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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 14 New Delhi March 24, 2018

Assam: NRC and Illegal Migrants Controversy

Friday 23 March 2018

by Pranjit Agarwala

For four decades in the interests of vote-bank politics both the State and Central governments have indulged in political brinkmanship on the vital issue of illegal influx from Bangladesh. However, in 2009 the Supreme Court (SC) taking cognizance of the matter ordered the revision of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) 1951 in Assam under its direct supervision. The objective was to prepare a register of genuine Indian citizens residing in Assam so that all illegal foreigners can be detected and their names deleted from the electoral rolls of Assam.

Despite the SC intervention, vested political interests’ attempts to subvert or delay the NRC to protect their respective vote-banks continue as evident from the misleading statements after the release of the first partial part of the draft NRC. Doubts have been expressed about the veracity of the verification process mainly because of some anomalies in the inclusion of names. There is also a mischievous propaganda alleging that the migrants’ issue is only a political ploy to mobilise the regional votes, indirectly implying that the NRC revision is an exercise in futility. Or specifically, there are no illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam.

In 1984, responding to a writ petition in the SC challenging the validity of the 1979 electoral rolls and the 1983 Assembly elections in Assam, the Election Commission of India (ECI) undertook an intensive revision of the electoral rolls based on the 1971 voters’ lists. During the revision out of 1.5 crore voters, names of 35 lakh voters could not be traced directly or by parentage to the 1971 electoral rolls. Although after disposing of claims and objections the figure came down to about 10 lakhs, it confirmed the suspicion that some constituencies were swamped by migrants. The signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 failed to arrest the flow.

Electoral data and population census figures indicate an abnormal increase in the number of voters and population in Assam since 1971, particularly post-1981. Significantly the increase in the number of voters and population has been more pronounced in the districts bordering Bangladesh. But population experts and analysts do not consider this as indicative of cross-border influx. However, the rapid change in Assam’s demographic profile tells a different story.

After 1971 the religious and linguistic profile of Assam underwent a marked change. The Muslim population grew steadily from 24 per cent in 1971 to 31 per cent in 1991 to 34.7 per cent by 2011. Number-wise in 1951-1971 the Muslim population grew by 16 lakhs or 80,000 per year; 1971-1991 by 27.81 lakhs or 1,39,000 per year; 1991-2001 by 18.67 lakhs or 1,87,000 per year; 2001-2011 by 26 lakhs or 2,60,000 per year. This is the highest rate of increase in India. Higher fertility rates are cited as the main reason for the steadily increasing numbers. But since 1991 the highest decline in fertility rates among religious groups in India occurred among the Muslims. In contrast the Hindu population declined, while Christians and others rose marginally.

Linguistically, the Bengali-speaking population grew sharply from 19 per cent in 1971 to almost 30 per cent in 2001. While Assamese and Nepali speakers declined, Hindi speakers and others increased slightly. Pertinently this change in Assam’s religious and linguistic profile has been markedly more in the Indo-Bangladesh border districts of the State. Sociologists consider cross-border influx from Bangladesh to be primarily responsible for the significant change in the religious and linguistic profile of Assam.

The 1996 Bangladesh Population Census Report found eight million (80 lakh) persons missing or unaccounted for in the country. In 2013 the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs reported that 3.2 million (32 lakh) Bangladeshis had entered and settled in India. The UN termed this phenomenon “as the single largest stock of international migrants in the eastern hemisphere which might just be the tip of the ice-berg”. Even though a majority of the migrants are Muslims, according to Professor Abdul Barak, an eminent economist and academician of Dhaka, from 1964 to 2012 eleven million (110 lakh) Hindus left East Pakistan/Bangladesh because of ethnic cleansing and religious persecution. Their favoured destination was the sparsely populated North-Eastern States, particularly Assam, rather than the densely populated West Bengal. Post-1981 this increased.

The promulgation of the Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal Act (IMDT), 1983 encouraged influx. Unlike the Foreigners Act, 1946 prevailing in the rest of India where the onus of proof was on the accused, the IMDT Act, applicable only in Assam, put the onus of proof on the complainant. This made detection difficult because the immigrants were well armed with forged documents to support their citizenship claims. It is no secret that in Assam there is a flourishing racket in forged government documents that help illegal immigrants prove their citizenship. The SC revoked the IMDT Act in 2005.

The NRC revision has received overwhelming public support. A totat of 68.27 lakh families have submitted 3.29 crore applications along with 6.6 crore documents for inclusion in the NRC. It is a mammoth task complicated by the existence of a large number of forged documents. But the digitisation of legacy data has now made it possible to correctly trace a claimant’s ancestry making detection more foolproof. So far 48 lakh mismatches have been detected. However, there is no need to panic as the thorough scrutiny of all documents is the key to preparing a correct NRC.

An issue that should have been tackled under the Foreigners Act, 1946 and with meaningful diplomatic initiatives has been allowed to fester and become controversial only because of political expediency. The political quid-pro-quo of migrant votes in lieu of the protection of their domicile in Assam has not only upset the demographic balance of Assam but has also ignored the legitimate fears of marginalisation of the indigenous people and genuine citizens of the State. The SC’s latest directive to publish the final NRC by June 30, 2018 has therefore been welcomed by all conscious citizens irrespective of their linguistic, socio-religious or ethnic affiliations because it can end the decades-old controversy. Interestingly in 1951, when the NRC was first prepared, there were 80 lakh Indian citizens in the whole of undivided Assam.

The author is a freelance writer and entrepreneur based in Guwahati.

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