Illegal migration still an issue after Assam updates citizen register

A massive citizenship verification drive in the eastern Indian state of Assam – more than 6.8 million applications were vetted by around 52,000 state government employees over more than four years – has failed to bring closure to a longstanding controversy around illegal migration into the state from Bangladesh.

A final updated National Register of Citizens (NRC), comprising bona fide Indian citizens in the state, was published on Aug 31. From a total of around 33 million applicants, the final list excluded 1,906,657 individuals, leaving them closer to being rendered stateless.

But the Supreme Court-monitored process that was meant to assuage local concerns around illegal migration has revived old wounds instead.

“This NRC is a half-done NRC. There are lots of anomalies and being a petitioner we are not happy with the NRC,” Mr Aabhijeet Sharma, president of Assam Public Works (APW), told The Straits Times. It was his NGO that had in 2009 petitioned the country’s top court demanding that as many as 4.1 million illegal foreigners allegedly on the state’s 2006 electoral rolls be deleted. The move to update the NRC was a consequence of the case.

Many individuals who share Mr Sharma’s concerns are unhappy because the number of 1.9 million potential illegal foreigners that the NRC has thrown up is far below the numbers that were quoted by those campaigning against the presence of foreigners in Assam. These unverified numbers were estimated to be as high as between four and five million in the early 2000s. Mr Sharma claims the number today is around six million.

The NRC figure is likely to be further cut down as it includes many bona fide Indian citizens who have failed to prove their citizenship because of minor mismatches in their documents such as different dates of birth and spellings of names.

Worried that many illegal migrants may have made it to the list, a charge denied by the NRC authorities, the Assam state government has already announced it will approach the Supreme Court for a re-verification of the final list.

This is something that the APW is also going to do.

“We are already preparing to move the Supreme Court, demanding a 100 per cent re-verification of the NRC and also asking to have its software checked by a third party IT expert,” said Mr Sharma, who dismissed the NRC process so far as a “waste”.

“If we, the people of Assam, have been suffering this problem for the last 40 years, why cannot we wait for another one or two years for a clear NRC? We went to the Supreme Court to identify the illegal migrants, not to make them Indians.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party government of Assam is also concerned that many Hindu refugees who fled to India prior to 1971 from what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) have also been excluded from the list of citizens. While there is no data available to indicate the religious denomination of those left out, it is widely believed that a significant chunk, if not the majority, of those excluded are Bengali Hindus, considered a vote bank for the party.

Meanwhile, those included in the list could still be subject to future citizenship tests. A note from the NRC authorities has made it clear individuals on the list could still be summoned to a Foreigners Tribunal if suspected to be an illegal migrant by Assam’s border police at a later stage.

Key facts about citizenship verification drive

Q: What’s going on in Assam?

A: The National Register of Citizens, a database of citizens in the state, has just been updated. It is part of efforts to detect illegal immigrants and address concerns about the influx of Bengali-speaking people from bordering Bangladesh into the state, where the majority speak Assamese.

Q: What did the process entail?

A: People had to prove that they or their ancestors were living in India before March 25, 1971, by providing documents such as birth or educational certificates. The cut-off date was part of a pact the federal government signed in 1985 with groups in the state, which agreed to identify foreigners who came to Assam after this cut-off date and take “practical steps” to “expel” them.

Q: What happens to those who cannot prove they are citizens?

A: They have 120 days to appeal at a Foreigners Tribunal. Until a judgment is delivered, they will have equal rights as other citizens. If deemed a foreigner, they risk being sent to a detention centre. They can also appeal to the state’s High Court – and if needed, the Supreme Court – to have the tribunal’s decision overturned.

Q: How long can they be detained?

A: Many of those deemed foreigners – declared so after being referred to the tribunals by the state’s border police in a process independent of the NRC – have spent several years in detention. But the Supreme Court has ruled that those who have spent more than three years in detention can be released on certain strict conditions.

Q: What’s the fate of the large number of foreigners that this process will produce?

A: There is no clarity as there has been no official announcement yet. While deportation is out of the question, there have been suggestions that they could enjoy limited rights such as being issued a work permit but they may not be able to vote in elections.

Debarshi Dasgupta

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