There is an urgent need for protective legislations which can bar illegal immigrants from acquiring land and enjoying other government benefits.
The process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam as a means to identify illegal immigrants from Bangladesh has reached its final stage with the first draft being published recently. While this exercise is intended to put an end the uncertainty over citizenship status of a large number of migrants, it will however leave a number issues unresolved. This is primarily because the identification of foreigners is being carried out on the basis of a cut-off date of 25 March 1971 and in the intervening period of 46 years, an additional 50 to 80 lakh infiltrators entered Assam, according to the government’s replies to questions in Parliament.
To make matters worse, the validity of the cut-off date is under challenge and pending hearing of a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court. The moot point is: will the NRC update process help protect the state’s indigenous population from becoming minority since three independent studies project that between 2040 and 2051, the indigenous people will be reduced to minority due to the influx from the Bangladesh.
The six-year-old Assam agitation ended with the signing of the ‘Assam Accord’ in 1985 between the Centre, Assam government and the organisations leading the movement. Under the terms of this Accord, Assam agreed to take the burden of 23 years of illegal migrants — those entering the state from the erstwhile East Pakistan/Bangladesh up to 25 March, 1971.
For the rest of India, including the neighbouring states of Assam in Northeast, the cut-off date for grant of citizenship is 19 July, 1948. For instance, any foreigner caught on the Meghalaya border has to prove his domicile prior to 19 July, 1948. The NRC update will make Assam include all the migrants coming to the state up to 27 March, 1971 and exclude those coming thereafter.
This entire process is fraught with multiple complications. Firstly, the issue of the cutoff date — whether it should be 19 July, 1948 or 27 March, 1971 — is pending before a constitution bench of the top court. Another contentious issue is citizenship for children born to migrants who entered Assam after 25 March 1971. Also, in the absence of an extradition treaty with Bangladesh, the status of those excluded from the NRC will be uncertain with a large number of foreigners continuing to remain in India.
As a measure of identifying foreigners, the NRC process is far from ideal. Ideally, foreigners need to be identified directly, rather than filtering out of the genuine citizens. This process enables everyone, including suspected migrants, to apply for being included in the NRC. If the verification process is lax, then foreigners can become citizens. This apprehension has been raised by a large number of residents, who have alleged use of fake documents by many applicants.
The correctness of the verification process can be gauged from the number of persons excluded. If it is in the range of 50 to 80 lakhs — the estimate given by the present NDA government — then it can be said to be a fair verification process.
In addition, even those excluded from the list do not automatically become foreigners unless declared by a Foreigners’ Tribunal. The persons excluded will have the right to challenge their exclusion before the tribunal.
The NRC, therefore, by itself is not a foolproof measure to protect the state’s indigenous population. Additional measures are required to stop migration from Bangladesh given that any migration has an economic dimension to it. Measures should also be undertaken to bar illegal immigrants from acquiring land and other benefits by the government.
In other words, the government can come up with protective legislation for local population in Assam in terms of reserving resources like land, employment and other benefits. It is because of such legislations that the rest of the Northeast is relatively free from the problem of illegal immigrants.
In fact, as a court commissioner appointed by the Supreme Court to furnish a report on the India-Bangladesh border I had in 2015 recommended protective legislation — only those who are citizens of India and residents of Assam on the basis of the 1951 cut-off year and their progeny should be allowed to buy and sell land. This, in addition to the NRC update, will comprehensively ensure that indigenous people don’t become a minority in their own land.
Upamanyu Hazarika is senior advocate and convener, Prabajan Virodhi Manch.