Saving the National Register of Citizens From the 'Bengal Tigers'

The question is whether we, as a nation, are committed to address the question of unchecked migration with any seriousness of purpose.

A few weeks ago, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee roared, “They say they will start the exercise [National Register of Citizens] in Bengal. I want to see who dares to do that. We are Bengal tigers. It will not be so easy. Before you start anything here, remember that your days will be finished in 2019.”

We know that India is a country of stark contrasts. In Tripura and Jharkhand, politicians are anxious that the NRC be taken up in their states immediately. Tripura has approached the Supreme Court for the purpose, while the chief minister of Jharkhand, Raghubar Das, has requested the Union home minister for urgent action. Das has vowed to deport all foreigners residing illegally in the state.

Manipur, has gone one step ahead of Assam and passed a law proposing that all those who settled in the state after 1951 be barred from being recognised as permanent residents. They will either have to leave or seek special entry and work permits. This is the inevitable result of the neglect of the subject by successive Union governments since independence. The Assam Accord was reluctantly signed by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985 to bring to an end a long period of violence and insurgency. But, the accord remained inoperative and it was only in 2013 that action to compile the NRC began. Five years later, it is still mired in controversy.

Also read: The Sangh Sees the NRC as a Device to Target Muslims All Over India

The main question is whether we, as a nation, are committed to address the question of undocumented migration with any seriousness of purpose. It is futile to be under the misconception that the problem is confined only to Assam. It is shocking that states like West Bengal and Bihar have continued to deny the existence of the problem.

As Union home secretary, I was concerned a great deal with massive migration from Bangladesh. I convened a meeting of the chief secretaries of the concerned states on March 24, 1992 to discuss a package of measures to be adopted on an all-India basis. It came as a surprise to me that even at an official level, there was reluctance on the part of some states, and particularly West Bengal and Bihar, to deal with the problem firmly. This was clearly at the behest of the political direction of the state governments. I pursued the matter further and persuaded S.B. Chavan, Union home minister, to convene a meeting of the chief ministers.

Accordingly, the meeting was held on September 28, 1992. In the background paper circulated for the conference, it was highlighted that Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, the north-eastern states and some other states in the country including the Union territory of Delhi had been severely affected by the problem. The paper had underlined the fact that undocumented migrants seemed to be “using West Bengal as a corridor to migrate to other parts of India. Parts of Bihar have been affected seriously. Large numbers have come to Delhi and have settled down in several other areas.”

A comprehensive package of nine measures was proposed to deal effectively with this gigantic problem. It was, however, shocking to see that the then chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, and of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, were reluctant to approve the press note of the conference proceedings. Indeed, Chavan had to exert a great deal of pressure to persuade them to do so. It is interesting to see that the stand of the chief minister of West Bengal on the subject has not changed even though the Communists have been ousted and Trinamool Congress has taken over.

This subject came up for close examination again after the Kargil War. The then NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee had appointed four task forces in 2000 to look into issues pertaining to the national security system. I was the chairman of the task force on border management. The task force had estimated that there were about 15 million undocumented migrants from Bangladesh,  mainly spread across Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Tripura, and Meghalaya. Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Delhi had also been significantly affected.

Also read: Why the NRC of 1951 Is Being Updated as per the Assam Accord

The reports of the four task forces were carefully considered by the group of ministers on national security and their recommendations, on approval by the cabinet, were placed before parliament in February 2001 titled, ‘Reforming the National Security System’. Attention must be invited to a few of the important decisions placed before Parliament, which unfortunately have largely remained on paper.

The Socialist Unity Centre of India protests against the controversial NRC in August 2018. Credit: PTI

First, non-citizens should be issued an identity card of a different colour and design. As is seen, this decision has been totally disregarded while issuing Aadhaar cards which make no distinction between undocumented migrants, non-citizens and citizens, thereby complicating the problem of detecting and dealing with migrants.

Second, a work permit scheme was to be introduced for foreigners wanting to work in India. This seems to have been forgotten altogether.

Third, children of illegal migrants born in India automatically become Indian citizens. The citizenship Act was to be amended to rectify this.

Fourth, attractive financial incentives were to be given for information leading to the successful deportation of undocumented migrants.

Fifth, and most importantly, the government was to work on enactment of a refugee law in consultation with the Law Commission, the National Human Rights Commission, state governments, and others to take into account the humanitarian interests of refugees as also the security and other concerns of the government.

Unfortunately, virtually all of these recommendations – and the important issue they were meant to address – have  been totally side-lined.

In the light of the Assam NRC, a number of questions have been raised nationally and internationally about stateless persons, how they would be treated and so on. There has been complete silence on the part of the government, as if this problem is not there at all, though it is staring us in the face. This issue had been flagged way back in 2001 but neither  the NDA nor the UPA government has taken any interest in the subject. It is imperative that this issue is debated and discussed nationally. Parliament must find time to get it examined in depth through one of its committees. The Law Commission must also be asked to give its considered views on the subject. Unless a satisfactory answer is found to the question of the future of refugees or stateless persons, no political party will muster courage to take a firm stand on the question of undocumented migrants.

In sum, it must be appreciated that the Assam NRC is just the beginning. Similar action will have to be taken in a number of states. While West Bengal government headed by the TMC is fiercely opposed to it, the silence of Bihar’s NDA government and Delhi’s AAP government is deafening. What does it show of our national commitment to the cause? We cannot push the problem under the carpet by merely politicising and communalising the issues, as has been done so far by almost all political parties.

It is high time a national consensus is evolved, particularly on the questions of identifying illegal migrants and enactment of a refugee law. It will be totally short-sighted and counter-productive to make this an issue for scoring political brownie points. I also hope that the usual ploy of leaving the issues to the Supreme Court will not be resorted to. That will be a clear proof, once again, of failure of democracy in this country.

Madhav Godbole is a former Union home secretary and secretary, justice, government of India.