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Register Of Citizens

Register Of Citizens

My children did most of their school education in Delhi, although one was born in Kerala and the other in Bihar. The elder one needed a particular certificate to apply for admission to a medical college at Ludhiana. The certificate was to prove that he was a resident of the national Capital.

He had all the documents necessary for the purpose. My wife’s colleague’s husband, who was a senior civil service officer, gave a letter vouchsafing that he had been a resident of Delhi. My son went up and down the building concerned at Tiz Hazari but he did not get the certificate.

I also did not pursue the matter, as he subsequently dropped the idea of becoming a doctor. What struck me as incongruous was a report that a terrorist of the time had obtained the nativity certificate that remained elusive to my son. The terrorist would have paid money to procure the certificate whereas my son was not prepared for it.

I remembered this incident when I read reports that 40 lakh people in Assam have not been able to find their names in the controversial draft national register of citizens the government published last week.

All those who have been left out of the register will have a few weeks to prove that they have been bonafide residents of Assam. It is a different matter how they will prove their citizenship now when they had not been able to prove it till the second draft of the register was prepared.

Of course, some like the close relatives of India’s former President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed might be able to prove their Indian nationality given the furore their exclusion caused in the media and political circles.

That leaves out a vast majority of the 40 lakh “aliens” in Assam who have to fend for themselves. Let’s assume that they will remain “stateless” forever. What can the government do to them? They can be stripped of their citizenship rights which includes voting rights. Will that solve the problem? Will that not leave a large number of disgruntled elements who can cause harm to the national interest in ways I would shudder to describe here?

It is easy to say that they should be pushed into Bangladesh. Will it not have its repercussions in West Asia where millions of Indians eke out a living? Will it not evoke outrages all over the world? Dhaka has never admitted that its people emigrated to Assam.

For inclusion in the national register of Assam, the cut-off year was 1971. Why this cut-off? It was in that year that India allowed East Pakistanis to arrive following the policy of genocide pursued by the Pakistani army. They were received with rosebuds and bread at that time to spite the Pakistani rulers. Assam witnessed a massive agitation that brought the agitators to power. But how many “illegal migrants” were sent back?

Anyone whose forefathers lived in Assam before that cut-off date is an Assamese citizen. Imagine a person, allegedly Bangladeshi, born in Assam in 1971. He would be 47 today. He has not seen any place other than India. He may even have grandchildren, given the fact that the Muslims marry early.

In India, citizenship is by birth. Anyone born in India is an Indian citizen. The citizenship can also be gained by living in India for a long time, provided they are not missionaries.

I remember meeting an American missionary in New Delhi who spent all his life in India. He was a bachelor and he did not have any connection with the country of his birth. His only ambition was to get the citizenship and die in the country where he served the people all his adult life. Finally, he died in Delhi and was cremated, as desired by him. I do not know whether he died as a citizen of India.

India is one of the few countries where getting citizenship is extremely difficult. However, we have thoughtful diplomats who manage to have their babies born in the US because a child born there becomes a natural citizen of the country.

Of course, they are very patriotic Indians, unlike the poor Assamese who grew up in India thinking that they were Indians until they were asked to prove that their forefathers had some landed property or had voted in the pre-1971 elections. By the way, how many poor people in India have such documents to prove their nationality? More so, when they are illiterate and do not have facilities to keep such documents.

By the way, migration is not a new phenomenon. Historians who are not affiliated to the Sangh Parivar say that the people settled on the banks of the Indus, now in Pakistan, were Aryans who came from the Central Asian region. Their rituals became Hindu rituals. In short, Hinduism is a product of mass migration.

My own views on migration were shaped greatly by the Bible where it is a major theme. Just like today, there were various reasons during the Biblical times for people to migrate. Not a few who migrated would be classified as refugees today; some went to other lands looking for food and shelter; others were forcibly deported after Israel and Judah were defeated in a war.

There is much, too, in the Old Testament that describes life in a foreign place, and its pages contain the rich theological reflection that those situations generated. What those people experienced is similar to what “people on the move” experience today.

Not many people know that there was a time when migration to Assam was encouraged by the government of the day. The British needed workers to man the tea gardens for which they brought people from Bihar. At one time, tea was the most “exported” item from India. This was possible only because of migration of the non-Assamese people to Assam. Today some of the leading writers in Assamese are descendants of such workers.

The then Bengal government encouraged people to go and settle down in Assam. In fact, the West Bengal Assembly passed a resolution to demand opening up of tribal areas of Assam for migration. In the forties and fifties, educated people from Kerala were welcomed with job offers when they reached Bombay by train and they played a significant role in the growth of the city as a cosmopolitan hub, a fact the Shiva Sena might deny for political reasons.

