The NRC should clearly distinguish refugees from illegal migrants

The exercise to draw up a national register of citizens (NRC) in Assam, a border state with a sizeable Muslim population, has expectedly generated a major controversy. While it might be tempting for people to take sides, for the government the goal should be clear: genuine Indian citizens in Assam should not be denied their rights and privileges and they must be allowed time to put together supporting documents to prove their citizenship. At the same time, no illegal migrant should be allowed to become a bona fide citizen of India.

Politicising the Supreme Court monitored exercise to create a NRC with specific reference to Assam for identifying illegal migrants will not serve any purpose. Prime minister Modi will have to carefully chart out the future of those 40 lakh-odd people who do not find a place in the citizen register. They should be given every chance to prove that they are Indian citizens.

The government, Election Commission and opposition parties will have to jointly work on this project. There is no reason why the country cannot collectively put a stop to illegal migration in Assam via the porous Bangladesh border. All political parties are well aware that the process to identify genuine citizens in Assam began immediately after the Assam accord was signed with all stakeholders way back in 1985. The decade long students’ agitation from 1976 to 1985 is testimony to the kind of havoc unleashed by illegal migrants in the state. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) were principal motivators against illegal migration. All those residing in Assam before March 25, 1971, their descendants and ancestors were to be regarded as lawful citizens according to the accord. But then, subsequent Congress governments had soft pedalled the process of identifying illegal migrants that changed the demographics of not only Assam but the border districts of West Bengal as well.

After the present NDA government came to power at the centre in May 2014 and a BJP government was subsequently installed in the state, this painfully slow process was hastened up. An exercise involving 3.3 crore people cannot be foolproof. There could be slip-ups and these need to be rectified. Before the NRC is finalised, a fair chance needs to be given.

Unfortunately, opposition parties, including the Congress and the Trinamool Congress, have jumped the gun to target the BJP on the illegal migrants issue, stalling the Rajya Sabha with veiled threats to bring to a grinding halt life in the entire North Eastern region. The subtext to this is the BJP’s growing footprint in the region. For its part, the NDA will have to exercise more flexibility vis-à-vis Bangladeshi immigrants staying in Assam on humanitarian considerations. Importantly, the BJP as the party in power will have to temper its responses to opposition barbs. Joining the same conversation on divisions based on communal lines does not benefit the country.

Opposition parties have cried foul against the government’s move to grant citizenship rights to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians living in Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These rights may eventually be available to Indian origin people regarded as minorities in other countries as well. Even, in dealing with the large number of Rohingyas, the ruling alliance and the opposition have differing viewpoints. By logical extension, the case of Bangladeshi immigrants working in major cities across the country may also come under the scanner. Infiltration across porous borders of Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar continue to date. The government will have to clearly distinguish between refugees and illegal migrants that may foment trouble in the country. A national consensus on refugees and illegal migrants will have to be evolved to draw out a proper policy and a road map on the issue.