The National Register of Citizens is a great initiative, prima facie. While it is certainly desirable to flush out all illegal immigrants from our already overpopulated country, the nation fears Hindus fleeing Bangladeshi persecution would be clubbed with Muslims from our eastern neighbour who sneaked in only for better economic prospects or to execute terror plots.
Back in the mid-eighties, the left was going through a rough patch in France owing to the political failure of their government’s economic policies. With the approaching election in mind, the French president made immigration a major talking point. He encouraged the media to give a hitherto marginal politician, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as much exposure as possible. Le Pen brought in toxic racist rhetoric to the debate on immigration, to which the ruling left responded with characteristical moral sermons. Thus, President Mitterrand successfully beat the anti-incumbency sentiment of the electorate and retained power, all the while keeping the issue of immigration on the boil.
It goes without saying that, other than customary warnings and widely advertised ‘crackdowns’ on illegal immigrants, France, or any other European state for that matter, has hardly moved a finger to tide over the demographic threat that the continent faces. France, being the worst hit demographically, has indulged in many symbolic gestures to give the state an air of grave concern. To this day, the world hears time and again about the bans on head-scarfs and burqas. In other countries, there are bans on certain kinds of architecture or attire. While the public is allowed to let off steam on symbolic victories over non-living things like the burqa, the demographic challenge posed by the women wearing them, and more importantly their male relatives, continue to be ignored.
Let’s turn our focus to the India of 2018. The National Register of Citizens, which requires individuals in Assam to prove that they or their ancestors entered Assam before the midnight of March 24, 1971, or risk getting shunted out of the country, is a great initiative, prima facie. Much of the hue and cry over it in the last week or so is unabashed fear-mongering by parties in the opposition. Some, like West Bengal Chief Minister and head of Trinamool Congress Mamata Banerjee, smell an opportunity here for gaining political stature before 2019, given that her Bengali Hindu identity enables her to become the mouthpiece of the Bengali Hindus excluded from the NRC list just released. Others, like leaders of the Congress, have made it their business to clutch at straws to somehow oppose anything that the NDA government does.
It is interesting that a large chunk of people who find themselves excluded from the list is made up of Bangladeshi Hindus who crossed over into Assam to escape the violent aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992-93. Sadly, this very critical piece of information gets lost in the shrill rhetoric about illegal immigrants. The issue has become a classic case of obfuscation in which the cacophonous character of the debate does not bother those that are listening, for they find the tune of their liking depending on where they are situated on the political spectrum.
Most people link illegal deportation with Rohingya Muslims, without realising that the NRC is not applicable to them, as their stay is protected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC). Now, even the Supreme Court of India seems to be largely sympathetic to their cause. It is quite ironic that on one hand the highest court of the land is hearing a case that pleads for the settlement of a relatively recent set of refugees in India while it is issuing instructions on deporting an older set. The contradiction notwithstanding, it is doubtful if the Indian State has the wherewithal or the expertise to carry out that superlatively challenging exercise that hardly has a precedent in the history of independent India.
While it is certainly desirable to flush out all illegal immigrants from our already overpopulated country, the absence of a convincing blueprint makes the unintended outcomes particularly dangerous. The treatment of the people from the Northeast in the rest of the country has got significant media attention in the last decade or so, as a result of which the challenges they face are not unknown to most of us. However, few of us have visited the north-eastern States and are completely oblivious to the anti-India discourse that pervades large parts of the region, not unlike the situation in Kashmir. This reflects in the hostile attitude of the locals towards Indians in general and Bengalis in particular.
In their race to score political points over each other and expand their respective vote banks, the political parties could unintentionally and carelessly put the lives of thousands of people at risk. In the spirit of utilitarian analysis, one may argue that it would be a reasonable trade-off if only the state finally evacuates the people who pose a security risk to the nation, namely the Rohingyas and the Bangladeshi Muslims. The former, as pointed out earlier, are largely protected by the UNHRC. So, what about the latter? It turns out that most of them have already opted for Bangladeshi citizenship in the last settlement of border dispute between India and Bangladesh through the formation of India–Bangladesh enclaves also called ‘Chitmahals’. In such a scenario, it is safe to assume that India will follow Europe in generating heat and noise but failing to accomplish anything of value as far as the immigration crisis is concerned. Let us just hope that the reshuffle of vote banks before the 2019 elections and the ensuing identity politics does not leave a trail of blood behind it.
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Last Updated Aug 6, 2018, 1:56 PM IST