Citizenship issue goes beyond the NRC debate

The 1983 Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal, IMDT) Act was one of the biggest anti-national machinations.

Citizenship issue goes beyond the NRC debate

Tough task: Bulk of illegal migrants may have managed to get identity papers.

Lt Gen PC Katoch (Retd)

Lt Gen PC Katoch (Retd)
Distinguished fellow, United Service Institution of India 

The 1983 Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal, IMDT) Act was one of the biggest anti-national machinations. It was applicable ‘only to Assam’. In all other states, detection of foreigners continued under the Foreigners Act. Under the IMDT Act, the onus of proving one’s nationality or otherwise lay on the complainant, not on the accused — as is the case under the Foreigners Act. Ironically, the Supreme Court did not take suo motu notice of why only Assam was meted out this treatment. 

The then government’s excuse that the IMDT Act was to protect minorities actually facilitated ‘legalising’ illegal migrants from Bangladesh because which citizen would enter into litigation to prove his/her neighbour was an illegal migrant? What forces were behind the IMDT Act remain unknown, but members of the drafting committee were certainly rewarded, one even rising to the exalted position of the President of India. Mercifully, the Act was challenged by Sarbananda Sonowal and in 2005, the Supreme Court struck down the IMDT Act ruling that the Act “has created the biggest hurdle and is the main impediment or barrier in the identification and deportation of illegal migrants.” 

Before the birth of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman wrote in his book Eastern Pakistan: Its population and economics that “because East Pakistan must have sufficient land for its expansion, it must include Assam to be financially and economically strong”. Bangladesh, under BNP’s Khaleda Zia, ran anti-India terrorist camps in Pakistan with Al Qaeda and SSG instructors as per the intelligence reports. How many illegal migrants entering India underwent training in these camps to be part of sleeper cells remains unknown.

We may blame state governments for abetting illegal migration, but security forces manning the Indo-Bangladesh border are directly under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). According to two IPS officers attending the NDC course in 2000, one of whom became the DG, NDRF, money was being paid to get a posting to the Indo-Bangladesh border; payment was fixed for each adult and child illegal migrant, and having paid the “entry fee”, they were shown a camping site where they could stay for two days while they were provided papers with an Indian identity. Obviously, this was known to the IB and, in turn, the MHA. So why was there no inquiry, why weren’t the offenders punished and corrective action taken? 

For how many years the flow of illegal migrants has continued is difficult to gauge, but as late as 2015, an English TV news channel showed live illegal migration through a breach in the wall along the Indo-Bangla border in broad daylight. When the reporter asked the security person sitting close by why he was permitting it, his response was there were orders not to interfere. The clip was taken off the air in less than 10 minutes. Article 370 gave special status to the residents and no outsider could settle in J&K. However, some 4,000 Rohingya refugees were colonised in Jammu by the UPA-II regime on the pretext of the UNHCR despite India not being a signatory to the UN Convention of Refugees, 1951. Perhaps, P Chidambaram, the then Union Home Minister, can explain why.

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy report of November 1 this year, India’s urban and rural unemployment rates in October stood at 8.5 per cent and 8.3 per cent, respectively. Undoubtedly, a populous country like India must not permit illegal migrants if it wants the economy to grow and unemployment reduced. There are reports of 40,000-plus Rohingya in India. But the enormity of the issue is evident from the National Register for Citizens (NRC) in Assam which has excluded some 19 lakh. On December 2, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, addressing an election rally at Chaibasa in Jharkhand, stated that all infiltrators (read illegal migrants) will be thrown out from the country by 2024 after implementing the NRC. 

Let us, for the moment, keep religion out of the NRC debate as to who needs to be extradited, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and the CAG indicating a possible financial scam to the tune of Rs 1,600 crore in updating the NRC from 2015 to 2019. The Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, at a seminar at New Delhi in February 2018, had stated, “I think the proxy game is very well played by our western neighbour (read Pakistan), supported by our northern border (China) to keep the area disturbed. We will continue to see some migration happening… those creating problems will need to be identified and segregated, which would not be an easy task.”

Bulk of, if not all, illegal migrants may have been ‘given’ or managed Indian identity papers. Reports of surplus Aadhaar cards found in trash cans from time to time are one indication. How is the pan-India NRC going to work through this maze? On January 3, a family of five Rohingya was deported to Myanmar. The only other extradition was of seven Rohingya to Myanmar in October 2018. Given that in July this year, India handed over 250 prefabricated houses built in Myanmar’s Rakhine state to assist the return of over 7,30,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar in 2017, Myanmar ‘may’ accept some more extraditions from India — but how many when India has no extradition treaty with Myanmar?

On July 28, 2016, India and Bangladesh signed an agreement to amend Article 10 (3) of the bilateral Extradition Treaty to facilitate expeditious extradition of “fugitive criminals” between the two countries. The moot question is — can illegal migrants be categorised as ‘fugitive criminals?’ Do we expect Bangladesh agreeing to the return of thousands and lakhs of migrants classified as illegal by 2024? And, what about the children born in India of these migrants, especially where a migrant has married an Indian citizen? 

Even if the pan-India NRC exercise is completed by 2024, it appears impossible to extradite all illegal migrants by 2024, given that up to now, only 12 Rohingya have been deported.  So, what happens to those excluded from the NRC and what is the interim plan before they get fully deported, if at all? Obviously, they will be denied government subsidies, government jobs and the right to vote. Have we taken into account the backlash and how this will be exploited by the inimical forces outside and within the country? It will be naïve to look only at the 2024 General Election without a clear-cut policy encompassing these complex issues.

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