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India: What future for thousands who are likely to be declared non-citizens in Assam ? | commentary by Sanjib Baruah and Seema Guha

19 January 2018

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The Indian Express, 19 January 2018

Stateless in Assam

Thousands could be declared non-citizens when the National Register of Citizens is finalised. Since their deportation is an almost impossible option, the focus will be on the detention policy.

Written by Sanjib Baruah

On the second day of January this year, hidden in the midst of the extensive coverage about the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) being made public, there was a small item in Assam newspapers. Hanif Khan, 40, was found hanging from a tree near his home in Kashipur in the district of Cachar. Khan committed suicide on finding that his name did not appear on the draft NRC. His wife Raksa said her husband was extremely anxious about the whole NRC business. He and his family, he feared, would be promptly arrested and deported to Bangladesh if their names do not appear on it.

Our public officials have repeated reiterated their commitment to ensure that the final NRC will be accurate. But there is enormous uncertainty about the fate of those whose names will not be on it. In effect, they would be legally declared non-citizens — even stateless — and their numbers are likely to be in thousands. Their likely fate has not drawn much public attention.

The Supreme Court’s December 2014 directive that set the ball rolling on the NRC process, however, did concern itself with this issue. Deportation in today’s world is not a unilateral matter; it has to follow international protocol. The Court’s two-judge bench asked the Assam and central governments about the procedures for deporting an unauthorised person from Bangladesh after a Foreigners Tribunal makes such a determination. In written affidavits they outlined the cumbersome process. At the end of it, only “persons whose nationalities are confirmed by the Bangladesh authorities” can be repatriated, and the numbers are tiny. That year “the nationality of 32 Bangladeshi nationals who were in the detention centres/jails in Assam were confirmed by the Bangladesh authorities and they have been repatriated”. The Supreme Court therefore directed “the Union of India to enter into necessary discussions with the Government of Bangladesh to streamline the procedure of deportation.”

There is no evidence that anything has happened on this score. The issue was not discussed either during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in 2015 or during the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in April last year. As recently as October 2017, Bangladesh Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu told an Indian journalist that in the past 30 years there has been no unauthorised migration from Bangladesh to Assam. He emphasised that no Indian government has ever complained of this. While issues such as terrorism, smuggling, drug and human trafficking are routinely discussed and the two governments have agreed on the modalities of cooperation on those matters, illegal migration has never featured in official discussions between the two governments.

In the unlikely event that India ever chooses to discuss deportation with Bangladesh, what exactly would be the nature of the discussion?

One way in which governments act on deportation is to sign bilateral agreements for the readmission of nationals of the relevant country. There are bilateral agreements between countries like Germany and Vietnam, Italy and Algeria, the United Kingdom and Algeria, Morocco and Spain and between the European Union and non-member countries in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. The EU also has a readmission agreement with Pakistan. In March 2016, the EU and Turkey signed an agreement that provides for “rapid return of all migrants not in need of international protection crossing from Turkey to Greece and to take back all irregular migrants intercepted in Turkish waters”. The EU has also made a controversial arrangement with Libya that has reduced the flow of migrants in exchange for substantial amounts of money.

Readmission agreements, however, do not always produce results, or at least the level of cooperation is less than what the deporting country expects. Among the incentives offered to sign readmission agreements are special trade concessions, increased development aid, preferential entry quotas for legal economic migrants, and technical cooperation and assistance in border management. In the case of European countries, a special political and economic relationship with the EU, and in the case of countries in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans, the prospect of accession into the EU are among the incentives offered. Even the deportation of large numbers of unauthorised immigrants under the Obama and the Trump administrations have been expensive. According to one estimate, the US pays Mexico $1,000 for each person who is deported. While Mexico officially disputes this, the US Congress allocates funds to Mexico for the purpose of the interdiction and deportation of unauthorised migrants.

