An exercise in futility

A fact-based analysis of the population may prove that Assam’s illegal immigrant problem is more a myth than reality

By Author Geetartha Pathak   |   Published: 12th Jun 2019   12:05 am Updated: 11th Jun 2019   9:54 pm

The ongoing updation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the excessive workload on Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam have resulted in many people being put in detention centres. According to government figures, 938 foreigners are held in six such centres, and 823 of them have been declared as illegal immigrants by the tribunals. In the past month alone, 125 such people have been put in detention centres. Others are languishing there for over seven-eight years. Noticeably, 70% of the detainees are Muslims.

Though the tribunals have declared many people as foreigners, the state neither has the capacity to trace them nor it can accommodate all of them in the detention centres. The Supreme Court had to allow them to go on personal bond and asked them to be periodically present in police stations.

The arrest and detention of Mohammed Sanaullah, who retired from the Army as an honorary Captain in August 2017, drew the attention of the nation after he was declared an illegal migrant. The detention of Sanaullah, a Kargil war veteran who served the Army for 30 years from 1987 to 2017, created a furore in Assam. It also put a question mark over the credibility of the Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam.

Forged Signatures

There are 100 Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam and the Home Ministry has decided to set up 1,000 more, as the release of the final list of NRC is expected on July 31 this year. In many cases, the witnesses shown by the investigating officers said that their signatures in the statements were forged.

Under the Foreigners Act, 1946, the onus of proof of one’s citizenship rests on the person. If for some reasons, one’s nationality comes into question, s/he is liable to be booked under the Foreigners Act, 1946, enacted for
determination and expulsion of foreigners. However, in the case of NRC, the status of the entire population of Assam has come under the scanner and everyone has to prove her/his citizenship by submitting documents listed by the NRC authority. It is a colossal task to examine sets of documents required for proving one’s citizenship.

In Other Democracies

No country asks all its citizens to prove their nationality. The NRC is being updated in Assam to find out how many illegal migrants are there in the State. In doing so, the entire people are forced to prove their nationality by submitting relevant documents. This is being done on the presumption that there are huge numbers of foreign nationals living in Assam by illegally entering and residing in India.

BJP president Amit Shah, now holding the portfolio of Home Minister, has said that illegal infiltrators in crores had entered the country and like termites, they have eaten the future of the country. The leaders of Assam agitation (180-1985) then claimed that there were 4 to 5 million Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam. Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia on July 11, 2017, said there were around 70 lakh Muslim Bangladeshis living in Assam who should be identified and deported to Bangladesh.

Questionable Figures

Inconsistency in figuring the number of illegal immigrants from Bangladeshi in Assam has its root in their degree of religious tolerance and political outlook. The fact is there are 10.6 million Muslims in Assam, of which 2 million are indigenous Assamese and Hindi-speaking Muslims. Around 8 million are of East Bengal origin, of which 3 million have identified themselves as Assamese-speaking and 5 million are Bengali-speaking. Clause 6 A of the Citizenship Act practically accords Indian citizenship to all those who migrated to Assam from erstwhile East Pakistan on or before March 25, 1974. The Muslim population in Assam as per the 1971 census was 35,94,006.

On the other hand, those born in India on or before July 1, 1987, are Indian citizens by birth even though their parents are foreign nationals. From July 1, 1987, to December 2, 2004, one is legally an Indian citizen even if either of her/his parent isn’t Indian citizen at the time of one’s birth. If we count the Muslim population taking almost 3.6 million of them as Indian citizens in 1971 with an average decadal growth of population in Assam of 20%, the changes in the Citizenship Act and the population of indigenous Muslims, the 10.6 million Muslim populations in Assam is not quite explosive as projected by the Hindu nationalists. An unbiased fact-based analysis of the population figures and its growth may prove that the illegal immigrant problem of Assam is more a myth than reality.

Unending Controversy

Already almost 50% of the Assam government’s employees are engaged exclusively in NRC preparation spending hundreds of crores of rupees. The government has to appoint over 12,000 staff to run Foreigners’ Tribunals.

However, controversies relating to harassment of genuine citizens indicate that this mammoth exercise may not be possible within the stipulated time.

Members of a number of nationalistic organisations have lodged complaints against Muslims and also Hindu Bengalis in bulk but they do not appear on the day of the hearing. Assam NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela told the Supreme Court on May 8 that for reasons not known, objectors were not appearing for hearings of objections they had filed regarding inclusion of some names in the draft NRC.

Former Governor of Assam Lt Gen SK Sinha in his famous report to the President of India on the problem of foreign nationals of Assam conceded that: our capability to identify and deport over ten million such people is questionable. In these circumstances, the deportation of these illegal migrants is not a practical proposition.

The present NRC controversies rightly reflect the candid observation of the former Governor.

(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)