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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Assam state implements draft intended to identify illegal migrants

Some 20 million Bangladeshis live across India without legal residency permits

People wait to check their names on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at Goroimari of Kamrup district in the Indian state of Assam on January 1, 2018. Kulendu Kalita / AFP
People wait to check their names on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at Goroimari of Kamrup district in the Indian state of Assam on January 1, 2018. Kulendu Kalita / AFP

On Tuesday evening, Nani Gopal Mahanta picked up his phone and sent a text message to a number provided by the government of Assam, in northeast India. Within three seconds, he received a response—a quick confirmation, Mr Mahanta joked, “that I am not a Bangladeshi.”

Mr Mahanta, a political scientist at Gauhati University in Guwahati, Assam’s biggest city, was checking to see if his name had been included in the state’s Register of Citizens, the first draft of which was released on New Year’s Day.

The draft is intended to identify illegal migrants from Bangladesh—people who crossed the border into Assam without permission after March 25, 1971, as well as their descendants, who have continued to live on in the state.

Descendants of illegal migrants are considered illegal in India. Even the children of legal residents don’t automatically qualify for Indian citizenship.

The 1971 date was fixed by the Assam Accord of 1985; on March 26, 1971, Pakistan had begun a military crackdown in what was then East Pakistan, now called Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis—nearly all of them Muslim—streamed into Assam during the crackdown and in the following years, stoking fear and hostility among the Assamese.

In November 2016, Kiren Rijiju, India’s junior home minister, said that roughly 20 million Bangladeshis live across India without legal residency permits. But there are no reliable estimates for the number of Bangladeshis living illegally in Assam.

By signing the Assam Accord and pledging to turn out illegal migrants, Rajiv Gandhi, then India’s prime minister, thought he was allaying Assamese resentment towards Bangladeshis taking local jobs and resources. But decades went by, and still successive governments failed to compile lists of citizens and legal residents, as promised by the Accord.

In 2014, however, the Supreme Court responded to petitions from the public and instructed the federal and state governments to begin the process of enumeration outlined by the Accord. Roughly 4,200 centres were set up across the state, to which people could bring their “legacy documents”— documentary proof that they or their families lived in Assam before 1971, or that they had come to Assam from elsewhere in India.

Of the 33 million people living in Assam, only 19 million people found their names in the first draft of the Register.

Pratik Haleja, the state’s coordinator for this project, urged people not to panic. His own name was missing from the first draft, he said on Tuesday. “People like us, whose names are not there, don’t have to do anything,” he told journalists. “The names are not there because this is a work in progress. The verification process is still on.”

This draft is only the first of several phases, Mr Mahanta told The National. “There will be more drafts, more phases. After all, this is a gigantic exercise, so it will take time. The final list is likely to come out only by the middle of next year.”

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The process was sure to be time-consuming, Mr Mahanta said, in part because of the complicated nature of establishing legal residency. The rich are able to provide land-ownership records; families living in Assam for generations are able to point to old electoral rolls.

But people who have moved to Assam from elsewhere in India and who do not possess key citizenship documents like passports have to show records of their families living elsewhere.

“Some people claim that their parents once lived in Uttar Pradesh or Mumbai, for example,” Mr Mahanta said. “The Assamese government then contacts those state’s authorities to double-check these claims. Many of these authorities have not responded yet.”

But for Kishalay Bhattacharjee, the vast shortfall of names in the first draft of the Register shows how the very process of enrolment and identification is broken.

Mr Bhattacharjee, a national security expert and an associate professor at O. P. Jindal University in Sonipat, near Delhi, had once lived in Assam himself. He even owns a house there, which he purchased a couple of decades ago.

When enrolment into the Register began, he tried to find out, almost as an experiment, if he could get his name into it. “I found out I couldn’t do it. I didn’t fit the criteria that the Register demands,” he said. “So now I’m not even sure what happens to my property rights, given I still own that house.”

The majority of people, not only in Assam but across India, don’t have passports or old deeds to property, Mr Bhattacharjee pointed out. Other methods of establishing “legacy” are also dysfunctional. “They ask you to prove if you or your father voted in Assam before 1971,” he said. “But electoral rolls often miss out names. We know this. It happens all the time. So how on earth will you prove it?”

A further problem, Mr Bhattacharjee said, was the question of what will happen after the Register is completed.

“Say you find out that you have 800,000 or 900,000 people who are Bangladeshis, for example,” he said. “What are you going to do with them? You can’t deport them, because for that Bangladesh has to agree to take them back.”

At least 2,000 people suspected of being illegal migrants are being held in Assam’s six detention centres at the moment. “You can’t fill these detention centres with all these hundreds of thousands of newly identified Bangladeshis also,” Mr Bhattacharjee said.

“There’s no clear answer,” he said. “I would really like to stand in front of the Supreme Court and ask: ‘What is your Plan B here?’”