Assam NRC: Centre relieved as BJP smells opportunity
In what appears to be a carefully calibrated approach to dealing with the contentious issue of the National Register of Citizens in Assam, the Union government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) believe they have struck a right balance between a set of competing administrative obligations, diplomatic constraints, and political needs with the publication of the final draft of the NRC, said three persons ( a senior government functionary and two key party officials) familiar with the exercise. None of the three wished to be identified.
These needs included fulfilling the Supreme Court-mandated process of documenting citizens, ensuring that the law and order situation in Assam did not deteriorate with the publication of the list, preventing a dip in ties with Bangladesh, and critically, app- earing to fulfil an electoral commitment which would help the party in the state and elsewhere in the 2019 elections. But both the government and the party are aware of challenges ahead.
The government functionary said: “We had to complete the exercise since the Supreme Court was clear and unwilling to give any leeway. There was apprehension it could lead a security nightmare. But the process has been as smooth as possible, given its scale. Things will settle down further in the next few days. Those who did not find their names may be anxious but know it is not the end of the road.”
In fact, he added that the entire public messaging of both the Union and state government, with both home minister Rajnath Singh and Assam chief minister Sarbananada Sonowal, was focused on precisely the opportunity people would have from now on.
“In a month, the process to file claims and objections can commence, for those who feel their names were wrongly deleted and for those who believe a name was wrongly added respectively. This will take time. Then a final list will be published. Then, those who want to challenge it can go to the Foreigners Tribunal and subsequently the courts,” he reiterated. Till then, they will not be treated as foreigners and not disenfranchised in any manner.
All of this, he added, will take time. “Till now, the process had to determine who is a citizen. Now it has to determine who is not a citizen. Be prepared for a long haul.”
The time actually gives exactly the cushion the government is seeking because it feels that once the final list of illegal immigrants is published, the pressure to act on it will increase and that is far more difficult. “Deporting them is not really an option,” the functionary said. The government also has to consider ties with Bangladesh, which has been a partner in security terms and has categorically conveyed that it will not accept anyone. Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina heads for elections soon, and India sees her as an ally and is hoping for her victory and would not like to make the situation difficult for her. “The solution for what to do finally has to come from within Assamese society. There is no immediate hurry.”
But even as the administrative and legal process is one component of the exercise, the BJP believes that this is politically beneficial for the party and will make it the central plank in the Lok Sabha polls in Assam in 2019, with potential benefits elsewhere.
“It may have been SC-mandated but the government of the day can often cause delays. The issue of illegal immigrants was our core issue in 2016 assembly election. The entire existence of the BJP in Assam depends on this issue. And we ensured this process went through. We will obviously emphasise this point,” said a key strategist for the party in the region.
He added that it was important to recognise the process for what it meant. “This is a symbolic exercise. We have proven a point. We know we can’t throw everyone whose names are not there into the sea. A middle ground will have to be found eventually. This could take the form capping the number of constituencies where they are present, having limited enfranchisement, or work permits.” But for now, the sense in the party is that it has enough in its favour to go into elections in Assam because the message has gone out that incentives have changed. “Earlier the message was that those who came from outside will be cultivated as vote banks and given incentives. Now it is that they will have no incentives and confront the might of the state and law. Our voters wanted this, both in Assam and the rest of the country,” said a second BJP member.
There is one challenge though for the BJP in particular. A breakdown of the four million who are excluded could throw up a significant element of Hindus, particularly the Bengali-speaking Hindus of the Barak valley. Some estimates suggest this could be even as high as one fourth of the total number of excluded.
“For us, that is why it is important that the NRC process goes hand in hand with the citizenship amendment bill. The story is not complete for us till we are able to convince people in Assam to ma- ke a distinction between political refugees and economic migrants,” said the first BJP strategist.
Critics however argue that the distinction BJP is making is not between political and economic migrants but on outright communal grounds, between Hindus and Muslim migrants, as a ploy to deepen communal polarisation. The Citizenship Amendment Bill provides for citizenship to those illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who are from Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian backgrounds. There has been a concerted opposition to the move in Assam, including by BJP allies such as the Asom Gana Parishad, who believe that all outsiders, and not just those of Muslim descent, should be excluded.
Nekibur Zaman, a Guwahati-based advocate and former vice-chairman of the Northeast Bar Council, said the process will not benefit the BJP. “The Assam accord was signed in 1985, but no government had taken the initiative for 33 years. But it was under the SC that the second NRC draft was published today. It was not because of any party - neither Congress nor BJP - that this has happened.”
He argued that while Congress was catering to a ‘Muslim-Bengalis’ who were foreigners, the BJP was favouring ‘Hindu-Bengalis’. “Neither party will benefit. What is needed is a constitutional safeguard for the indigenous people of Assam.”