On a cold afternoon of February, 2014, then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had promised at an election rally in Assam’s Silchar, a region dominated by Hindu Bengalis, to oust all “ghuspethiyos” (intruders) from the country. As he spoke, a crowd of over 12 thousand attendees erupted in chanting the name of the prime ministerial candidate.
On May 1, 2014, the BJP government came to power at the Centre. And as the work on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) started under the supervision of the Supreme Court a year later, the indigenous people of Assam, threatened by an identity crisis, sighed in relief.
The process slowly brought hope of separating those who came from Bangladesh before March 24, 1971, and from those who came after a cut-off date fixed by the Assam Accord 33 years back.
However, six years have passed since then, and the process of NRC witnessed an expenditure of ₹1,200 crores and involved 6.6 crore documents and 55,000 employees. And after all of that, the NRC has now become only a base on which the government can decide the future course of action.
The road to oust illegal immigrants now seems to be a dream too unreal to be true. Let’s start from where the process supposedly began:
The Foreigners Tribunals
Assam has 100 Foreigners Tribunals established phase-wise since 2005. These courts are already burdened with cases of doubtful or dubious voters, denoted as D-voters, since 1997 when the Election Commission of India directed the Assam government to remove non-citizens from electoral role.
As per the revised electoral roll of 1997, Assam has about 3,70,000 D-Voters. To this date, almost two lakh such cases are pending with the Foreigners Tribunals. The Foreigners Tribunals are given a time frame of five to 15 years to give judgements in such cases.
Besides, there are cases referred to the Foreigners Tribunals by the State Border Police, which is another process of identifying foreigners in Assam.
Meanwhile, the Assam government has announced the establishment of 200 more Foreigners Tribunals. These courts were supposed to be operational from September 1, a day right after the publication of the final list of the NRC. About 1.9 million people were excluded from the final list.
If these 300 courts register the additional 1.9 million cases, each court will have to try about 6,300 cases within the fixed 120 days. And even though the Centre is pondering over establishing a total of 1,000 Foreigners Tribunals in Assam, it seems impossible for the Foreign Tribunals to dispose of all the cases within the stipulated deadline.
Then there are issues that ail the functioning of these courts. Highlighting the lack of infrastructure in such courts, Imtiaz Rahman, an advocate of Gauhati High Court, said, “The Foreigners Tribunals are not at all well-equipped and don’t have the necessary infrastructure. Also, the members are mostly found incompetent. Nineteen lakh is a huge number. Leave alone 300, even 3,000 courts will fall short (to try all 1.9 million cases within the deadline).” Besides, these courts are often criticised for being prejudiced and biased to minority communities.
Ten days have passed since the publication of the final NRC list. However, the Foreigners Tribunals are yet to send notice to those left out of the list to file their cases.
Retired Supreme Court judge Madan Bhimrao Lokur has also raised concerns on the functioning of the tribunals.
Speaking at a People’s Tribunal in New Delhi on ‘Contested Citizenship in Assam’, he said, “Tribunals are functioning in an arbitrary manner whereby they devise their own procedure of working. This requires some uniformity. The poor and the illiterate cannot understand the complicated processes and thus are excluded for minor spelling mistakes.”
A person can be declared a foreigner only after he exhausts all his three lifelines — Foreigners Tribunals, the High Court and the Supreme Court. But, legal practitioners feel that the Foreigners Tribunals alone will take decades to dispose of all the NRC cases.
About 146 kilometres away from Guwahati, India’s biggest detention centre is coming up in Goalpara district in an area of 28,800 sq ft, built at a cost of ₹46 crore. With a capacity of accommodating 3,000 people, the centre is supposed to be ready by next year.
There are 1,136 detainees living in six other detention centres of the state. Even if only 25% of the total 19 lakh people, who are excluded in the final NRC, are declared foreigners, the state will have no space to accommodate those 4.5 lakh people.
Besides, there are another four lakh people who did not apply for claims after they were excluded in the draft NRC. The border police is already on a lookout for these people who are feared to have migrated to other states of the country.
Another concern is the Supreme Court’s direction to release on bail those detainees who have completed three years in detention. Since there’s no policy in place for those to be released on bail, it is not clear what the government will do with them after their release.
However, Home Ministry sources said there are speculations that work permit will be issued to those people. But, there has been no comment on this from the ministerial level.
The CAB is coming
During his first visit to Assam since the publication of the final NRC, Home Minister Amit Shah on Monday reiterated that no illegal migrants will be allowed to stay in Assam or migrate to another state.
“We want to assure that no illegal migrants will be able to stay in Assam and go to another state. We want the country to be rid of illegal migrants,” he assured states like Meghalaya and Mizoram that have expressed concern about illegal migrants from Assam settling in their states.
Shah said the party was going to bring in the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), “but the government is also going to ensure steps that the identity and culture of the indigenous people are secured.”
NRC, the most prominent tool for BJP’s chest thumping in the state, got discredited by the same party when it got to know that of the 19 lakh people excluded in final NRC, majority were Hindu Bengalis, Nepalese and indigenous tribes. However, there is no official record on this so far.
As the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of sample re-verification of NRC, the BJP may come up with a law to re-verify the database once the role of top court is over. And thereafter, bring the Citizenship Amendment Bill. So, the whole exercise of NRC will be zeroed down to identify non-Muslim infiltrators.
To cut it short, the BJP will now discard NRC as a Supreme Court-monitored exercise which has nothing to do with the party, while making an effort to retain non-Muslim immigrants despite stern protest from the north-eastern states like Mizoram, Meghalaya and Assam. So, the possibility of Assam accommodating the larger portion from the NRC as its citizens is evident.
A treaty that is not
The main task for India before the whole NRC exercise was to put pressure on Bangladesh to bring it on the table and talk about illegal migration. However, there was no repatriation treaty between the two countries. And since Bangladesh has repeatedly denied the migration of its people to India post 1971, it doesn’t seem a treaty will be agreed upon by the two countries in future as well.
So what’s in store? How will the majoritarian tide that is running across the country feed to the nativity sentiments of Assam? In the absence of a National Refugee Law and India’s non-signatory status to two UN conventions relating to statelessness, will the 1.9 million people disappear in the eyes of the state into some dark corners of detention centres? Only time can answer all these questions.