Illegal immigration is not an illusion of right-wing fanatics, but an undeniable reality with serious ramifications for our internal stability and national security.
A nation state is not a chaotic free for all with open access to anyone and everyone. It is a defined political entity stipulated by norms that guide its ideological character, demarcate its physical boundaries and which certify who is an inhabitant of the state and who is not; all clearly laid down in the Constitution in black and white. Every sovereign nation needs to have a mechanism to differentiate between valid citizens and illegal entrants. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam does precisely just that and is an apt pilot for a broader pan national framework.
A rash of knee-jerk conclusions and responses following the release of the NRC update have dubbed the NRC as an experiment gone awry, an anti-Muslim weapon and a violation of human rights; even its traditional opponents have expressed frank disappointment. But are these emotive outbursts corroborated by facts, figures or logic? Does this mean that the NRC is a failed enterprise that warrants rustication? Are we chasing a chimera, as some have claimed quoting the recent data garnered by the NRC update?
The answer to all these questions is a categorical no.
To make a valid and rational evaluation of the NRC and counter its critics we need to recollect the historical antecedents of illegal immigration in the Northeast, mull over the construct of this decree and analyse the figures generated by the current update.
The migration of indigent Muslim peasants from undivided Bengal to the fertile areas of Assam can be traced back to the 1800s and was instigated by the British. This flow of immigrants has continued unchecked since then to present times despite the altered geo-political conditions that saw Assam and the eastern part of Bengal fall on different sides of an international border, effectively making this relocation an illegal process.
While the exact number of illegal immigrants remains unclear, a reasonable estimate suggests that there are anywhere between 10-20 million illegal immigrants, with Assam and West Bengal being the states most affected. Successive governments (both UPA and NDA) have confirmed this; Sriprakash Jaiswal, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs in the UPA government indicated in 2004 that there were 12 million illegal Bangladeshis, with 5.7 million in West Bengal alone; more recently, Kiren Rijiju, Minister of State for Home Affairs in the NDA government put the figure at around 24 million.
Illegal immigration is not an illusion or a fantasy of right-wing fanatics, but an undeniable reality with serious ramifications for our internal stability and national security and cannot be wished away. The charge of xenophobia is both myopic and naive.
Further, to damn the NRC as a whim of the BJP and an anti-Muslim witch-hunt is both fallacious and misleading. The NRC for Assam has been in existence on paper since 1951, but was never seriously implemented. Following the 1985 Assam Accord (crafted by Rajiv Gandhi, the then Congress Prime Minister), which came at the end of a six-year violent agitation by Assamese students against illegal immigration, the NRC was resurrected and underwent modification to include changing the cut-off date to the midnight of 24 March 1971. Despite the renewed focus, the NRC continued to remain in limbo, defunctionalised by the blatant vote bank politics of local Congress governments. Eventually in 2013, the Supreme Court intervened, responding to a writ petition and issued a directive to the Union and State governments to update the NRC in accordance with the Citizenship Act, 1955 and the Citizenship Rules, 2003: hence the current update.
So, let us be clear about one thing: the current NRC update is a Supreme Court sanctioned exercise in accordance with the Constitution of India and not a communally motivated agenda of the BJP as some in the Indian media have conjectured and which has been religiously parroted by the international media.
Next, coming to the recently released data. Out of 33,027,661 applicants, a total of 31,121,004 persons were found eligible for inclusion in the final NRC. About 19 lakh, or roughly 6% were excluded. Critics have gone to town quoting this figure of 6% to claim that illegal immigration is not as significant as has been made out to be. This is a false inference: even a figure of 6% has humungous implications in demographic terms and can be the tipping factor in areas where communities are evenly balanced.
Moreover, the relatively low figure of 19 lakh is an underestimation for every illegal immigrant picked up by the system to get through (Jamwal, N.S. “Border Management: Dilemma of Guarding the India-Bangladesh border”, PDF. Strategic Analysis, January-March 2004). As per this assumption the actual number could possibly be at least three-four times this number. Therefore, when analysed carefully, the NRC update proves to be an effective instrument.
Nevertheless, the NRC has its flaws. For one the NRC does not differentiate between refugees fleeing religious persecution (Hindus, Sikhs and Christians) and illegals. Morality demands that refugees be categorised separately and their plight addressed by reintroduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Second, while citizenship across the rest of India is governed by the Citizenship Act of 1955, the NRC uses a cut-off date of 24 March 1971 (as per the Assam Accord), thereby sparing those who came in illegally between 1951 and 1971.
Should the NRC be expanded to include other states and the nation as a whole? Estimates indicate that the number of illegal immigrants in West Bengal surpasses that of Assam; several other states also house large numbers of illegal immigrants. Free mobility across states adds another dimension to this challenging problem and in theory can only be captured by a pan India exercise. The logistic and economic cost of such a venture is likely to be prohibitive and a graded implementation maybe the answer.
Deportation of those identified as illegals may not be practical at this juncture and a humanitarian approach is vital. However, humanitarian concerns cannot completely overshadow the long-term serious impact of illegal immigration on internal stability (the simmering discontent in Assam and rest of Northeast may boil over at any time) and national security (demographic alterations along the Indo-Bangladesh border is a recipe for another Kashmir in the making), which can corrode the very foundation of our nation and destroy its social fabric. No cost, economic or otherwise, is too prohibitive to protect the sovereignty of our nation and ensure the safety of our citizens.
An expanded and improved NRC implemented in stages is key to monitor and control illegal immigration effectively, its most important effect being its deterrent value staving off future illegal immigration and acting as a restraint to the votaries of vote bank politics. The NRC must remain, despite no immediate tangible gains. Its long-term gains are definitely tangible.
Vivek Gumaste is a US based academic and political commentator.