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New citizens register creates a big row

New citizens register creates a big row
About a crore of Bengalis in Assam, Muslims as well as Hindus, are facing an uncertain future. They fear that they will be evicted from the State. The reason is the fresh drawing up of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) with the sole aim of identifying and deporting the ‘”millions of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” who are believed to be living and coming in an unending stream. Unless this is effectively checked and the infiltrators thrown out of Assam, the State will become a Muslim majority State and ultimately become part of Bangladesh. This is an obsessive fear. The NRC has to be completed by July 31. That is what has made the Bengalis panicky.

Nobody will object to preparing a new NRC. The first was held way back in 1951. It was agreed that those whose names figured in it would be accepted as citizens. They and their progeny will have the right to live in Assam, own property and be voters. But the NRC did not put an end to the “infiltration” issue. It continued to bedevil the State and led to outbursts of large-scale violence from time to time. The last was in 2012.

Then came the emergence of Bangladesh after a long liberation struggle during which millions of refugees took shelter in the bordering States of India – West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, and Meghalaya. Most of them went back after liberation but some are believed to have continued to stay. The infiltration debate continued. In 1972, the famous Indira-Mujib pact was signed which clearly stated that those who had entered India before March 25, 1971 (the day Bangladesh declared its Independence) would be accepted as Indian citizens. In common parlance, the date is known as the “cut-of” date.

But the controversy about infiltration and the allegation that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh were coming and flooding Assam and were being given shelter by the Indian Muslims continued. It is on this issue – identification and eviction of “foreigners” – that the six-year long anti-foreigner movement was conducted in Assam from 1979 to 1985. It ended after the leaders of the movement signed an agreement with the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Fresh elections were held in Assam, the Congress was defeated and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) came to power.

Then it was argued that the State Government did not have enough legal powers to identify the infiltrators and deport them to Bangladesh. So the Centre passed the Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunals or the IMDT Act. It also failed to identify the infiltrators and evict them. Only a few were evicted and pushed across the border. But they soon came back through another point in the border (because they had nowhere to go to) only to find that their houses and lands had been occupied by others.

Then came the demand for repealing the IMDT Act. It was supposed to be used by the ruling Congress for protecting the infiltrators in the interest of “vote-bank politics” and helping them stay, rather than throwing them out. As the loudness of the demand rose in crescendo, a case was filed in the Supreme Court. The apex court ultimately struck down the IMDT Act ten years ago, in July 2005. Even that did not end the illegal immigrants issue. A demand for drawing a new NRC arose. Before last year’s Lok Sabha polls, Narendra Modi told the people of Assam that if he comes to power, he will drive out the Bangladeshi infiltrators.

The new NRC is being prepared with that object in view. It does not recognise any “cut-off” date. Except the local population (the Assamese-speaking, the tribals and the tea labourers) everyone has to submit documents to prove that they are genuine residents of Assam. For this, they have to submit their “legacy data”. It is this which has caused widespread panic among the people. The legacy data require a person to provide documentary evidence to prove that one is a resident of Assam. He or she has also to provide documentary evidence about where both his or her parents and grandparents were born. They have also to give evidence to prove where their parents were married.

This has come as a bolt from the blue for even those who have been living in Assam for generations. In those days marriage registration was not required or made compulsory. Very few hospitals, if at all any, issued birth certificates. These documents are just not available and cannot be produced. But failure to provide these documents will not only disenfranchise them but also deprive them of their right to say in Assam. The rule also applies equally to all those who have come to Assam from other States of India and are either on government service or engaged in service, trade or business. But their number is very small, and if asked to leave Assam they will have no problem in complying. Several cases of suicide by men and women, who do not have the legacy data, have been reported.
Tempers are running high. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi recently wrote a letter to the Centre suggesting that those whose names had appeared in last year’s electoral rolls should be accepted as citizens. He has been dubbed as a “betrayer of the nation”. The alarm bells are ringing in both Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys as the countdown to July 31 has begun.                          

Barun Das Gupta

Barun Das Gupta

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