A Catch-4000000 Situation in Assam

A Catch-4000000 Situation in Assam
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Democracy has trumped demography in a situation where few people saw any hope

SIGNED WITH MUCH fanfare in 1985, the Assam Accord promised to restore peace in the then turbulent state. For almost seven years, Assam had been gripped with violence as students, ordinary people and intellectuals in the state turned to a clutch of demands centred on the huge influx of illegal migrants. The Accord rested on ‘Four Ds’: detection of foreigners, deletion of their names from the electoral roll, deportation, and demarcation and strengthening of Assam’s borders.

After 33 agonising years, on July 30th, a start was made on one promise: the release of a draft list of citizens which excluded a substantial number of state residents. The process began in 2013 under the supervision of the Supreme Court and saw some 33 million people apply for inclusion in the National Register of Citizens (NRC). In the draft list, about 4 million people were excluded. The final list has to be completed by 31st December.

Within no time, a furore erupted in and outside Parliament. It was claimed that the exclusion largely affected Muslim residents of Assam. Certain commentators and politicians went even further and said a ‘second partition’ and ‘civil war’ could not be ruled out. In this free-for-all, there was not one single voice that spoke for the authentic Assamese who had agitated for a fair hearing for a long time. Now that a first step—just the first—towards some kind of closure has been taken, politics threatens to take over what was essentially a counting and verification exercise.

At one level, the process was bound to be political. It began in 1978 when the then Member of Parliament representing Mangaldoi constituency died, necessitating a fresh election. At that time, a large and unnatural increase in the number of registered voters was noticed. This led to an agitation for the removal of foreigners from the electoral roll. The next five years witnessed sporadic violence until 1983, when a horrific massacre of some 2,200 suspected illegal migrants in Nellie, Nagaon district, pushed the Union Government to negotiations.

In retrospect, that was a dishonest deal. Parliament passed a law, The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983, which on paper was meant to detect and deport foreigners. In reality, the onus of proving that a person was a foreigner rested on those who made the claim, something next to impossible given the way procedural law works in India. The law was what it was, a creation of a political reality that dictated something else. Anyone familiar with how illegal migrants have voted for all these decades—especially in the districts of lower Assam adjacent to Bangladesh—can conjecture the intent of the 1983 law. In the meantime, waves of illegal migrants continued to pour into Assam.

The remedy, as recent days have shown, was simple: a headcount of all those who want to be included in the NRC backed with some genealogical documentation proving them to be citizens. One reason why the process took so long was that scrutiny and verification in such a sensitive counting exercise required caution.

The next steps—the three other Ds of the Assam Accord— require care in execution, but are essential for this peace formula to work. They pose unique problems that have not been seen in modern history.

Once the detection process is over by December-end, the next step is relatively simple: deletion of foreigners from the electoral roll. The anger among certain political parties—some that have nothing to do with Assam— is due to political panic. What if the NRC process is replicated in other parts of India where illegal migrants are a favoured group because of their voting behaviour? Removal from electoral rolls requires no special law, and the burden of proving citizenship rests on the individual whose name is being struck off.

This promises to alter Indian politics in a fundamental way. One, at the local level, such a reduction in the number of voters will force some parties to change what they offer and the promises they make during elections. This will also change policymaking in a substantial way in Assam. It can also be speculated that at least one political party in the state will find the going tough once the electoral roll is updated. Two, for India the much bigger problem will be what to do with the 4 million illegal migrants on Indian territory? Deportation of such a large number of detected illegal migrants has never been attempted before in the history of a nation state. In the current case, the neighbouring country from where these people likely originate—Bangladesh—has officially declared that none of its citizens are illegally resident in India.

This poses a problem. If deportation is next to impossible, so is giving these persons ‘work permits’. Work permits in a country are issued to persons who are legally citizens of another country. But these are effectively stateless persons. The most that can be allowed—on humanitarian grounds—is that they continue living in India, but without the political rights and benefits that accrue from citizenship.

What happened in Assam reflects the negative and positive aspects of Indian democracy. Unlike mature democracies in the West where voting and politics are based on positive policy choices offered by parties to individual citizens, India has a sui generis kind of democracy. Here, the principle of one person- one vote gets more or less transformed into voting based on some group identity—of region, caste, religion, or something else. The result is a remarkable absence of economic ideas and policies from the electoral arena. But its obverse is a certain tiredness in politics: there is a limit to which group identities can be exploited. However, this can change and identity politics can remain viable if ‘fresh’ voters continue to populate the electorate. That way, the ratio of various identities remains in flux, keeping the field alive for identity politics. Thus it is not surprising that illegal migrants are almost a vital part of Indian democracy. Much of the anger against the NRC process in Assam is couched in terms of human rights violations, the danger of communalism and the necessity of upholding secularism. But these tend to serve as ideological props of the dark underbelly of India’s democracy.

The positive side of Indian democracy is that its citizens are aware of these dangers. In ways that are unclear, it displays room for self-correction—sometimes close to a point of no return— that eludes analysts and doomsayers. What happened in Assam would not have been possible without a strong Union Government that had the will to clear multiple ‘institutional’ roadblocks in its path. This, in turn, depended on the will of citizens across the country, but especially in Assam, where the electorate sensed in 2016 that it was perhaps their last chance to address concerns that had been left unaddressed.

What will happen next depends on a number of factors. For one, the Supreme Court will have to take a call when the NRC list from Assam is presented to it in December. For another, the will of the Government will be severely tested in the months ahead. There is plenty of pressure on it. In India’s noisy democracy, voices often trump numbers in Parliament and the Government is often forced to step back. In the present case, however, a retreat of any kind could have dangerous consequences in Assam, where generations of people have waited for some political redressal of the influx issue. As of now, it seems democracy has trumped demography in a situation where few people saw any hope.