The Indian government appears to have developed a careful doublespeak on the National Register of Citizens, recently updated in Assam and on the cards for the rest of the country.
In Assam, 19 lakh people have been excluded from the updated register which is meant to be a list of “genuine” Indian citizens. If they fail to prove their citizenship at foreigners tribunals, quasi-judicial bodies tasked with settling matters of disputed nationality, they will be declared foreigners. Most of those excluded, anecdotal evidence suggests, are Bengali speakers, viewed with suspicion in Assam as “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh.
Yet, as Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Delhi last week, she was assured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the NRC should not worry them – it was an “internal matter” for India.
A recent right to information application filed by Scroll.in also revealed that the ministry of external affairs had not held any talks with Bangladesh about the deportation of those declared foreigners in Assam. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has also trotted out the “internal matter” line.
This is curious because, for about a year now, Union home minister Amit Shah has been proclaiming that a nationwide NRC would help detect “infiltrators”, or “termites”, as he put it, who would then be deported. Addressing political rallies in West Bengal just a few days ago, he vowed that the NRC would be used to eject “intruders” from the state. He assured all non-Muslim “refugees”, however, that they would not be forced to leave.
The Modi government seems to be torn between conflicting impulses. The prime minister takes pride in being the foreign policy wizard who can improve India’s standing in the West and assert its dominance in the neighbourhood. It is a role which requires temperate language and the veneer of democratic principles. But this is also a government of ‘chowkidaars’, patrolling the borders of the nation and muscling out “enemies within” to purify the body politic of a Hindu state. Increasingly, the role of saffron strongman has been outsourced to Shah.
The resulting tensions seemed to be reflected in Bangladesh foreign secretary Shahidul Haque’s statement to the press on October 5: “Our relationship is best of the best at present. But at the same time we are keeping our eyes open.”
India’s assurances to Hasina are particularly disingenuous because the whole exercise of updating the NRC so far has been conducted with an eye on Bangladesh. The repercussions of Partition meant that for decades after Independence, riots and wars triggered waves of migration across the eastern border. The terms of Assam’s NRC allude to these historical circumstances.
To make it to the NRC in Assam, applicants had to prove that they or their ancestors had moved to the country before midnight on March 24, 1971, or the eve of the Bangladesh War. In the modalities for the NRC, Bangladesh is “specified territory”, the primary source of unwanted migrants.
For instance, last year, the Supreme Court approved a standard operating procedure for the 40 lakh who had been left out of the draft NRC and had to make fresh claims for inclusion. The document says:
“Citizens of India who originate from other states in India and who do not have any origin in Specified Territory (Bangladesh) and have moved to State of Assam prior to 24th March, 1971 or after, will be included in the NRC if the citizenship of such persons is ascertained beyond reasonable doubt to the satisfaction of the authorities disposing of claims and objections.”
Bengal is the next testing ground for the NRC because the border state is believed to have a large number of immigrants from Bangladesh and Shah himself has name-checked the country in his speeches.
Refugees or infiltrators?
India also deployed a careful doublespeak on Myanmar’s Rohingya, most of whom are Muslim and described by the United Nations as the “most persecuted minority in the world”. India recognises the Rohingya who have moved to Bangladesh as refugees. But in India, they are called infiltrators and terror threats.
For decades, they have fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, seeking refuge in countries like India and Bangladesh. Over seven lakh Rohingya refugees fled a fresh bout of state violence in 2017. Most of them took refuge in camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.
Bangladesh signed a repatriation deal signed with Myanmar, but that has made little headway so far. The Myanmar government has given no assurance of granting citizenship to those who return. It has not even shown signs of ensuring a safe environment for the returning Rohingya, as it was mandated to do under the deal.
As the Hasina government grows impatient to send back refugees, it has India’s support. Both Hasina and Modi agreed to help the Rohingya return to their homes in safety, and pressure the Myanmar government into creating the necessary conditions. However imperfect this arrangement, it recognises the Rohingya as refugees deserving of protection. The Indian government even assured humanitarian aid to the refugees in Cox’s Bazar.
Yet India routinely threatens to deport the 40,000 Rohingya refugees living within its borders, even though it has no repatriation deal with Myanmar, and the government recently argued before the court that they were “illegal immigrants”, not refugees.
While the government proposes to amend the Citizenship Act to accommodate persecuted religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it resolutely ignores the Rohingya. Indeed, it ignores all Muslim minorities, such as Ahmadiyas and Shias, who have faced violence in both Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Who is a foreigner?
If the government is hazy about the term “refugee”, it has turned the word “foreigner” into an abstraction. While some undocumented migrants may have moved from Bangladesh to India in recent years, reports on the NRC and the tribunals in Assam suggest most of those declared non-citizens or foreigners have lived in India for decades, if not generations.
To prove citizenship, individuals had to provide documents spanning several decades, in a country that has always been patchy on record-keeping. Even if these records existed, claims to citizenship were dismissed for the smallest clerical errors. In the tribunals, thousands were declared foreigners in ex parte judgments, without being given the chance to defend themselves, in some cases, without even knowing they were under investigation.
So far, the mechanisms to detect illegal immigrants have proved extraordinarily efficient in creating foreigners – not people who belong to another country but people who cannot prove their existence to the satisfaction of the Indian state.
If those declared foreigners are not to be deported to Bangladesh after they have exhausted all legal options, what does the government plan to do with them?
New detention centres are to be opened in Assam and Karnataka. The Maharashtra government has reportedly identified land for another centre in Navi Mumbai. But in Assam alone, close to two million people face statelessness. That is several times the size of India’s prison population in 2016, which was 4,33,033, and Indian jails are severely overcrowded. A nationwide NRC could exclude many millions more.
Another option reportedly considered by the Centre was handing out work permits, which would let those finally declared foreigners live and work in the country, even if they were stripped of political rights. It is a proposal chillingly reminiscent of the “white cards” or temporary registration certificates handed out to the Rohingya in Myanmar, which indicated their citizenship was in doubt.
Several dystopic proposals have been floated but, over a month after Assam’s final NRC was published, the government is yet to reveal an official plan to deal with this pressing “internal matter”.
Not surprisingly, the lack of a clear policy has not stopped the home minister. Once again, his answer to the deadlock is violent expulsion – “pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal”. It is to be hoped that this is mere rhetoric.