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OPINION | What Explains The Absence Of A Roadmap For Post-NRC Assam?

The government is setting up detention centres, Foreigner’s Tribunals and a central database of people tagged as foreigners and suspects in different categories. But post the NRC, the task could necessitate measures with a long-term perspective.

Rajeev Bhattacharyya |

Updated:August 31, 2019, 10:27 AM IST
OPINION | What Explains The Absence Of A Roadmap For Post-NRC Assam?
News18 Creative by Mir Suhail

Next month, a unique situation will envelop Assam after the National Register of Citizens (NRC) publishes the list of citizens capping a process initiated five years ago following a direction from the Supreme Court. The overriding concern is over the fate of the delisted people, about their rights and if they would be incarcerated in the detention centres.

To meet the challenges, government has decided to set up 10 more detention centres, a thousand Foreigner’s Tribunals and create a central database of people tagged as foreigners and suspects in different categories. But post the NRC, the task appears daunting and could necessitate more measures with a long-term perspective.

For instance, there would be three categories of foreigners and suspects in the state to deal with and they would clearly require different policies. First, it would be the lakhs of people excluded from the register, most of whom are likely to approach the tribunals and higher courts for judgments. Each centre would be able to accommodate only about 3,000 foreigners after it is completed and it is not yet known how the government plans to deal with all those who might fail the test in courts.

Second, the Supreme Court has ruled that a convicted foreign national would have to be released from the detention centres after three years subject to certain conditions. Again, there is no policy on this category of foreign nationals who have served their sentences and the rights they would be able to avail in the country. This assumes importance as the prospect of their deportation to Bangladesh appears very dim. Around a thousand people are still lodged at the centres across Assam who would have to be set free soon.

And third, the untraceable category of people who are believed to have migrated to different parts of the country. Close to four lakh people out of the total of four million who were left out of NRC in the final draft last year did not file claims for inclusion. Earlier, the government had informed the Supreme Court that the whereabouts of 72,486 foreign nationals were not known. The Assam Border Police Organisation has only recently begun efforts to seriously trace them, although there are also reports than many of the task forces in the districts are non-functional.

BJP’s Wait and Watch Policy

For the past few months, buzz in some circles suggests that the BJP-RSS is in no mood to accept the NRC list since there could be a large number of Bangladeshi Hindus identified as foreigners. Senior RSS functionary Shankar Das has told PTI that the register would be “challenged” after it is published. Instead, the party would prefer to focus more on the implementation of Clause-6 of Assam Accord which seeks to provide safeguards to the Assamese and reintroduction of the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal dropped a bombshell after a meeting with home minister Amit Shah at North Block, saying legislative measures would be explored to delete the wrongful inclusion of names in the register after its final publication on August 31. The government has also appointed a committee headed by Justice (Retd) Biplab Kumar Sarma that will submit a report on Clause 6 within six months.

Therefore, it is safer to assume that a clearer picture in Assam would emerge only after a few months depending on the numbers left out of the NRC, the recommendations of the committee on Clause-6 and the extent to which the BJP would prefer to strike a balance between diverse demands from different groups.

Till then, nothing much is likely to change in Assam and apprehensions about crises gripping the state after publication of the list are unlikely to be true. The government wants the process to drag slowly, which explains the recent home ministry notification that “non-inclusion of a person’s name in the NRC does not by itself amount to him/her being declared a foreigner” and extension of the time limit to appeal before the tribunals from 60 to 120 days. At the same time, some drastic measures and policies on Assam cannot be ruled out in the coming months.

Baggage From the Past

The government’s reluctance to come to grips with illegal immigration in Assam owes much to the indifferent attitude of the bureaucracy in Assam and North Block. The reforms and modernisation currently underway in Assam Border Police Organisation for the detection of foreigners ought to have been completed decades ago and which would have undoubtedly prevented harassment and victimisation of citizens. A bit of foresight would have also enabled the implementation of Clause-6 ahead of the exercise to compile the list of citizens.

That the bureaucracy’s mindset has not changed is best illustrated from two recent examples: Last year, media reports quoted unnamed officials of the home ministry as saying that work permits were being actively considered for all the people excluded from the NRC. The proposal had hogged the limelight earlier as well but nothing further is known about the government’s plans on this proposal. Perhaps, more on this would be heard in the coming months.

Mandarins in the home ministry were also extremely confused over the demand of Scheduled Tribe status by six indigenous communities in Assam which would entail reservation in elected bodies, jobs and stringent policy on land. The demand figured in the charter placed by the pro-talks ULFA and decks were almost cleared after the ministry of tribal affairs agreed to give its approval three years ago. But the home ministry developed cold feet following opposition from other groups in the state.

Former Assam chief secretary H N Das said, “The bureaucracy doesn’t have any interest and it would never take risks on the issue of illegal migrants in the absence of clear directions from the political bosses. It is not surprising that the same attitude has persisted for so many decades.”

But in the current scenario there is hardly any possibility of risks given the BJP’s eagerness to implement its agenda in Assam even it is means striking a distinction between Muslim and Hindu migrants. So there is reason for the bureaucracy to be thrilled as it simply has to implement the decisions of the party whenever they are arrived at and there can be no scope of committing errors.

(The author is a senior journalist based in Guwahati)

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