More than four million people in Assam are possibly no longer Indian citizens as per the recently published draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a process meant to identify and delist those who are “illegal migrants” living in this northeastern state of India. Although there was no official assertion during the process of updating the draft NRC that the excluded people are in fact those who had supposedly migrated from Bangladesh, the debates and discourses surrounding citizenship in Assam had always linked Bangladesh to the controversial issue of illegal migration.
The so-called infiltration by foreigners had long been a cause of tension in Assam. It had been argued that the open-border policy, allegedly maintained by the ruling political parties for a surge in their vote bank, had allowed the influx of foreigners from across the borders of Bangladesh into Assam with forged documents. This fear had in fact led to a six-year-long agitation in Assam spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) that ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord between the Indian government and the leaders of the movement. The Assam Accord prescribed a cut-off date of March 24, 1971 after which an entry into the state would be considered illegal. In the context of the Accord, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1955 was amended to include section 6A which reaffirmed the Accord's cut-off date in order to declare any person as “foreigner”.
In 2012, a writ petition was filed in the Indian Supreme Court challenging the legality of section 6A of the 1955 Act as being discriminatory. In 2014, in deciding the case, the Supreme Court Bench comprising two judges, one of whom incidentally hailed from Assam, referred the questions of legality of section 6A to be placed before an appropriate, larger judicial bench, but laid down a roadmap requiring the government to publish a time-bound updated NRC for Assam. The 2014 Supreme Court directive also placed the court itself in a supervisory role to monitor the process of updating the NRC. Hence, although the drive for expulsion of the illegal migrants from Assam has always had some political dimensions attached to it, it is because of the 2014 judgment that the current process of delisting more than four million people was vigorously defended by the BJP government as a “non-political” process and done under the supervision of the Supreme Court.
During the 2014 elections campaign, Narendra Modi had been quoted as saying that he would “send these Bangladeshis beyond the border bag and baggage.” Interestingly, in the 2014 judgment, the Indian Supreme Court had also referred to illegal migrants in Assam as “Bangladeshis” and cited a number of state documents, official reports and previous decisions which had similarly referred to the illegal migrants as Bangladeshis. The 2014 judgment also discussed at length as to how the Indo-Bangladesh border could be better protected to control illegal migration from Bangladesh. Even now, after the publication of the NRC draft, many BJP leaders, activists, as well as a section of the Indian media are frequently referring to “Bangladeshis” as “illegal infiltrators” that the draft register had been aiming to detect.
On the other hand, critiques in India have also talked about the deliberate refraining of the Indian government from bringing up this so-called illegal migration issue in any official meeting with Bangladesh. However, Bangladesh's position, as has been clarified by government officials in a number of informal media exchanges, is that there has been no unauthorised migration from Bangladesh to Assam after its 1971 independence, emphasising that amongst the many bilateral issues between India and Bangladesh, illegal migration in Assam had never been brought up by the Indian government.
Given that India had never officially conveyed any concern on the matter, it seems prudent that Bangladesh has also refrained from conveying any formal reaction or concern. However, considering how Bangladeshis were time and again labelled “illegal migrants” at various official platforms in India including its apex court, the government of Bangladesh may reconsider its position. The message to India should perhaps be that: in resolving its own political issues created over the possible exclusion of four million people from citizenship, India should ensure that this does not put a strain on the international cooperation and security in the region.
In addition to being labelled illegal migrants, what is worrying for Bangladesh is that in search of an answer as to what would be the fate of these potential stateless individuals, the possibility of deportation to Bangladesh had been mentioned at various forums. In December 2017, Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is also in charge of the citizenship register, had been quoted by several media outlets as saying that identifying “illegal Bangladeshis residing in Assam” was the main purpose of updating the NRC—and that “all those whose names do not figure in the NRC will have to be deported.” This had raised concerns also at the international level; the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reportedly wrote to the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in June 2018, seeking a clarification about the fate of the individuals to be excluded from the updated NRC—mentioning specifically the above comment by Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Moreover, the 2014 Supreme Court directive itself had asked the government of India to “enter into necessary discussions with the Government of Bangladesh to streamline the procedure of deportation.” There is, however, also an argument that it is unlikely that the issue of deportation would ever be formally raised by the Indian government considering its delicate diplomatic relationship with Bangladesh.
Yet, considering how the debates surrounding the updated NRC in Assam link Bangladesh, such a possibility cannot be altogether ignored. Lastly, considering how India had positively approached issues of humanitarian crisis and protection of the minorities in the past, it can only be expected that the Indian government would show its political foresight in resolving this issue through a humane approach, keeping in mind the sensitive regional dynamics attached to it.
Taslima Yasmin is an assistant professor at the Department of Law, University of Dhaka.