To take back one’s own nationals may be an obligation under customary international law but in practice, it is not an easy matter. The costs and benefits for a country deporting an unauthorised migrant and the country readmitting the person are asymmetric. In crude financial terms, if the country of origin gains from remittances from expatriates, it has no interest in cooperating with the destination country in their deportation. But more importantly, signing a readmission agreement with an economically more powerful country is unlikely to be popular domestically. Almost all these cost-benefit calculations would apply if India and Bangladesh were to enter into a discussion of a bilateral readmission agreement.

It is extremely unlikely however, that in the foreseeable future, the Modi government on any other government in New Delhi would bring up the matter of deportation with Bangladesh. The “neighborhood first” policy of the Modi government has a far more pressing foreign policy goal: To stop China’s growing influence in the region. Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar cites Bangladesh as the prime example of the “neighbourhood first” policy yielding good results for both parties. To bring up the question of deportation would amount to throwing a monkey wrench into this delicate diplomatic relationship.

If there is no chance of India approaching the issue of deportation with Bangladesh, what is the likely fate of those not included in Assam’s NRC? If Parliament passes the Citizenship Amendment Bill, those who are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian would have a different fate from the rest since these groups “shall not be treated as illegal migrants”, according to that law.

From the perspective of the rest of those whose names will not appear in the NRC, the most significant development to watch is probably in the area of detention policy. Assam now has six detention camps for housing unauthorised non-citizens inside jail premises in Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Silchar, Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Tezpur. There are plans to build the first ever full-fledged foreigners’ detention centre in the state. The Assam government has allotted 20 bighas of land in Dakurbhita area in Goalpara district for constructing this centre.

It is only to be expected that the government would now focus on detention. Deportation practices have long been part of a wider set of incarceral institutions that include detention centres, refugee camps, and waiting zones to house people in a legal limbo — between being deportable and not being actually deported — in effect, people who are stateless. The political condition of a stateless person, as political theorist Hannah Arendt had memorably pointed out, is much worse than that of a prisoner. The person loses more than his or her freedom. A stateless person is no longer part of a legal and political order; he or she loses the “right to have rights”. A stateless person, wrote Arendt, represents “a new kind of human being — the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.”

Hanif Khan did not have to read Arendt to imagine his and his family’s fate once the NRC effectively declares him stateless.

The writer is professor of Political Studies, Bard College, New York.

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Daily O, 15 January 2018

National Register of Citizens in Assam can trigger a humanitarian crisis by Seema Guha

For the BJP/RSS, it is also part of their ideology; their belief that Muslims reproduce fast and should be stopped.

At the heart of the student movement in Assam in the early 1980s was the move to get Bengali Muslim immigrants out of the state and delete their names from the state’s electoral rolls. At the time, BJP leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Jaswant Singh and LK Advani paid regular visits to Assam to support the students’ demand. The RSS, too, seeing the anti-Muslim mood in the state, began working quietly behind the scenes to spread its ideology.

The All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the BJP were on the same page owing to the fear that Assam’s demographic pattern could change because of the illegal influx of Bangladeshi Muslims, turning it into India’s second Muslim majority state (after Kashmir). Second, the Congress party kept winning elections because illegal immigrants voted the party into power.

Simply put, Bangladeshis were on the electoral rolls and formed the Congress’ vote bank. Not much has changed in the decades since.

In 1985, a settlement was negotiated between student leaders and the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government, and the former launched their regional party, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP).

nrc-690_011518071520.jpgSimply put, Bangladeshis were on the electoral rolls and formed the Congress’ vote bank. Not much has changed in the decades since. Photo: Reuters

Today, the BJP and the AGP often use the same language.

The Assam Accord, laid down that all those who entered the state after March 25, 1971, are foreigners, and must be identified and deported back to Bangladesh. Those settled in Assam before that date would be considered Indian citizens.

Detecting and deporting so called foreigners is a tough ask. The AGP, which came to power on the pledge of relieving Assam of Bangladeshis, realised how difficult the exercise was.

