Dilemmas of citizenship

The Central and state governments’ elaborate security arrangements before the second draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published on Monday indicates the deeply troubling nature of this Supreme Court-ordered exercise. As such, it is unlikely to solve the 40-year-old controversy over Indian identity. The exercise, the first since 1951, aims to establish Indian citizenship with the cut-off date being March 1971, in accordance with a 1985 accord signed between the government of India and the leaders of the Assam movement. The state’s experience of the issue of updating the NRC — Assam is the first state to conduct this exercise — yields more questions than answers. For one, it is increasingly being seen as a means of disenfranchising Muslims, who account for a third of the state’s 32-odd million people, under the guise of evicting Bangladeshi refugees. Indeed, the appalling plight of the 900-odd inmates of detention camps, who have been deemed “foreigners” by the statutory foreigners’ tribunal, offers an ominous portent of what’s in store for those who lack the documentation to prove their citizenship. Some of the detainees have been incarcerated for a decade, separated from their families and children, and denied basic civic rights, a bleaker replication of immigrant detention centres on the US-Mexican border.

In the draft NRC, some 4 million people have been left out of the list, and some of them have been born in India and know no other country. The government has assured those excluded that they have no reason to panic because they can appeal to the foreigners’ tribunal and that no one would be put in detention centres. These assurances are unlikely to assuage doubts. Will the tribunals have the wherewithal to decide 4 million cases before the 2019 elections, when it has taken years to verify the existing lists? Second, what happens to those whose appeals are turned down? In the absence of a deportation agreement with Bangladesh, which is unlikely to accept these migrants in any case, it is hard to escape the notion that these “stateless” people will be herded into detention camps. Even if it is assumed, on the most optimistic estimate, that only a third of the applicants are found ineligible, that still leaves over 1 million people to house and feed — that too, at the state’s expense. It is worth wondering whether this is the image India wants to project to the world.

Bolstering the apprehensions is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016, which proposes to change the definition of illegal migrants, a key element of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2014 election manifesto. The amendment seeks to provide citizenship to illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh of Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain or Parsi origin. Notably, Muslims are excluded. The Bill has been condemned by the Opposition, including BJP allies in Assam. The government urgently needs to transcend the emotive rhetoric and explore practical solutions to a festering issue. Writing in the Economic and Political Weekly, human rights activist Sanjay Hazarika has argued for the need for work permits that do not grant an alien settlement rights but allow him or her to move freely for labour. This may not be the perfect solution but is a more acceptable alternative to demanding retrospective proof of citizenship with all its attendant iniquities.