National consensus must

Assam’s illegal migrants

Social activists hold posters during a protest following the publication of a draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Kolkata on August 1, 2018. AFP

Estimating the number of undocumented migrants and demarcating citizens from non-citizens is always and everywhere a treacherous and unenviable task. Government estimates in most countries can vary, depending on the prevailing political climate. In some countries, surging migrations have become an issue of political survival.

Technically, illegal migrations constitute a situation of violation of the law. In the European Union, it is estimated that are anywhere between 1.9 million to 3.8 million illegal migrants; in the US, they constitute 3.5% of the total population of over 327 million. The world is caught in a vexed debate on illegal migrations, which have had a destabilising impact politically, socially, economically, ethnically and communally. Illegal migrants tend to perceive illegality as part of the migration cycle, hoping that periodic amnesties by the government would get them permanent residency.

Globally, the total number of migrants is 250 million, which account for almost 3% of the global population. Close to two-thirds of them are Afghans, Palestinians, Syrians, Somalis, Eritreans and Iraqis. Thailand faces illegal migrations from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar as people migrate to escape poverty and political conflict. The world is currently witnessing an anti-immigrant backlash, growth of xenophobic movements and parties. In different parts of the world, the actual ‘return ratios’ are extremely low, despite judicial decisions and official policies to repatriate illegal migrants.

The large-scale movement of people during Partition and post-Partition developments have compounded the scenario in South Asia. The Constitution prescribes four ways by which citizenship can be conferred: birth, descent, registration and naturalisation, as expounded in the Citizenship Act of 1955. Any person of Indian origin, other than an illegal migrant, can aspire for citizenship by filing an application with the central government, and once approved would have to renounce foreign citizenship, since dual citizenship is not permitted as yet. The Citizenship Act of 1955 considers an illegal immigrant as a person who enters the country without valid travel documents or with forged documents and is hence ineligible for citizenship.

Assam has been at the receiving end of the unabated influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, which has the world’s highest population density of 969 persons per square kilometre. Assam has a 262-km long border with Bangladesh, of which 92 km is riverine. The Assamese call this influx a demographic invasion. A variety of push and pull factors, like the fertile agricultural land of Assam as well as better employment avenues, have attracted them. This has resulted in scenarios like creation of vote banks, occupation of government land and undercutting the wages of unskilled labour. The porous India-Bangladesh border of 4,096 km has abetted the problem.

An Illegal migrant is defined in the 1985 Assam Accord as one who has infiltrated illegally into the state after March 24, 1971. This has resulted in a crisis of identity for the local Assamese. The debate assumes relevance in the context of the role of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is meant to identify the bona fide citizens and, in effect, track those Bangladeshis or others who may have entered the state illegally after that cut-off date.

Since the NRC does not distinguish on the basis of religion, the debate surrounding the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 has assumed significance. The Bill provides for protecting religious minorities (Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians) from neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It aims to save those persecuted for a variety of reasons, including blasphemy laws in these countries. It may be recalled that the BJP had promised to take up this cause in its 2014 election manifesto.

The Bill, if passed, will impact on all border states, especially in the northeast region. Some argue that it is required on humanitarian grounds, and others that it will promote vote bank politics. Of course, larger questions are being raised about Rohingyas in Myanmar, Ahmadiyas in Pakistan and Uyghurs in China. Estimates of the number of Rohingyas in India vary between 14,000 and 40,000, who largely reside in Jammu, Hyderabad, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan. The Bill will reduce the requirement of 11 years to gain citizenship by naturalisation to six years of residence.

This citizenship debate in Assam has taken a decisive turn after the BJP came to power in the state in 2016. The Asom Gana Parishad, an ally of the government, has criticised the Bill. A Joint Parliamentary Committee even visited Assam in May this year. The Assamese oppose the Bill since it violates the Assam Accord of 1985, which states that illegal migrants who entered the state from Bangladesh on or after March 25, 1971 were to be deported. They worry that if the Bill is passed, it will open up Assam for a wave of migrants from the three neighbouring countries  and render the Assam Accord redundant. The 2011 census shows that 34.2% of Assam’s population is Muslim, and that there has been a 4% rise in the Muslim population.

Illegal migration is not just Assam’s problem, and hence has to be faced fairly and squarely. It has ramifications for the country as a whole. The contention is whether it is a legal issue or a civil rights issue or both. Moreover, the rights of the citizens and legal immigrants cannot be overlooked. The economic logic of illegal migration needs to be addressed, since the fiscal burden of it is on the taxpayer. It also impacts on wages and public finance, besides raising national security concerns. Let us not sweep it under the carpet and allow our passions to run wild. Politicising and communalising the issue will only add fuel to the fire.  The time has come to evolve a national consensus.

(The writer is Professor and Dean (Arts), Dept. of Political Science, Bangalore University)

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