The recent National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam has excluded 40 lakh people from its final draft list. With confusion and fear growing about the consequences of the process, Sanjoy Hazarika, International Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, spoke with Rudroneel Ghosh about it:
What’s your overall take on the NRC exercise in Assam?
This is something for which there was general acceptance from across the board. There is a genuine issue of illegal immigration in Assam. But the process has left a lot to be desired. There are many people who have been left out and if something like this has to be done on such a huge and sensitive scale, authorities should have ensured that it was done with deep diligence without causing confusion and stress.
Was it fair to carry out the NRC exercise decades after the Assam Accord?
This is a programme that was started years back during the Congress regime. But the problem is that no one is thinking about what is to be done afterwards. Let’s say that you identify lakhs of illegal immigrants. But what do you do with them? Deportation is not an option because Bangladesh doesn’t recognise there is out-migration. Plus, even if one genuine Indian citizen gets targeted wrongly then it calls into question the entire quality of the process. And we have seen too many cases where individuals have not made it to the draft list but other members of their families have!
The concept of detention camps is anathema to me. It brings in a terrible history from all over the world. So we have to negotiate practically and strongly with Bangladesh, but again with general elections there in a few months, I don’t see this going far. The fourth option is to disenfranchise those who have been proven beyond doubt to be illegal immigrants. But then what happens to their children? This cannot hold in perpetuity. We are a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights where Articles 2, 3 and 7 are critical to this process.
Finally, governments can think about what I call the Ronald Reagan approach. The former US president had declared an amnesty to aliens in the US. But I doubt if any government here has the political will to do that. Ultimately, you do not want a situation where alienation grows and people become radicalised. I think the review process to get people into the NRC should be extended by at least a year so as to ensure due process in consonance with Article 21 of the Constitution.
Will this resolve the illegal immigration debate in Assam once and for all?
When the process began there was a feeling that there would finally be some resolution to the issue. But new revelations every day of many people being left out of the list have created confusion and challenges – I personally know of relatives who are not on the list. Add to this the proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act, which seeks to give a citizenship route to Hindu immigrants who came illegally after 1971, but not to Muslims, and the confusion grows.
Is the defence of NRC as a necessary measure to protect Assamese culture justified?
The issue here is who is a foreigner. The concern about demographic change and cultural pressure has been there for many years. In fact, extensive migration from East Bengal was an election issue for the Congress in the 1946 provincial polls. So there’s a long history to this and a lot of frustration among the people that nothing has happened to address their sense of needing to protect their culture and identity. These are real issues felt by real people. So it’s not just one government but a succession of governments that is at fault.
Most of the north-east complains about stepmotherly treatment and yet harbours an anti-outsider sentiment. How can the two be reconciled?
I don’t think you can make such a sweeping statement. The anti-outsider sentiment is there in parts. People from the region are treated shabbily outside the region because of the way they look. But at the same time it’s also true that those from other parts of the country who have been living in the north-east have faced the sting of discrimination. We have to see this in the larger perspective. There is a concern about being outnumbered here. At the district level, it may not be just about being flooded by illegal immigrants but also about larger ethnic groups overwhelming smaller communities. The two sometimes get compressed. But overall, it’s tragic that 71 years after Independence people from the north-east are still discriminated against in the rest of the country. However, we must acknowledge that this is changing and north-easterners are increasingly engaging with the rest of India. In fact, we know Delhi and the rest of India, but we often do not know each other.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.