By Ashis Biswas
As feared, the much publicised updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, instead of finally settling the critical issue of illegal Bangladeshi immigration, only opened up a fresh, bigger can of worms. Both the Central and state governments, utterly confused about dealing with officially identified illegal Bangladeshi migrants, have gone backpedalling. Unable to take the next step ahead, they have reverted to the old route of letting tribunals and the courts decide citizenship issues. A truly anti climactic end to what had been broadly projected as the most effective administrative exercise in India’s northeast! The conclusion that the authorities developed cold feet when it came to dealing with the long term political consequences bound to follow the NRC enumeration, is inescapable.
The disillusionment of organisations like the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) hardliners is understandable. The Assamiya concern over the issue of infiltration, posing a challenge to Assam’s culture and polity, is also genuine. However, some honest introspection would have done both lobbies a world of good.
Instead of making tall claims about how the ‘infiltrators’ and ‘termites’ would be sorted out, they should put together a practical , time bound, structured plan for the administration , once the final NRC list came out on August 31. They failed to substantiate even minimally their big, unsubstantiated claims about the extent of the illegal migration in Assam, not for the first time.
Before the NRC updating exercise began four years back, political parties and officials had been issuing threatening statements targeting the religious and linguistic minorities. Many Bengali speaking Hindus and Muslims in Assam have been settled in Assam for several generations. Even if there were illegal settlers among them—that is, people who might have come from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971—- there were no accurate estimates as to their numbers.
The least that the AASU and the BJP could have done was to sponsor a painstaking research in specific areas to ascertain the actual number of such ‘infiltrators’ and presented their evidence to the world. This would have involved hard work and taken some time. The police and other authorities could also carry out their independent inquiries to arrive at a consensus about the actual numbers involved.
There was no such exercise ever conducted in all these years. Instead, there were inflammatory articles in the media about the huge numbers involved, various estimates ranging from 20 million to 4 million. The high figure was announced in Parliament by Indrajit Gupta”s tenure as the Union Home Minister. It is strongly supported by researchers like Dr Arun Shourie. The four million figure was mentioned more recently by Mr. Amit Shah, the BJP President, before he too, took over the Union Home Ministry.
Even assuming such figures to be correct, there is no reason to assume massive hordes of such unwanted ‘deplorables’ had all settled down in Assam only ! Over the years, Bangladeshi migrants, legally or otherwise, must have moved to other Indian states for work and a better life.
Surely it is reasonable to assume that such economic migrants would naturally shift to Delhi, Rajasthan, Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore or elsewhere to earn as much as possible.
Both in Assam and west Bengal, there have not been much economic development in recent years. In Assam, their existence has been under threat, as in the other NE states. In Bengal they were safer that they spoke the same language as the locals — but there have been virtually no avenues for earning! The argument that economic migrants would use these states as the first stop for their entry to India, as they navigated to the more economically ‘happening’ states , cannot be dismissed lightly.
From this it follows that the demand for an NRC updating or a similar exercise in the other states of India is more reasonable. By the same logic in Assam, because of the hostile environment and the economic backwardness relative to other states, the NRC exercise was foredoomed to failure. In fact, the outcome of an NRC exercise in Bengal would not be very different either. Economic migrants come to India to earn and live, not simply exist as vegetables. They might well have stayed back in Bangladesh itself!
However the fact is that during the last decade, illegal migration from Bangladesh into India, if at all, has reduced from a torrent to a trickle. Bangladesh is already close to being a middle income country, with an annual GDP of over $260 billion, its progress being universally acclaimed by international financial agencies. Garments exports, tourism, shipping are growing sectors, while industrial production is rising steadily, as reflected by the rapidly growing power requirements. The Bangladeshi taka is close in value to the Indian rupee, much closer than the Pakistani Rupaiya. It is ahead of India in crucial development indices relating to social progress, such as women’s education, empowerment and health, infant health and mortality etc. Also, over 500,000 Indians are currently working in Bangladesh in various capacities in its IT, banking and other sectors, not all of them legally!
This is what AASU or its ideological advisers apparently gloss over when they talk of ‘unceasing infiltration silent invasion across the border’ in their familiar narrative.
BY 2019, the smaller figure of 4 million illegal migrants seemed more acceptable. The NRC authorities initially left out about 4.1 million people out of the updated list. This stands reduced to only about 1.9 million people now. Even this figure, 1.9 million, would drop further as genuine citizens who have been left out will challenge their omission in the courts.
The outcome shocked the anti-immigrant lobby to its core. Worse, the habitually minatory rhetoric, stopping just this side of being inflammatory, had been followed up by concrete actions taken on the ground, in the shape of an additional 1000 new tribunals that were being set up. Such elaborate arrangements had been made in the hope that the final figure of those left out would well exceed even the 4.1 million announced earlier! That has not happened.
Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal cannot escape strong criticism for his handling of the matter. He first outlined the steps that would be taken against people identified as foreigners. They would be put up in special camps without voting or any other normal rights of citizens. Only food and shelter would be provided, he had said, as the government would talk to Bangladesh regarding their eventual deportation. Now he is talking about referring such cases back to the tribunals and the courts, obviously under pressure.
But the earlier threat cannot be taken lightly. The brutal conditions to which the suspected illegal migrants have been exposed in the six detention centres in Assam have been exposed in detail by HR activist Harsh Mander. There has been universal condemnation of such measures from the Amnesty international and many other Civil rights groups.
The present derision expressed by the BJP, the Congress, the left parties, the AASU or its opponent organisation among the minorities, the AAMSU, over the NRC’s is understandable. Altogether Rs 1600 crore have been spent on conducting the NRC updating exercise over four years. At least 57 people have committed suicide, (35 such deaths confirmed officially.) The linguistic and religious minorities have suffered a loss of an estimated Rs 6,500 crore according to one estimate.
One might well ask, to what end? (IPA Service)