A flawed NRC, a dangerous proposed citizenship legislation and BJP’s cynical politics...

A flawed NRC, a dangerous proposed citizenship legislation and BJP’s cynical politics of immigration

Chandan Nandy,

The year: 1993

The setting: The Delhi-based headquarters of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency.

The protagonists: RAW chief Jagjit Singh Aulakh and his junior colleagues Vijay Shukla and Vishwanath Reddy who plan to employ the services of a swashbuckling case officer SujalRath.

The plot: To use Rath as a spearhead to thwart the designs of a hardline Bangladeshi organisation and trigger bomb explosions at its hideouts and bases.

Way back in 1992-93, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency, was aware of a Bangladeshi organisation’s “means and methods” to “push” poor Muslims of that country into Assam and West Bengal, two Indian border states. RAW, in turn, would undertake cross-border operations to “neutralise and defeat” these “crude but at times efficient” moves by the Bangladeshi outfit to pave the way for the emigration of economically marginalised Muslims living in the hinterland.

“Its designs continued till at least 2006,” reveals Amar Bhushan who retired as RAW special secretary that year. In a most riveting part-fictionalised account of the politics of immigration on both sides of the India-Bangladesh border, titled ‘The Zero-Cost Mission’, Bhushan, who was RAW’s station chief in Dhaka in the early 1990s, lays bare alleged “well designed” means employed by the “Islamic party” to encourage emigration from Bangladesh.

The book, which also tells two interwoven stories of intra-organisational rivalries and how these squabbles often ended promising careers of RAW officers, comes at a time when much of India, but especially Assam and West Bengal, is seized by a raucous debate involving two political instruments that the BJP has deployed to take the politics of immigration to frightening levels and that could potentially cause widespread violence in the two border districts which have historically faced the brunt of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The two instruments, the National Register of Citizens, which has whipped up a frenzy in Assam after a draft list of persons of “doubtful” citizenship was submitted to the Indian Supreme Court on July 31, and the Narendra Modi government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which envisages granting citizenship status to minorities living in countries in India’s neighbourhood, are both exclusionary.

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The first seeks to identify Bangladeshi illegal immigrants living in Assam, though there is no clarity on what measures the State might take to declare them non-citizens and whether they might be deported to their country of origin. The draft register submitted to the Supreme Court omits the names of 4 million people who have been categorised as people whose Indian citizenship is in doubt. Slightly less than half this number constitute Hindus and the vast majority are, needless to say, Muslims.

The second instrument, in my view, is the ruling BJP’s ultimate political weapon to counter West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s so-called ‘Muslim vote bank’ which allegedly includes hundreds of thousands of Bangladesh immigrants who, over the years, have settled down in many districts of West Bengal and are, for all practical purpose Indian citizens with voting and other rights. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, primarily aimed at attracting Bangladesh’s Hindu minority, is a virtual invitation to them to pack up and leave their country of birth, cross the border by whatever means they might employ and settle in West Bengal.

The proposed legislation also seeks to “bag” hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi Hindus who have steadily immigrated over the last several years to settle in Bengal’s border districts and other mofussil towns as also Kolkata. The Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants have characterised themselves as “refugees” who fled their country of origin for a variety of reasons, including perceived persecution and majoritarian violence. Like the Muslim immigrants, the bulk of the settled Hindus have obtained all the trappings of citizenship. The BJP is clearly trying to use this incendiary proposed legislation to win over a section of the immigrant population to take on Mamata’s Muslim vote bank less than three years before the 2021 assembly elections in Bengal. The BJP of course knows the catastrophic consequences of the impact of the proposed legislation, but cynical politics of immigration is nothing new to India’s political parties.

Even as nascent xenophobia has gripped Assam, with caste Hindu and ethnic Assamese expressing “total support” for the NRC, no matter how potentially destructive the results might be, there is corresponding fear and consternation among the 4 million “marked” men and women some of whom are bonafide Indian citizens who by some quirk of documentary lapse failed to make it to the list. Assam has returned to the days of the 1980s when there was widespread fear of the “sons of the soil” being swamped by an alien culture (read Bangladeshi Muslim presence). But why this brouhaha over the NRC when most Indians do not even know that it is wholly unconstitutional and therefore severally flawed as an institution? Delhi-based noted senior Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde agrees that the “NRC has no constitutional basis, though it has quasi-legal status by virtue of administrative notifications subsequently backed by judicial orders”.

Local lawyers in Assam who have challenged the NRC and the quixotic decision-making over this “offensive” instrument agree with Hegde. According to a Karimganj-based lawyer who did not want to be identified as he is “faced with intimidation by the police for speaking out against the NRC”, said the current exercise itself is not based on sound legal ground. First, when the 1951 census was to be conducted, an administrative order was issued whereby a list of citizens was to be prepared. However, the list was marked ‘secret’ and never made public, making it a document with no legal basis. The NRC, therefore, has “no statutory recognition as a register of Indian citizens”.

Secondly, the Citizenship Act of 1955 has a provision (Section 14A, by amendment) for updating a citizens’ register for the entire country and rules (specifically, Rule 4A) for such an endeavour were framed under a 2003 central government order titled ‘The Citizenship (Registration of Indian Citizens and Issue of National Identity Card)’. But Rule 4A itself violates specific provisions of the Citizenship Act and is there unconstitutional. An amendment to Rule 4A along with schedules, specifically for Assam, has now proved dangerous as it, among other things, “provides for inclusion of such persons in NRC who are original inhabitants of Assam and whose citizenship is beyond doubt”.

Thirdly, the current exercise violates the Citizenship Act which recognises that any person born in India is automatically an Indian citizen. Therefore, the sons and daughters born to even suspected “foreign” immigrants become Indian citizens. Lastly, doubts have been raised by several quarters, including a section of lawyers in Assam, about the “objectives and motives” of Supreme Court Justice Ranjan Gogoi who has taken an unusual interest in presiding over cases involving the NRC. In a letter (of 28 May 2018) to Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, a Silchar-based lawyer, Pradip Dutta Roy, has reiterated “the fact that people in general are, in the interest of natural justice, curious about his (Justice Gogoi) involvement in the NRC process as a Judge”. Dutta Roy’s argument is that there is a conflict of interest on the part of Justice Gogoi who “is a resident of Assam and an Assamese who is also a voter in Assam, he comes under the purview of the NRC process where like other residents of Assam, he is also an applicant”. CJI Misra has so far not taken any steps to change the Supreme Court bench presiding over NRC-related cases.

Assam has had a history of wanton and deadly anti-immigrant violence. The politics surrounding the NRC could potentially light another fuse that could cause an explosion that could have far-reaching consequences in several districts of the state and, in the process, ignite passions over the BJP’s parallel cynical politics involving the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, especially in West Bengal. While it appears that the BJP will have its way and even brazen it out, the ostrich-like attitude of other political parties, especially the Congress and the much-weakened Left, themselves past beneficiaries of the politics of immigration, will certainly not help the situation.

Bhushan, the retired RAW officer who once handled the Bangladesh desk, in Dhaka and New Delhi, warned that “while securing India’s eastern border is a relentless battle, the potentially deadly politics over immigrants could prove very costly, not only for India but also Bangladesh”.