convulsed by an agitation led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) demanding the expulsion of “foreigners” from the state.
Assam shared an 800-km-long border with Bangladesh, before Meghalaya was carved out of it in 1971. Ever since independence, large-scale illegal migration has been going on unabated through this porous border. This changed the demography of Assam, whose population grew at an abnormal decadal growth rate exceeding 35 per cent, threatening its indigenous culture and economic relationships.
Successive Congress governments have used this demographic change to yield demographic dividend at the hustings. The agitation was marked by such genocides as the Nellie massacre of 1983 in Nagaon district.
More than 2000 people, mainly Muslim women and children, were brutally murdered. The movement was called off after the signing of the tripartite Assam Accord in 1985 between the Governments of India and Assam and AASU.
As per the Assam Accord, all residents of Assam who entered the state till January 1, 1966, would be “regularised.” Those who entered between 1966 and March 25, 1971, could not vote for the next 10 years, and those who came after the midnight of March 24, 1971, would be “detected, deleted and expelled in accordance with law.”
This was incorporated as Section 6A of the Citizenship Act of 1956, while the cut-off date for the rest of the country was 19 July 1948 under Article 6 of the Constitution. However, precious little was done by the successive governments during the next three decades, partly because of the complex formula that was not easy to implement. Between 1985 and 2012, only 2,442 illegal immigrants from Bangladesh were deported, out of the Union home ministry estimate of five million illegal immigrants in Assam, of which 89325 have been declared as “foreigners”.
The issue of citizenship is incredibly complex. Apart from the Constitution, there exists a cache of laws like the Foreigners’ Act 1946, the Passport Act 1952, and the Citizenship Act of 1956. The rules are bizarre. Till 1986, every person born in India automatically became a citizen.
Then the rules were changed and till 2004, at least one parent had to be a citizen for a child to be given citizenship, after which it would be denied to her if one parent was an illegal immigrant. Then there is the Illegal Migrants (Detection by Tribunals) Act, 1983, that puts the onus of proving the illegality of a migrant on the complainant, while the Foreigners’ Act requires the accused to prove his or her right to Indian citizenship.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) was the first attempt to enlist all bona fide citizens of India and was prepared after the Census of 1951. It included the names of all residents. At that time, Assam’s population was only 8 million.
By the 2011 census, the population swelled to 31 million, with higher concentrations not only in the districts bordering Bangladesh like Dhubri or in the Barak Valley, but also in some other districts. There have been frequent skirmishes and communal clashes between the ethnic Assamese and Muslims, many of whom are suspected to be infiltrators.
In 1980, at the peak of the Assam agitation, AASU-AAGSP demanded that the 1951 NRC be updated, but the exercise actually commenced in 1999, and in 2005, a Directorate for updating the NRC was created. About 2500 NRC Sewa Kendras are operating in Assam involving about 100,000 government servants and at a cost of several hundred crore of rupees.
There are too many knots to be disentangled in the intractable issue of citizenship in Assam. Even the constitutionality of the cut-off date, and of the amended Section 6A of the Citizenship Act have been questioned before the Supreme Court in 2012 by the Asom Sanmilita Mahasangha, a body of 26 indigenous groups of Assam, seeking to restore the cutoff date for Assam to 1951 as in the rest of the states.
The appeal is yet to be decided by the Constitution bench, but pending the verdict the Supreme Court in 2014 ordered the time-bound updating of NRC. It later invoked Article 144 of the Constitution mandating all civil judicial authorities to act in aid of the Supreme Court, effectively bringing the exercise under its direct monitoring.
Incidentally, this is the first time that the NRC is being updated since 1951, and only in Assam. This at best is paradoxical, because if the Manasangha petition leads to restoration of 1951 as the cut-off year, the entire exercise will become redundant. Meanwhile, the Centre promulgated an Ordinance in 2015 to grant citizenships to Hindus and other non-Muslim illegal migrants in Assam.
This requires amendments to the Passport Act and the Foreigners’ Act, for which the Government introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in 2016, proposing to grant citizenships to persons belonging to six non-Muslim minority communities ~ Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians ~ from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The bill, described by the opposition as “communally motivated humanitarianism”, is pending before a Parliamentary Standing Committee. The NRC 1951 and the electoral rolls up to the midnight of 24 March 1971 will provide the legacy data to establish the citizenship of any resident, in the absence of which one has to submit admissible documents like land records, Permanent Citizenship Certificate, Refugee Registration Certificate, Birth Certificate, Board/University Certificate, Bank/ Post Office Account details, etc. for his/her name to be included in the NRC.
Thus illiterate persons, a landless labourer or a small trader without a bank account cannot prove their citizenship even if they have been living in Assam for generations, and that may include many bona fide citizens.
Such persons, segregated as “Bangladeshis” and “D-Voters” (Dubious Voters), are to be kept in one of the six detention centres set up inside the jail premises at Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Silchar, Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Tezpur, in almost subhuman conditions, without following the due process and often without getting any notice or opportunity to be heard.
The detention orders were passed ex parte. These are the concentration camps of 21st century India where people, stamped as non-citizens, can be kept indefinitely, deprived of all their rights and pending deportation, which will probably never happen, given Bangladesh’s friendly relations with India.
The cordial equation will surely apply the brakes on India’s ability to push them across. Bangladesh also won’t be too eager to accept them after being saddled with almost a million Rohingya refugees.
The Supreme Court had directed the Government to engage with Bangladesh to streamline the procedure of deportation, but it needs to appreciate that deportation is a complex political issue, much beyond the competence of any court.
On 31 December 2017, the first draft of the NRC for Assam was published by the Registrar General of India. It included the names of 1.9 crore people out of the total 3.29 crore applicants, recognizing them as Indian citizens. The entire process of updating the NRC by scrutinizing the 6.5 crore documents received from 68.27 lakh families across Assam is likely to be completed within 2018.
Among those who did not find their names in this draft, there are many legitimate citizens whose children, parents, siblings and spouses have been left out, while more than 2000 people ~ mostly labourers ~ are languishing in the detention centres.
Widespread anomalies have surfaced causing deep apprehension and anxiety in the minds of people likely to be rendered stateless. The reality of the detention camps reminds one of a Kafquesque world, eclipsing the idea of a liberal, humanising democracy that we cherish so much in our hearts.
The writer is a commentator. Opinions expressed are personal