The final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam would be published on July 30. The first draft published a few months ago had included around 1.93 crore people, even though subsequently the bona fides of around 1.5 lakh people on this list have been questioned. After the final list is published, it is expected that around 30-50 lakh people residing in Assam would not be included and, hence, automatically treated as illegal migrants or foreigners.
In accordance with assurances given in the Supreme Court, they would have to be deported to their country of origin, most likely Bangladesh. It has also been assured that the initial list of ‘foreigners’ is only a draft and they would have adequate opportunity for making representations to the Foreigners Tribunals. Once the list is amended, a clear picture of the actual number of foreigners or stateless persons in Assam would be known by the end of the year.
Deportation of those identified as foreigners to Bangladesh is unlikely as the neighbouring country has always maintained that none of its citizens have migrated to India after it gained independence in 1971. In any case, this government is unlikely to deport any Hindus to Bangladesh. In fact, the intention is to give Indian citizenship to all illegal immigrants belonging to the minority community on an accelerated fast-track route via the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, currently before Parliament.
Around 30-50 lakh people in Assam may be excluded from the NRC and identified as foreigners.
There is no way the government can put lakhs of people in detention centres, pending the final resolution of their citizenship. The political fallout would be disastrous both nationally and internationally. There is also the question of the offspring of these illegal immigrants—those born in India after March 24, 1971, and granted Indian citizenship by birth. Can we separate them from their parents?
The government does not seem to have thought through these issues. Should the burden fall only on Assam, or is it the responsibility of the entire country to shoulder this burden? These are issues that will need to be discussed in Parliament.
My own assessment is that the government, in the first instance, will have to issue a five-year work permit to those not included in the NRC. They will be allowed to reside and work where they are. Thereby the status quo would be maintained. This will calm things down and allow a range of policy options to be developed carefully over the next couple of years. Around 75 per cent of these people could be moved out of Assam over the next decade and settled in other parts of the country. The eventual granting of citizenship over the next two decades could be decided as a general policy issue. Until that is done, they will have no citizenship or voting rights.
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I expect there will be considerable litigation on this issue in various courts. The most important thing is to take up the issues one by one and not take any hasty action such as deporting the people or shifting them to detention centres. Any such move could lead to serious law and order issues. This is a humanitarian issue. No doubt the sentiments of the Assamese people would be paramount. But it is necessary to ensure that the desire for narrow political gains doesn’t make us lose sight of the historical basis for the immigration and the fact that lakhs of people are involved. We are all responsible for what has happened in Assam and we need to find a solution that is just and equitable to the state.
(The author is a former Union home secretary)