Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion | Will NRC succeed in identifying the Indian in Assam?

What after the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam, which is due to be published on 31 August?

It has already caused heartburn over who is a legal resident of Assam and who, to not mince words, would be ousted as illegal migrants. In the chaos of verification and enumeration across urban and vastly rural Assam, there have been notable instances of even some former and serving personnel in India’s armed forces and paramilitaries being judged by kangaroo court-like decisions as illegal migrants. The overall numbers of those with questionable antecedents thus far run into several hundred thousand.

The fingers are pointed to neighbouring Bangladesh as a major source for such mostly Muslim migrants. Bangladesh has steadfastly denied the existence of such movement since the birth of that country in 1971. Meanwhile, concerns are already being raised in some circles as to the security fallout. What will the newly dispossessed do? Will Bangladesh take any back? Will some go underground, as it were, and join cells of extremists worshipful of the radical Islamist groups that have wreaked such havoc in Bangladesh?

Not all concerns are fanciful. Assam’s drive to ethnically cleanse itself is rooted in violent politics of identity, language and religion since at least the 1960s. Occasional pogroms and sustained political movements alike were—are—predicated on it. Protection of Axomiya identity and ousting illegal migrants, whether from Bangladesh or from elsewhere in India, was the underpinning of comprehensive electoral victories for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in both the assembly elections in 2016 and parliamentary elections in 2019. The NRC is only one of the deliverables.

Even as the administration in Assam and the central government scramble to deliver on both election promises as well as contain the violent fallout of the NRC exercise, it will need to consider the reaction of the country that India now geopolitically calls a friend: Bangladesh. India shares a 4,000-km-plus border with Bangladesh, along West Bengal (which accounts for more than half), Assam (the least, after Mizoram), Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. Some of the border is riverine, and impossible to fence. Even with fenced aspects, the border is permeable. A World Bank publication from 2016 listed the Bangladesh-India “migration corridor" as the busiest after Mexico-United States and Ukraine-Russia.

India’s deputy home minister told parliament in November 2016 that an estimated 20 million Bangladeshi immigrants were illegally staying in India. Even accounting for the nationalist bias of the BJP-led coalition that formed that government in mid-2014, the numbers were staggering. The estimates were enormous enough in 2004, when the Congress Party-led coalition’s deputy home minister placed the number at 12 million, with 5 million in Assam and close to 6 million in West Bengal. A row erupted, mainly on account of objections by the Congress government of the time in Assam. The central government withdrew the statement citing the “unreliability" of the report.

In a 2016 essay for the think-tank Carnegie India, Sanjeev Tripathi, a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) of the Cabinet Secretariat, admitted there were no reliable figures or exact numbers of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in India, but maintained that “analysis" of population growth figures and demographics for Bangladesh and India since 1981 “suggests with reasonable certainty that their number exceeds 15 million" of these mostly economic migrants.

Bangladesh disputes the figures. Sometimes, its officials make fun of it: Surely, the governments of India and its states aren’t so incompetent or venal as to provide illegals several privileges like voter IDs and Aadhaar cards.

There’s no acknowledgement of remittances from India in data from Bangladesh Bank. I also found this while researching a book three years ago. In the ‘Others’ column—for sources other than major remitting geographies that Bangladesh freely acknowledges—an entry marked ‘Wage Earners Remittance Inflows’ mentioned a figure of $800 million for the years 2014-2015. On the other hand, “Migrations and Remittances" data released by the World Bank placed remittances from India to Bangladesh at $4.45 billion for the same period.

Bangladesh officials and some in local media have also claimed that half a million or so Indian workers from India work in Bangladesh’s booming garment export sector. And that they are mostly illegal. The NRC will hardly untangle such knots.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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