National Register of Citizen in Assam (NRC) has created a cause of concern. 40 lakhs people have been excluded from the draft list. If the final list doesn’t downsize the numbers, Assam will have world's largest stateless population, a condition the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) describes as ‘inhumane’ which it has resolved to end by 2024.
The excluded list contains almost equal number of Muslims and Hindus; a figure which came as a shocking antithesis to the popular belief that illegal migrants are Muslims only. But the Hindus see a protection in the crystallisation of the Citizenship Act (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which seeks to provide citizenship to Hindu migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Bill, if passed, would cause a demographical change in the state, the reason why the Assamese people vehemently protested against the Bill. The protest takes us to the roots of the 80s’ aggressive Assam agitation which was culminated against the perceived threat to the culture and language of the indigenous people by the illegal migrants from ‘Specified Territory’.
NRC: The Background Story
Though Bengali speaking ‘Muslims’ were the prime target of the agitation, the loud abusive slogans were hurled against every outsider including Bengali Hindu migrants, Nepali and ‘Bihari’ as well. Starting from 1979, wide range of protests and agitations followed across the state. Nellie massacre (1983) marked the violent climax of the agitation when thousands of Muslims were brutally killed by local tribes. To calm the agitators, the Central Govt. passed The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act (IMDT) to detect the illegal migrants. But the fruit could not bring much taste. The agitation ended only when then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi agreed to sign a memorandum of settlement known as ‘Assam Accord’ in 1985 with the leaders of agitation. The key issues of the Accord were:
(a) foreigners who had entered Assam before 1.1.1966 were to be given citizenship with right to vote.
(b) those who came between 1.1.1966 and 24.3.1971 were to be denied voting rights for ten years but would enjoy rights of citizenship.
(c) those who entered Assam on or after 25.3.1971 were to be deported.
The Accord also talks about sealing of international borders and guidelines to deal with criminal cases connected with Nellie massacre.
The turbulent phase 1979-85 redefined the politics of Assam. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta became youth icon. Symphony of new choir voted Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to power with thumping majority, but only to be ousted by Congress in the very next election in 1991. Although it could regain power in 1996, it did nothing to execute Assam Accord, the sole issue on which AGP baked it’s cake twice. Assamese people felt cheated and AGP’s colourful political journey was boxed into the coffin by people’s mandate.
When Tarun Gogoi’s long journey of one and half decade to throne started in 2001, the ghost of illegal migrants’ issue resurrected again. This second phase of movement was comparatively less violent and more of a legal fight. The plea was brought to the apex court. Supreme Court struck down IMDT Act in the year 2005. For a section of political leaders, it was the first step towards the goal seeded by Assam agitation. The movement continued. Suddenly a massive violence broke out between Muslims and the tribal people in Bodoland in 2012. Hundreds of people were killed and several lakhs of people were rendered homeless. One journal described it as ‘possibly India's worst case of mass human displacement due to conflict’.
Two years later, the Supreme Court directed upgradation of NRC. It was a challenge. Amid harassment and resentment, the second phase of NRC verification concluded recently; it has excluded 40,00,000 people. Final phase is on.
NRC: the Challenges Continue
The NRC has posed a serious challenge for the country. First: in the absence of treaty, Bangladesh won’t be accepting any illegal migrant. Second: India, being neither a signatory to the UN’s Refugee Convention (1951) nor having a refugee protection framework, how to deal such a huge flux.
Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948, states that "everyone has the right to a nationality" and that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality”. The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons is designed to ensure that stateless people enjoy a minimum set of human rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966, addresses the problem of statelessness by providing that "every child has the right to acquire a nationality." The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) elaborates that children "shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, and the right to acquire a nationality. Illegal migrants’ issue is a human rights issue to which the international watch dog will be prompt to react if we don’t initiate a formidable solution. Supreme Court’s direction not to take any coercive action against the people excluded in NRC is in tune with the mandate of the international instruments. Anticipating the fear, then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2002 suggested the idea of issuance of work permit for the illegal immigrants, a solution that sounds pragmatic.
(The writer is an Advocate, Supreme Court of India. email: firstname.lastname@example.org )(Published on 01st October 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 40)