The National Register of Citizens (NRC), on the face of it is an excellent idea for border areas and would help in assuaging the anxiety of the local Assamese worried about the influx of migrants. It was not introduced by the BJP. The decision to form a register of Indian citizens of Assam was taken in 1951 after the first Census. However, not much was done. It was revived again in 2014, with the idea of upgrading the NRC. The first draft of the register was published on December 31, 2017 on the instruction of the Supreme Court. There are many anomalies in the first draft which, government officials have time and again stressed, can be corrected.

What is needed, however, is proof that a citizen’s ancestors’ names were in the 1951 census, or in the electoral rolls, or land papers. All this was very well for the educated, even though many among them were running from pillar to post to get their long lost documents. However, for the poor and illiterate, these problems are often insurmountable. Many have no papers, neither are their names on voter lists nor are their forefathers registered.

While some of them may genuinely be foreign nationals, many genuine citizens, too, may not possess any documentary evidence to prove their citizenship. Harrowing tales are coming in every day of genuine Bengali speaking Muslims being targeted as foreign nationals. With the prevalent anti-immigrant mood in the state, officials are quick to band every Bengali-speaking Muslim as a Bangladeshi, provided the citizen does not possess the necessary documents.

The BJP’s support for the NRC is natural. No political party can object to illegal foreigners being sent out of the state. But for the BJP/RSS it is also part of their ideology; their belief that Muslims reproduce fast and should be stopped. If they are in Assam, the minorities will be thrown out.

Everyone knows how the system can discriminate against Muslims, and this is bound to happen. More stories of hapless Bengali Muslims will surface as cross verification by the officials of the NRC continues.

The fact is, the numbers of illegal entrants are not conclusive. The fact is, since the Assam agitation largescale migration from Bangladesh has not been easy. During the 1971 India-Pakistan war, refugees poured into the northeastern states of India and many stayed back in the country after Bangladesh was created. Hindus, especially, did not return. While the Assamese claim that immigration is continuing unabated, others say that if new settlers are spotted in a district, they are basically those moving from one part of the state to the other.

During British rule, the colonisers got hardworking Bengali Muslims into the Brahmaputra valley to clear Assam’s malarial swamps and turn them into fertile agricultural land. The valley has been converted into a rich rice bowl for the country. Much of the problem in the past was that the land holdings of indigenous Assamese were gradually reduced as more and more Bengali Muslims bought agricultural land in rural areas. Land is at the heart of the immigrant issue in Assam and it was also a plank on which the student movement got overwhelming support from both rural and urban areas. Essentially, assamese resentment against Bangladeshi Muslims stems from shrinking land holdings.

While the BJP has happily gone along with the AGP over Bengali Muslim immigrants, their views do not coincide on Hindu Bengalis.Anti-Bengali Hindu sentiment, too, is rampant in Assam. This is because Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that Bengali Hindu refugees from Bangladesh would always find a home in India. Some of them will also have to be accommodated in Assam.

Before the anti-immigrant agitation took the state by storm, clashes in Assam were mainly between the local Assamese and the Bengali-speaking settlers. Just after Independence, the Bengali-speaking population of the state, because of taking to an English education much earlier than citizens of other states of British India, held the majority of state and central government jobs.

At the time, this led to attacks on members of the community. While the numbers of Bengalis in Assam government rolls have hugely reduced, the animosity continues.

It was PM’s announcement that gave it a fresh spurt.

The NRC and its aftermath will take a toll on India’s cordial relations with Bangladesh. Dhaka, under Shiekh Hasina, has been an exemplary friend to India. At the end of the process of upgrading the NRC, what happens to those branded as foreigners, who must be repatriated? Dhaka’s position is that there is no illegal influx of Bangladeshis into India — that it will accept only those who New Delhi can prove are illegal immigrants.

So, what happens to these people? Will they become like the stateless Rohingyas of Myanmar who nobody wants to touch?

The NRC may just trigger a major humanitarian and diplomatic crisis in future.

The writer Seema Guha is a freelance journalist | @seemaguha1

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The above articles have been reproduced here for educational and non commercial use