MNA Editorial Desk: Assam, a state of our neighboring country India, has been in the headlines during the last few weeks as humanitarian crisis seems to be building up there. The issue remains with the current population of Assam. Indian government and many of the Assamese citizens do not consider the whole population of Assam as its own. True that is as along with the locals, many migrated to Assam many years back. But it is the same story of millions of settlers all around the world and after living for generations and serving the economy of a country, no country can deny the residency rights of a settler.
For a long time, pushing out the so called foreign settlers is demanded by the locals and along with all other factors religion came out as a critical factor this time. Recently, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) were conducted and completed in Assam and though it was supposed to eliminate all confusions, it actually produced far more conflicts with religion being the crucial most factor and it is important that no humanitarian crisis evolves due to these conflicts.
Assam is a state situated in the north-eastern side of India. Assam contains the Brahmaputra Valley, Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao locales. Assam is one of the Seven Sister States of Northeast India and it is located in the southern part of the eastern Himalayas. Assam’s current population is estimated to be around 35 million. According to the 2011 census, 61.67 per cent of their populations were Hindus and 34.22 per cent were Muslims.
Christian minorities consist of around 3.7 per cent of the population while the rest consists of very low percentage of Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism and few Animism communities. Out of 32 districts of Assam, 9 are Muslim majority according to the 2011 census of India. This has been the attribute of Assam and remained almost similar before, during and after 1971.
Assam is a bordering state with Bangladesh. The Assam Agitation against so called illegal immigrants started as early as 1979 and ended in 1985, led by All Assam Students Union. During this period of six years, thousands of civilians were murdered in ethnic hostility, including the Nellie carnage and Khoirabari massacre. They demanded a stop on the influx of immigrants and deportation of those who had already settled.
In 1985 the Indian Government signed the Assam Accord with the leaders of the confrontation to stop the violence. After the 1991 census, the changing demographic patterns in border districts became more visible. Although the process of identification via NRC Update and deportation of Bangladeshi immigrants is being executed by the Government, the headway of the operation is too slow compared to the rate of influx and severity of the situation.
In Assam, one of the fundamental criteria to prove citizenship was that the names of applicant’s family members should either be in the first NRC prepared in 1951 or in the electoral rolls up to March 24, 1971.
Other than that, applicants also had the option to present documents such as refugee registration certificate, birth certificate, LIC policy, land and tenancy records, citizenship certificate, passport, government issued license or certificate, bank or post office accounts, permanent residential certificate, government employment certificate, educational certificate and court records.
On August 31, the final National Register of Citizens (NRC), a list of certified Indian citizens in Assam was published, four years after the implementation began. The final list of the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam left out over 1.9 million people, almost half of the 4 million people excluded in the final draft published last year. Out of 3.3 crore applicants, a total of 3,11,21,004 persons were found eligible for inclusion in the final NRC.
At least 3.29 crore people applied for the NRC. On July 30, 2018, the final draft excluded the names of 40.37 lac applicants. In the final list till now 1.9 million finally lost their rights as Indian citizens. The Ministry of Home Affairs in India has clarified that the non-inclusion of a name does not mean that the person becomes a ‘foreigner’ right away, nor will he be detained. The person then will have the right to contest the exclusion and fight their cases in foreigners’ tribunals and only after losing the battle there, they will finally lose their citizenship rights. If one loses the case in the tribunal, the person will also have the option to move the case to the high court and then the Supreme Court.
Few leaders of current Indian BJP government made it clear that no detention camp will be set up and they will convince Bangladesh to take beck their citizens who illegally entered and settled in Assam. India does not have a repatriation treaty with Bangladesh. In his visit to Bangladesh last month, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had said the process of documenting and identifying undocumented immigrants in Assam was India’s internal matter. But truly, at a certain point of time, the matter will not remain India’s own anymore and they will try to use their influence to push back this huge number of people from Assam into Bangladesh – a country which is already in a great trouble with over 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
Moreover, after the completion of NRC, if became evident from the speeches of several BJP leaders that, they expected more of the Muslims in Assam to come out as illegal migrants but the scenario was pretty different. The low percentage of exclusion in the Bengali-speaking Muslim migrant majority districts, particularly those bordering Bangladesh, has given rise to a belief among those calling the process ‘flawed’ that most illegal migrants have made it into the NRC.
Bangladesh preserved a reputation of being a secular country all over the globe since its independence. After Bangabandhu’s brutal killing in 1975, for few years non-secular powers ruled and neighbouring terrorist organizations set foot on the Bangladeshi soil as a result of regional politics. But as Bangabandhu’s daughter current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came into power, she expressed ‘zero tolerance’ for such terrorist or religion-based criminal activities. She even declared that no foreign non-secular or terrorist groups will be allowed to set foot on Bangladeshi soil.
Upon her guidance different Indian terrorist groups were contained in the bordering areas. Even in ensuring its internal security Bangladesh played a great role by containing terrorist groups like ULFA. Few years back Bangladesh handed over the ULFA leader Paresh Barua to India which almost eliminated chaos in Assam. Bangladeshi government ensured a safe border for its neighbour India to portray its friendly gesture.
We can always hope that India will remember the support of its friendly neighbour. By pushing back 1.9 million illegal immigrants who have been living in India for a long time, hopefully India will not put Bangladesh in an uncomfortable position while Bangladesh seeks the support of India in repatriation of over a million Rohingyas to Myanmar. We wish we have not chosen the wrong friend.
Bangladesh is trying to ensure communal harmony throughout the country but facing huge irritation. Myanmar driven away over a million Rohingya Muslims who entered Bangladesh and if India also do the same, it will be very difficult for accommodate this huge number of religiously persecuted victims. Moreover, India is approaching to become a developed country and like any other developed country they should ensure human rights by accommodating and establishing facilities for migrants. Religious victimization will definitely put India into a black spot in front of the world.
If Bangladesh which has a population density of 1,116 persons per square kilometre can accommodate over a million Rohingyas for the sake of humanity, then Assam, with a population density of 497 persons per square kilometre, should also be able to accommodate 1.9 million people who are left out from the NRC list.
A large part of the left outs are Hindu Bengalis. Many of them settled in Assam before, during and after liberation war of Bangladesh due to security crisis. Assam actually cannot deny its Muslim population as they are a great part of Assam population for a long time. Even Muslim Sufism was practiced in Assam for hundreds of years. So, it should not target the Muslims living in Assam.
Rather in reality, thousands of Hindu families actually migrated to India or Assam. But similarly thousands of Muslim families also migrated from India or Assam to Bangladesh in different times especially during the partitions. If India pushes back millions of Hindus in Bangladesh and Bangladesh answers in the same way, we do not think, India will take back those migrated Muslim families happily. Hence, it will be better if India allows those to stay in Assam or India who have migrated and living there for a long time. Bangladesh is already in pain with over a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and the repatriation move has not been successful yet. In these circumstances, we cannot take the burden of more people pushed back by India.
We believe India will act as a real friend and will support the development of Bangladesh by not putting Bangladesh into more jeopardy. We also hope the Indian government will ensure the rights of all Assamese people who have been living there for generations. It is very important in today’s context that South Asia remain united and it is for India’s own interest as they are approaching to be one of the superpowers of tomorrow. We hope Narendra Modi and his government will not forget about India’s true friends.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC)