Amit Shah promises to expel all illegal migrants by 2024 but Assam’s failed NRC has a lesson or two for Centre

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Home minister Amit Shah has promised to enforce a country-wide National Register of Citizens to ‘weed out’ illegal immigrants  from the midst of India’s population (estimated at around 1.3 billion) by 2024. The register, in theory is an exercise to have a formal list of legal Indian citizens — with the stress on legality of citizenship — something that the Census of India does not entail.

Critics, however, argue that the exercise is communal and primarily singles out and targets Muslims, who they say would be required to prove their citizenship in an already hostile environment. These allegations gain further credence with BJP pushing for another contentious policy change — the amendment to India’s citizenship laws to include migrants of almost all religions except Muslims from neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

 Amit Shah promises to expel all illegal migrants by 2024 but Assams failed NRC has a lesson or two for Centre

An NRC Seva Kendra in Guwahati. PTI

Shah, however, claims that the exercise is not discriminatory in nature.

“The NRC has no such provision which says that certain religions will be excluded from it. All citizens of India irrespective of religion will figure in the NRC list. The NRC is different from Citizenship Amendment Bill,” Amit Shah said in his address to the Rajya Sabha.

He added, “The process of NRC will be carried out across the country. No one, irrespective of religion should be worried. It is just a process to get everyone under the NRC.”

But the practicality (and usefulness) of these decisions are under challenge.

What is NRC?

The NRC in Assam is basically a list of Indian citizens living in the state.

Following the 1971 war with Pakistan, India received a huge influx of refugees from Bangladesh. India was considerably soft on the refugees because it believed they were mostly Hindu Bengalis who were victims of religious persecution. However, there was a backlash from ethnic Assamese who demanded that the refugees be expelled. They believed that the massive wave of immigrants assimilating into the indigenous population was diluting the cultural and linguistic identity of the indigenous population.

A bloody movement to remove the alleged illegal migrants was launched by ethnic Assamese parties that also saw some of the worst incidents of ethnic violence. On 18 February 1983, in 14 villages of Nagaon district, more than two thousand people were massacred. A Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) was signed between representatives of the Government of India and the Assam Movement leaders in New Delhi on 15 August 1985, which included a demand to develop such a register of citizens with a cut-off date for refugees to enter Assam. Decades later, after various attempts and interference, the final list was unveiled on 31 August 2019 and it included 3,11,21,004 persons as India’s citizens and excluded another 19,96,657 persons.

An expansive and expensive exercise 

The exercise entails a complex and expensive process that puts the burden of proving citizenship on the citizens; Indians are required to provide proof of ancestry through complex documents dating several decades back. Since there is neither an estimate, nor a process document available on how the government plans to undertake such a humongous exercise, our only point of reference remains the Assam NRC, which left those excluded from it in the lurch, and those batting for it dissatisfied.

Evidence also suggests that the practice is both expensive and communally divisive.

The Assam NRC, which took 10 years, employed 52,000 government employees and cost the Government of India a whopping Rs 1,220 crore. The extent of the chaos the exercise unleashed was such that the contractual employees kept on complaining of doing overtime, and the government employees of doing two jobs at the same time. One — their original job and the additional job as NRC officials that required collecting and verifying 6.6 crore documents and finding family linkages of over 32 million people. So much so that the NRC Sevaks sat on a dharna claiming non-payment of salaries for months when the government filed a petition in the Supreme Court for re-verification of a certain percentage of the document already done!

Furthermore, the tediousness of the job was multiplied by the loopholes in the process, corruption, and shoddy handling of such a large amount of data.

The NRC which was started as an exercise of Rs 500 crore in 2013, cost Rs 1,220.93 crore in the next five years. It means the government spent an approximate Rs 6,400 per illegal migrant to identify them. And if 20 percent of the samples are going to be re-verified as demanded by BJP, AASU and other organisations, then the cost will again go up along with the engagement of human resource and time, hinting at a never-ending process to follow for another decade.

Then there is the cost to accommodate these people with so called dubious citizenship. The Centre is in a flurry of building detention centres to hold such prisoners, until they gather proof of citizenship in their country of origin, which hardly happens. The Union Home Ministry has already issued a circular to all state governments to construct detention centers with modern amenities. Some states, such as Maharashtra, have already acquired land for building such facilities. While there is no data available on cost of construction and other expenditures in rest of India, so far, the Centre has spent Rs 4.74 crore on maintaining the six detention centres in Assam since the setting up of the first one in 2009-10.

And this is just the cost to the Indian exchequer.

Citizens were also burdened with burgeoning legal costs in face of a confusing process with rapid changes of standard operating procedure and hundreds of petitions to the Supreme Court. A report by NDTV quoted New Delhi-based Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG) to suggest that the people excluded from the draft NRC spent Rs 7,836 crore for the hearings and many have been so economically crippled that they will not be able to challenge their exclusion before the Foreigners’ Tribunals.

There are also questions raised on the economic feasibility of plucking out people — who are at least part of India’s informal economy — from their normal lives and making them entirely state-dependent by putting them in detention.

Human toll

Started as a pilot project in 2010, it saw the death of four persons during a protest by a minority organisation in Barpeta district, eventually pushing 60 people to commit suicide in the past six years due to fear of becoming stateless. Over 855 people died in the Assam movement while over 2,000 (unofficial figures are higher) were killed in violence targeting the Bengali Muslims — perceived as illegal migrants — in what is known as the Nellie massacre.

Besides, there are intermittent reports of deaths and illnesses of people who are rendered stateless and are held in detention centres while the government decides their fate. At least 28 people have died of various illnesses at detention camps in Assam till 21 November, state Parliamentary Affairs Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary informed the Lok Sabha recently.

Patowary, in a reply to a query by AGP MLA Utpal Dutta, said 28 people have died in the detention camps due to illness till 21 November.

Therefore, if the Union government is serious about rolling out a nation-wide NRC, it must realise India neither has the sort of infrastructure nor disposable funds to take up a futile exercise that leaves its population insecure and sceptical, while renders many stateless. Even if it is convinced that the pomised benefits of an NRC, beats the challenges and costs, the government will have to do a lot of homework before taking up this project.

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