TheNee­dle’sEye

The Economic Times - - Pure Politics - CHAI­TANYA KALBAG

The is­sue of cit­i­zen­ship in In­dia has been ren­dered very com­plex by a thicket of laws, rules and ex­ec­u­tive fi­ats. Ar­ti­cle 6 of the Con­sti­tu­tion says any­body from East or West Pak­istan who en­ters In­dia af­ter July 19, 1948 must ap­ply for cit­i­zen­ship. Cit­i­zen­ship is also gov­erned by the For­eign­ers Act of 1946, the Pass­port Act of 1952, and the Cit­i­zen­ship Act of 1956. Be­sides nat­u­ral­i­sa­tion, un­til Jan­uary 1, 1987, ev­ery per­son born in In­dia was au­to­mat­i­cally con­ferred cit­i­zen­ship. Then the rules changed and un­til De­cem­ber 3, 2004, at least one par­ent had to be a cit­i­zen for a baby to be In­dian. Af­ter that date, if one par­ent was an il­le­gal im­mi­grant the child would not be el­i­gi­ble for cit­i­zen­ship.

It was al­most inevitable that the 1979-85 ag­i­ta­tion against il­le­gal Mus­lim­im­mi­grantswoul­derupt­like a pu­trid boil on Ass­sam’s fer­tile land­scape. Cen­sus fig­ures show that the state’s pop­u­la­tion leapt by 36 per cent be­tween 1951 and 1961 and by 35 per cent in the next decade. The As­sam Ac­cord that was signed by Prime Min­is­ter Ra­jiv Gandhi with the All As­sam Stu­dents Union and the All As­sam Gana San­gram Par­ishad on Au­gust 15, 1985 ended the ag­i­ta­tion, but it laid down a com­plex for­mula that has been near-im­pos­si­ble to im­ple­ment in the three decades since.

The Ac­cord said all res­i­dents of As­sam who en­tered the state un­til Jan­uary 1, 1966 would be ‘reg­u­larised’. Those who came be­tween 1966 and 25 March 1971 would be dis­en­fran­chised for ten years. It said “For­eign­ers who came to As­sam on or af­ter March 25, 1971 shall con­tinue to be de­tected, deleted and ex­pelled in ac­cor­dance with law.”

The re­al­ity is that be­tween 1985 and 2012, ac­cord­ing to an As­sam gov­ern­ment white pa­per, only 2,442 il­le­gal im­mi­grants from Bangladesh had been­ex­pelled­fromthes­tate. The­cen­tral home min­istry said in 2004 it esti- mated a to­tal of five mil­lion il­le­gal im­mi­grants in As­sam.

That num­ber could be a lot higher. As­sam’s pop­u­la­tion rose to 31.2 mil­lion in 2011, a 17.1 per cent rise from 2001. Aditya Langth­asa, a doc­tor and the state leg­is­la­tor for Ho­jai, scoffed at the idea of il­le­gal mi­gra­tion of Mus­lims­fromBangladesh. “Itistrue that Mus­lims are not very good at prac­tis­ing fam­ily plan­ning,” he said, ex­plain­ing their rise in num­bers. Langth­asa is the work­ing pres­i­dent of the All In­dia United Demo­cratic Front (AIUDF), the big­gest Mus­lim party in As­sam and the main op­po­si­tion party in the leg­is­la­ture.

A de­fin­i­tive an­swer on the num­ber of il­le­gal im­mi­grants in As­sam will be pro­duced by the Na­tional Regis­ter of Cit­i­zens. This is only the sec­ond time in the past 65 years that the cit­i­zens’ regis­ter is be­ing up­dated, and only in the state of As­sam. The 1951 NRC repli­cated in­de­pen­dent In­dia’s first cen­sus, which was a count of all present whether they were cit­i­zens or not. At that time As­sam’s pop­u­la­tion was eight mil­lion. When the As­sam gov­ern­ment car­ried out a pi­lot NRC in three tehsils, or vil­lage clus­ters, in 2010, there was vi­o­lence af­ter the All As­sam Mi­nor­ity Stu­dents Union protested.

In­dia’s Supreme Court has had to stepin­morethanon­ce­to­cut­through As­sam’s Gor­dian knot. The Il­le­gal M igran ts (De­tec­tion by Tri­bunals) Act of 1983 put the onus of prov­ing the il­le­gal­ity of a mi­grant on the com­plainant, while In­dia’s For­eign­ers Act re­quires the ac­cused to prove his or her right to In­dian cit­i­zen­ship. In a scathing 2005 judg­ment, the Supreme Court said the leg­is­la­tion hin­dered de­por­ta­tions of il­le­gal for­eign­ers from As­sam. Cit­ing gov­ern­ment data, the court noted that be­tween 1971 and 2000, of a to­tal of 310,759 com­plaints about cit­i­zen­ship, only 1,481 il­le­gal mi­grants had been phys­i­cally ex­pelled from In­dia.

More re­cently, the court clubbed to­gether three writ pe­ti­tions from 2009, 2012 and 2014, and in Oc­to­ber 2014 or­dered that work on the NRC be com­pleted by Jan­uary 31, 2016. On July 21 last year, the Supreme Court went much fur­ther. It in­voked Ar­ti­cle 144 of the Con­sti­tu­tion, which states baldly: “All au­thor­i­ties, civil and judi- cial, in the ter­ri­tory of In­dia shall act in aid of the Supreme Court.” In other words, the court is now di­rectly mon­i­tor­ing, for the first time in In­dia’s his­tory, the enu­mer­a­tion of cit­i­zensi­nonepartof In­dia,al­though the ac­tual work is done by the Regis­trar General of In­dia us­ing the re­source­sof theAs­sam­gov­ern­ment. The man who has been asked to hold the hot po­tato of de­cid­ing who is, or is not, a le­git­i­mate res­i­dent of As­sam is Prateek Ha­jela, a 46-yearold In­dian Ad­min­is­tra­tive Ser­vice of­fi­cer based in Guwa­hati. “It is a huge task, but we will en­sure that no for­eigner is left un­de­tected. No­body will be able to cast as­per­sions on our find­ings,” says Ha­jela, the NRC’s State Co­or­di­na­tor, who started work in Septem­ber 2013 and whose team has grown to 1,000 peo­ple. In ad­di­tion, about 55,000 As­sam gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees are work­ing part­time on up­dat­ing the NRC, helped by 8,000 data oper­a­tors con­tracted by Wipro, the soft­ware com­pany.

Thenum­ber­saredaunt­ing. Ha­jela’s team is sift­ing through ‘legacy data’ for 20.5 mil­lion peo­ple. Close to 67 mil­lion doc­u­ments re­lat­ing to res­i­dents of As­sam be­tween the 1951 NRC and vot­ers’ rolls up to the mid­night of March 24, 1971 are be­ing scanned, digi­tised and the data cleansed. Peo­ple on those lists and their ver­i­fied de­scen­dants will be recog­nised as In­dian cit­i­zens.

This huge bat­tal­ion of sleuths is us­ing com­puter tech­nol­ogy like never be­fore in de­ter­min­ing the fates of ‘for­eign­ers’ in As­sam. They will carry out back-end ver­i­fi­ca­tion of moun­tains of doc­u­ments that are hand­writ­ten, many yel­low­ing and c r um­bling when p i cke d up. Elab­o­rate fam­ily trees have been con­structed. Ha­jela says his team has had to ferret out forged birth cer­tifi­cates, of­ten by iden­ti­fy­ing com­plicit hos­pi­tals. Some­times a le­git­i­mate pre-1971 Mus­lim res­i­dent of As­sam will have the names of as many as 50 ‘chil­dren’ linked to his. ‘Sib­lings’ are found to be un­re­lated. “We’ve found men who had one wife but one child born in Jan­uary and one in Fe­bru­ary,” Ha­jela says. Some­times a Mus­lim vil­lager liv­ing in the plains of cen­tral As­sam will pro­duce a birth cer­tifi­cate from Na­ga­land. The lengths to which il­le­gal im­mi­grants have gone to ob­tain pa­pers seem lim­it­less. The NRC will not be enough to douse the fires, says Upa­manyu Hazarika, a Supreme Court lawyer whose mav­er­ick Praba­jan Virodhi Manch ( o r Fo r u m A g a i n s t In­fil­tra­tion) has waged a re­lent­less cam­paign, col­lect­ing about half a mil­lion sig­na­tures across 12 con­stituen­cies to ex­pel aliens and re­serve prized farm­land for ‘eth­nic’ As­samese. Hazarika gives an ex­am­ple. Ac­cord­ing to a gov­ern­ment re­ply to a Right to In­for­ma­tion query, 77,420 bighas of state land in the Si­pa­jhar area in Dar­rang dis­trict, just across the Brahma­pu­tra from the cap­i­tal Guwa­hati, have been oc­cu­pied by il­le­gal mi­grants. Of this, 3,000 bighas con­sisted of pro­fes­sional graz­ing ar­eas where no hu­man habi­ta­tion is per­mit­ted. In 1994, a to­tal of 199 fam­i­lies squat­ting on the graz­ing land on the grounds that they were af­fected by floods were or­dered to get out. The squat­ters not only stayed put: the gov­ern­ment even built 12 schools on the graz­ing land.

Ver­i­fi­ca­tion of the NRC data will be­gin af­ter the re­sults of the April elec­tions are an­nounced. Three or four months from then, the new As­sam gov­ern­ment will be pre­sented with the up­dated NRC – a timebomb of po­ten­tially huge pro­port i ons t hat will s t ar t t i ck­ing im­me­di­ately: how do you then go about de­port­ing so many peo­ple to Bangladesh? This ques­tion will haunt the next As­sam gov­ern­ment.

The lengths to which il­le­gal im­mi­grants have gone to ob­tain pa­pers seem lim­it­less

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