OPINION
OPINION

Citizen Register – Is India Going The Myanmar Way?

As final Assam National Register of Citizens is released, leaving 1.9 million people stateless and homeless, a massive humanitarian tragedy is likely to confront the state

A time bomb is ticking in Assam as the state braces to cope with the fall-out from the final publication of the National Registrar of Citizens released on August 31. A massive humanitarian tragedy may confront the state as roughly 1.9 million people are likely to become stateless and homeless. The figure is from the final NRC which was released on August 31.

Is India now going the Myanmar way? The Muslim Rohingyas are stateless with no rights. Time and again they are attacked and have no access to either government health care or any other facilities provided for ordinary citizens. The plight of the Rohingya refugees have caught the imagination of the world. India risks the same outrage from the international community, unless it has thought through what it aims to do. Kashmir is already in focus. Add the plight of four million stateless people and Delhi will have a major human rights problem in hand. Will the rest of the world be as accommodating as they have been so far with Kashmir?

Neither the Centre nor the Assam government have given a clue of what they intend to do with this mass of people whose lives are being torn apart. It has been a haphazard exercise ridden with mistakes. That could be overlooked considering the huge numbers. Yet as people are at the centre of the NRC, mistakes take a deadly toll on individuals and families. There are several instances reported of the grandparents considered as Indian citizens while the sons and daughters are blacklisted as foreigners. Much depends on the official behind the desk who has enormous powers over these hapless individuals. Time and again the BJP government, both at the Centre and the state have assured people that they have the  right to appeal and that not a single genuine citizen need worry. But assurances on paper and what happens on the ground are two different things.

 Where will these people be kept? At the moment Assam has six detention camps that operate out of make-shift facilities in local prisons in Goal Para, Dibrugarh, Silcher, Tezpur, Jorhat and Kokrajhar. According to reports 10 more are going to be built. But when? And what happens to them after Saturday? According to reports in the local newspapers, Assam’s first stand-alone detention centre is being constructed in the border district of Goalpara, which will be able to keep 3,000 people. But that is a drop in the ocean considering the numbers.

 As most of the stateless are allegedly from neighbouring Bangladesh, has Dhaka been consulted? Has Sheikh Hasina’s government agreed to take back at least some of these detainees? Nobody knows. Delhi is keeping its cards close to its chest. When foreign minister S Jaishankar was in Dhaka earlier this month and asked at a news conference about the NRC, he said it was India’s internal problem and he would not answer any questions on the process.

In the past Bangladesh had said that they would take back those people who had relevant papers to show they were from that country. A majority of the stateless are poor, illiterate peasants who have no papers to prove their identity. India has excellent relations with Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government. Delhi is unlikely to do anything to upset that equation.

But what will the government do with the four million alleged foreigners. For one it is impossible to keep them under detention indefinitely. People of Assam are happy that finally foreign nationals have been identified. They have long struggled for this. The student’s agitation in the late 70s was all about protecting the identity of the local Assamese. The 1985 Assam Accord had promised to identify foreigners and deport them. Not much had happened however. The fear of being reduced to a minority in their own homes is something that has haunted the Assamese for decades. The fear was that Assam would be the second Muslim majority state after Kashmir. Ironically with the abrogation of article 370 and 35 A of the constitution, which forbids “outsiders’’ from other Indian states from buying land in the state is now no longer applicable. Kashmiris worry that in a couple of decades, the state will no longer have a Muslim majority.  Ironically in Assam the government is proposing to ensure that the Assamese majority keep their status intact.   

The only way out to deal with the alleged foreigners is to allow people to remain but ensure that they have no voting rights. This will assuage the Assamese that illegal voters will not have a say in the elections. There is concern in the local BJP unit in Assam that as much as 40 percent of the foreigners identified are Hindu Bengalis from former East Pakistan and current Bangladesh. The Amendment to the Citizenship Act was brought in with these people in mind. The amendment allows for all Hindu refugees to seek Indian citizenship. There have been demonstrations by local units of the BJP in Assam that Hindus should not be humiliated in this fashion. The government will find a way out for the Hindu Bengalis, considering that the BJP has already got the Citizenship Amendment ready to take care of that contingency. 

Can the rest of the people, identified as foreigners continue to live and operate out of Assam? A stateless population will be exposed to all kinds of atrocities, as Myanmar has proved. The BJP seems to be playing with fire, considering there is talk of having NRC across India. That would be disastrous and light the fires of social tension across the country. Will any government in its right mind push this self-destruct button?

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