Event ReportsPublished on Oct 01, 2018
Centre may need to look for new ways to handle ‘stateless’ people in Assam

The Centre will have to devise new ways to deal with ‘stateless’ people in Assam once the NRC process is completed as Bangladesh is unlikely to accept those identified people and it is difficult to produce documents to prove their identity, according to former Intelligence Bureau special director Dr. K.V.S. Gopalakrishnan.

Initiating an interaction on the subject, “National Registry of Citizens and Implementation Issues in Assam” at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai on 22 September 2018, he said that he was “quite perplexed with the choice of 25 March 1971 as the cut-off year for registration of citizens in the border State of Assam, following the signing of the ‘Assam Accord on the foreigners’ issue.”

Dr. Gopalakrishnan offered an extensive background of Assam with emphasis on its geographical location and its fertile farm lands, which proved to be of great benefit to the British, who had only stepped into Assam as late as the 1820s. He laid great emphasis on the statistics pertaining to the population of Assam and did an in-depth analysis on population-growth and the history of migration, starting with the British rulers bringing in ‘outside labour’ to cultivate the fertile Brahmaputra valley, where downstream alluvium played a great part.

In this context, he made a pointed reference to the population figures when the State was larger in size, and included the present-day independent states of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram, or parts thereof. The greater stress was on more recent flow of ‘illegal Bangladeshi migrants’ during and after Bangladesh’s ‘Liberation War’ in 1971, the consequent ‘anti-foreigners’ protests by students in the State, the signing of the ‘Assam Accord’ for identifying and expelling identified non-Indians from the State, and the consequent amendment made to the Citizenship Act and the Foreigners Act, etc.

As pointed out, the current concerns on the subject flowed from the ongoing Supreme Court hearing on the NRC, which acquired momentum in recent years after it became known that not much action has been initiated by the concerned Governments on identifying those ‘foreigners’. The Centre was tasked with undertaking the exercise, but it fell on slow-pace, until the Supreme Court intervened, and sought time-bound details and working arrangements for the purpose, with periodic reporting to the court.

Steep increase

Citing statistics from the Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, Government of India, Dr. Gopalakrishnan pointed out that there has always been an influx of refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan to Assam. He highlighted the steep increase in the population of Assam from 108,00,000 to 224,00,000 between 1961 and 1991, with a 77 percent increase in Muslim population during 1971-91.

In this background, Dr. Gopalakrishnan said that the entire object of the NRC exercise, directing all residents of Assam to re-register for Indian citizenship with mandated documentary evidence, was to ensure that only legitimate citizens of India are provided with the rights and benefits accruing to a citizen, including the right to vote.

He said several illegal migrants from Bangladesh into Assam tried to get their residential status legalised by marrying an Indian citizen living in the State. As he clarified, marriage to an Indian citizen, or birth of a child in India, from such marriage or to parents who are both foreigners, did not make for ‘natural citizen.’ They needed to apply for citizenship, based on other evidence, and may be accepted as ‘naturalised citizens’ under the law.

While stating that the intention of Government of India was to implement NRC across all states, Dr. Gopalakrishnan said that the current exercise in Assam needs to be looked at as a pilot project of sorts. He also agreed to the suggestion that incumbent Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb may find things difficult for him as and when the NRC registration is extended to his State, as his parents were not Indian citizens.

Legal issues

Dr. Gopalakrishnan also brought out the legal implications of the NRC issue, and explained the position before the Supreme Court. As he recalled, the Supreme Court, on 5 September 2018 recorded the submissions of the Government of India in accepting 10 documents as evidence to citizenship claims. This included land documents such as sale deeds, land records up to 24 March 1971, when Bangladesh declared itself as an independent nation, passport issued up to that date, permanent residency certificate issued from outside the State, and such other documents approved under the law.

However, Dr Gopalakrishnan expressed apprehension about some of the documents permitted to be used as evidence to citizenship. As he pointed out, registered sale deeds on occasions could be acquired without either of the parties being Indian citizens, given the lax verification at different levels in different states. It was also pointed out in the discussion that a permanent residential certificate issued outside the state of Assam would not be helpful since it is always possible for an illegal immigrant to move to another State and obtain the document, to claim inclusion in the NRC.

Deportation issues

A major concern raised during the discussions pertained to the impact on those who would not be included in the final draft of the National Register of Citizens and also those who fail to prove their entry into India prior to 25 March 1971 before the Foreigners’ Tribunal. As they would not have any document to prove their country of origin, sending them back to any other country might prove difficult than is accepted at present.

The draft NRC list put their numbers at a high four-million. Even if their numbers are brought down considerably after the court-ordered re-verification, it could still be considerable. Even otherwise, the principle of the issue remained as to which country they should be deported to, or which country would be willing to accept them unless their origins to that country could be unequivocally established.

Dr. Gopalakrishnan stated that the Government of India would be unable to send such ‘stateless people’ to any other country without being able to ascertain their origin. He drew a parallel with the practice adopted in Germany wherein the authorities verify a person’s family lineage and family tree prior to issuing passport, merely to confirm the validity of his residential status in the country. However, he was of the opinion that such an exercise may not be possible in India owing to the fact that there exists no authentic records to that effect.

He said that the Centre would be required to find new ways to handle the ‘stateless people’, whose numbers may be the largest in the global context, and pressure might thus be brought upon the Government of India to consider new means to grant them citizenship of some kind, and entail them to many, if not all, benefits available to all citizens. There could also be suggestions for re-distribution of identified non-citizens across different states of the country, but in the federal set-up, it was easier said than done.

This report was prepared by V. Ramalingam, Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai.

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