In case millions of people in Assam are registered as ‘stateless’ in the current exercise to update the list of Indian citizens, India may well face in its most sensitive Northeast region a massive problem similar to that involving the Rohingya people in Bangladesh.
Fears of an impending revival of deadly ethnic violence has grown among people with non-Assamese ethnicity following some recent reports in the Assam-based media.
When the first updated list of Indian citizens living in Assam was published in January this year, 1.90 crore people found their names ‘cleared,‘ out of a total population of around 3.20 crore. This has prompted a fear of exclusion among the people who remain unlisted.
However, the central and state authorities took no time to announce that only the first draft of the ongoing exercise for the upgradation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) had been published. All the relevant documents are still being scrutinized. There is no reason to fear that anyone would be left out without a proper inquiry.
A second, and if necessary, other lists would be published. Even later, the unlisted people would get the scope to appeal through legal channels and press for a re-examination of their status.
Meanwhile, the Indian Supreme Court, which ordered the new census, has also instructed authorities that the final list should be ready for submission by June this year.
The first list has already raised certain concerns. It showed that most exclusions had occurred in the three Bangla speaking Barak valley districts along the India-Bangladesh border.
There was at least one reported suicide. And many complained against what seems to be a targeted ommission of some sections of people.
Several prominent Muslim leaders, former and serving ministers, were apparently left out, as were some Hindu leaders.
The commonality is that most are Bangla-speaking people.
In sharp contrast, known non-residents like some ULFA leaders were included, along with other insurgents who have been out of India for years.
Now there are reports that the authorities have divided the people being recounted in several categories, depending on the strength of their documentation, to prove their claim as citizens.
Apart from normal records like proof of land possession or tenancy, residence, school or college certificates, documents issued by local panchayat (village council) leaders are being accepted officially.
There are problems where some Assam residents, to prove their Indian roots, have mentioned the addresses of their relatives in other Indian states. These claims are also being checked.
However, it seems that claims made by about 16,00,000 people are being examined with special care.
Most in this group are second or third generation people, descendants of migrants who came to Assam ages ago. The main objection is that the documents about their parents are questionable.
Naturally such reports have led to fresh tensions in the Barak valley, both among Hindus and Muslims.
The former still have hope. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had assured them in pre-election speeches – both during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the 2016 State Assemly polls – that they would not be repatriated.
However, for ‘other illegal infiltrators (read Muslims),’ the message was that ‘they would have to pack their bags and leave.’
Indeed, by pandering to the Hindu sentiment as well as hardline Assamese resistance against the said migration of people from Bangladesh, Modi had seen his party catapult to power for the first time in the biggest state in the NE region.
Present Chief Minister SarbanandaSonowal, before joining the BJP, had been a hardline All Assam Students Union(AASU) activist which survived on a hardline view against immigration from Bangladesh.
No wonder people in the Barak valley are worried about such reports and trends. Many people are naturally wondering, what will happen to people identified as ‘non-citizens without documentation?’
Any repatriation to Bangladesh is out of question. Bangladesh does not accept India’s claim that millions of its people had migrated illegally to Assam or other Indian states. It normally asks for proper identification and documentation to establish whether someone really belongs to Bangladesh, whenever Indian authorities try to push back people identified as ‘infiltrators without papers.’
Therefore those without papers and to be called ‘non-citizens’ would have to remain only in Indian territory, whether their number is in lakhs or millions. As Chief Minister Sonowal has declared, they would not enjoy normal citizens’ rights to purchase land, secure employment, or education. However, on humanitarian grounds, they would be entitled to food , shelter and safety.
This sounds exactly like the arrangements that have been worked out by Bangladesh, Myanmar and international agencies for the ‹statelessRohingyas’ of the Rakhine valley. They live in special segregated camps, with the help of Bangladesh and some international assistance.
The possibility of a Rohingya-type refugee problem arising out of the Assam NRC updating exercise has been dealt with in articles in the Kolkata-based Bangla language media already. It remains to be seen how the centre and the Assam government deal with the situation after June, 2018.
The position taken by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee will also be important. She called on India to accept Rohingyas as refugees on humanitarian grounds. She has already opposed the NRC exercise, saying that this was nothing but the old scheme to drive Bangalees out of Assam, warning that Bengal would never accept such decisions.
The state BJP has concerns that for vote bank considerations Ms Banerjee might accept the new ‘stateless’ people from Assam and set up camps for them in North Bengal. Already there are demands within the BJP state unit that such an NRC upgradation exercise should be held in West Bengal too, to detect the number of illegal migrants living in India – presumably to forestall any populist move from the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
The question arises, has the central government bitten off more than it can chew in ordering the NRC upgradation in Assam? Is it prepared to face and handle all the regional complications that are likely to develop? Internationally, there is now a rising clamour that the Rohingyas must be given an autonomous territory within the Rakihine province itself. Will Assam be prepared to do the same for its about-to–be stateless citizens?