India cannot turn its back on its Muslim population
The rhetoric of an imminent expulsion of the so-called illegal migrants from neighbouring state of Assam in India has been on the horizon for many years. For last few years, this rhetoric from Assam politicians has been morphing into a threat giving rise to a fear in Bangladesh if the threat should turn into a reality.
Until recently, that is the publication of draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam which excluded approximately four million of Assam residents out of a total of 33 million from the register, the cry for ouster of the so-called illegal residents was really rhetorical.
The genesis of this cry is in the historic Assam movement by Assamese students against illegal migration that lasted over six years (1979-84) targeting actually Bengali migrants from then East Bengal (later East Pakistan and then Bangladesh) over decades of years.
Although much of this migration had taken place at the behest of the British overlords because Assam was under-populated with vast cultivable lands -- Assam has since been divided into six states -- the resentment of the Assamese students was mostly directed to relatively newer migrants, especially after March 1971.
The agitations somewhat ceased after the famous Assam Accord, with central government intervention in 1985 that called for a cut-off date of 1966 for all migrants into Assam, and detection and deportation of migrants into Assam from anywhere after that year.
The implementation of the Assam Accord was not transparent, and in most cases not feasible for political reasons. For one thing, Assam had and still has the highest Muslim population among Indian states (about 34% now). Nine of Assam’s 32 districts ARE Muslim majority.
Since a large chunk of the so-called illegals comprised Muslims, their detection and deportation from mostly Muslim districts posed a political problem for the parties that drew their votes from the Muslim population. Second, for much of its history, Assam government has been formed by the Indian Congress which has a secular approach to politics, and has drawn support from Muslims. Until last elections in 2016, when BJP won majority seats in Assam Assembly, the issue of detection and deportation of illegal migrants was not on the front-burner of the Assamese government.
BJP had made immigration and the fight against illegal migrants a major election issue in 2016. It won majority seats in Assamese state elections, keeping implementation of Assam Accord of 1985 a central issue. However, implementation of “detection and deportation” of illegals was not a straight law and order issue. It was more complicated than that.
The resolution of this thorny subject came in the form of NRC that gave the Assamese government a “legal” way to identify the illegals. Although NRC was first established in 1951 and has continued in its original state all over India, the impetus for its update came from a Supreme Court mandate in 2015. The BJP-formed government in Assam found it convenient to be one of the first states in India to update the NRC in Assam, and in that process, throw out about four million of its residents from the register. Unfortunately, almost all of those who fell out of NRC happened to be Muslims. Where are these unlucky people to be sent? Bangladesh? Pakistan?
Just because people did not find their names in NRC, that does not mean they are illegals. It turned out that many of those excluded from NRC had close relatives (parents, children, uncles) in the register. It is reported that family members of an ex-president of India were excluded from the list. There are other similar instances where some members of a family were put in the register and others not.
The whole commotion over this NRC and fear of an imminent ouster or deportation of four million residents would not have occurred had these residents not all been Muslims. A suspicion genuinely arises in the mind of those affected by this publication of NRC and in neighbouring Bangladesh (which is still dealing with the Rohingya crisis) that this is a targeted action against a minority.
Both the Assam government and the central government in India have declared that the current list is not final, and that there is a process of appeal by which those left out can still have an opportunity to establish their claim to citizenship. Whether it is rectified by appeal or by an act of indemnity it is still difficult to imagine that this exclusion of such a large section of population from citizenship can happen only by accident, and the state legislators are watching this silently.
Of the 132 members in Assam Legislative Assembly, 28 are Muslim, and except two, they all belong to other political parties. At least these legislators ought to stand up and demand a through and transparent registration process and citizenship criteria that obviate any dubious process to eliminate people based on religion.
Currently there is a bill before the Indian parliament seeking amendment to Indian Citizenship Act of 1955. A key amendment in the bill seeks to grant citizenship to people without valid documents from minority communities -- Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians -- from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan after six years of residence in India.
But this bill does not please the Assamese because it will allow Hindu migrants from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971 legal status in Assam. In other words, if Muslims can be excluded now, Hindus from Bangladesh can be excluded also later, if the amendment does not happen.
It is conceivable that the Assam government will reverse its policy and revise the NRC to include those left out of NRC and allay the fears of its citizens. It is also conceivable that the central government will intervene and ask the state government for a compromise for the greater good of the country. What is inconceivable, however, is the deportation of 40 million of Indian citizens on spurious charges of illegal migration after decades of residency in the country.
India is a vast country that is home to just not Hindus, but Muslims who account for nearly fifteen percent of its population. Its Muslim population is the third highest in the world. Turning away or disenfranchisement of a vast number of this population will be politically wrong and suicidal.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.