There is a Malayalam novel Vishakanyaka (Poisonous Virgin) by S.K. Pottekatt. It deals with the migration of farmers, mostly from Central Travancore to Malabar where land was cheap at that time. Many died of malaria and snakebite. Today, those areas are one of the most developed and the farmers there among the richest in the state.

Under a fellowship provided by the National Foundation for India, I travelled in Arunachal Pradesh to study the problems of Chakmas – again Bangladeshis. Every now and then the Arunachali students would demand their immediate deportation.

I visited a Chakma settlement in a forest area where my Arunachali guide told me that they ate a thick root. I had no clue what it was! The root turned out to be nothing but cassava or tapioca which the missionaries introduced in Kerala to help the people fight starvation.

I realised one thing during my stay in Arunachal Pradesh. The Arunachali youths, who roamed about on motorcycles, would not work and depended on the Chakmas for manual labour. They are like the children of Punjabis who do not work in the fields; they depend on Biharis and East UPites.

One of my friends in Guwahati wrote on his Facebook wall how Muslim labourers who were engaged in construction work in the building where he stayed were worried about their future. I am told that the All Assam Students Union (AASU) office in Guwahati was built by the so-called “aliens”, not indigenous Assamese.

There are some myths about the Bangladeshis. All Bengali-speaking Muslims are not Bangladeshis; they are Bengalis living in Assam who can speak Assamese as well. It is like the Muslims in the village where I grew up who spoke Tamil at home and Malayalam outside.

Because of multiple-division of Assam, the percentage of Muslims in Assam increased. It is not because of the high Muslim demographic growth rate, as alleged by some. It is also true that different languages and cultural expressions rub against the grain of settled cultural identities, which in turn spark ethnocentric feelings against outsiders.

In the post-War reconstruction in Germany, the Turkish workers played a significant role. The Mujahirs of Pakistan were instrumental in the formation of the “Land of the Pure” but they were ill-treated by the Punjabis. Now there are 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, besides one million unregistered ones.

It’s impossible to evict them because they are somehow managing themselves in Pakistan. They will leave on their own if Afghanistan turns around and there are job opportunities there. Or, take the case of the mightiest nation in the world – the US. It has a problem similar to us on its borders with Mexico.

The late Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington who stirred a debate with his controversial book on the “clash of civilizations” in the nineties devoted his last book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity to say that “Latino history was demographically moving north into the US and would consequently change the American character”.

He makes a profound observation about the US: “While the American Creed is Protestantism without God, the American civil religion is Christianity without Christ”.

Historically, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah were part of Mexico until the 19th century Texan War of Independence and the Mexican-American War.

Picking on this theme, Robert D. Kaplan in his book The Revenge of Geography argues that the US should pay greater attention to developing ties with Mexico than installing democracy in Afghanistan to end the illegal migration.

Bangladesh has a lower per capita income than India but in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality rate, mother’s mortality rate and girl’s empowerment and education, the average Bangladeshi is more developed than the average Indian. In comparison, Assam has one of the worst mother and infant mortality rates in India, nay the world.

Logically, there is no reason for a Bangladeshi to come to India to die early. Yet, if they come, it is because the personnel manning the borders are corrupt and allow anyone who can pay to get into the country.

To come to the brass tacks, how should the 40 lakh stateless people be handled? One BJP MLA in Telangana has found a solution. All of them should be shot. Also included among those to be shot are the poor Rohingyas, who are on the run and whom he describes as “terrorists”. He found it as the Final Solution, about which Adolf Hitler had clearer ideas which he practised too.

It is not that what the MLA prescribes is impossible. One has to remember the Nellie massacre of 1983. As many as 3000 people, many of whom migrated to Assam when Bangladesh was part of undivided India, were killed on one Friday and buried. The subsequent Gujarat massacres pale in comparison.

One significant feature of the Assam accord which Rajiv Gandhi signed was the amnesty given to the killers of Nellie. It was the first time that killers went scot-free because they worked in concert, were systematic in their killing and did not discriminate between man and woman, the young and the old.

It is a different matter that a majority of the victims were the old and infirm who could not run like the able-bodied who ran to safety. Demands have already come that similar registers should be created in every state so that the “Bangladeshis” can be identified and harassed.

Already, there is such a demand in the Northeast where the people want their ethnic purity to be unadulterated. The Central government has a different policy. It welcomes all Hindus who suffer from persecution to take refuge in the country but Muslims are a no-no. In short, there is no consistency in the policy vis-a-vis migration.

It is not uncommon to find in the countryside, especially in Punjab and Haryana, firms advertising facilities they offer to those who want to migrate to the US, Canada and Australia whose diplomatic missions witness the largest crowds of permanent visa-applicants.

Those who reach Canada on a permanent valid visa are given a host of facilities like cash payment if they are not able to get a proper job, whereas in Assam, they have to prove that they descended from those who owned landed property before the Bangladesh war. Whoever had said that India was the best country to fly away from was not wide of the mark.

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 06th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 32)