Thousands of people in Assam have received new citizenship verification notices this week as the northeastern Indian state is currently updating its National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The citizenship verification exercise is part of a divisive political move by the Indian authorities. Its objective is to check the relationship of a section of Assam residents with their ancestors in order to prove that they entered India before March 1971, when Bangladesh’s War of Independence against Pakistan started.
The primary aim of the exercise is to separate ‘genuine’ Indians from undocumented migrants living in Assam, as stated by the administration.
Most of those who have received fresh notices are migrant Muslims, but there are a few hundred Bengali Hindus among them as well.
When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Assam by forming an alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), it declared that all Bangladeshis in Assam would be deported.
When it said Bangladeshis, it referred to the people of Bangladesh who went to India during Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Liberation against Pakistan.
The process of the NRC was fast-tracked after the BJP took over in 2016.
This move by the BJP to politicize migration or specifically the ‘Bengali settler’ issue, is a dangerous game as it can evoke communalism and have severe consequences both in India and in Bangladesh.
The NRC’s citizenship verification exercise provides grounds for communal hatred and violence to develop, as Bengali-speaking Muslims are seemingly the main target of this scheme. It could also stimulate Bengali nationalism as it faces opposition from cohabiting ethnic communities.
As many as four million people in Assam were left out of the draft NRC, which was published on July 2018. This rendered them stateless.
Many of the Bengali-speaking Assam residents have been living there for decades but do not have compelling documents that prove their Indian citizenship beyond doubt. So, the NRC exercise, in a way, is indirectly designed to deny the benefits of citizenship to those long-term residents.
One of the key benefits of citizenship is the right to vote. If these Assam residents do not have citizenship, they will undoubtedly be disenfranchised. This could trigger adverse reactions in Bangladesh, as well as in West Bengal and in Tripura.
Also, the deportation of thousands of people who have been living in a place for almost half a century is both inhumane and impractical. Such a move could fuel tension and unrest on both sides of the India-Bangladesh divide.
Experts suggest ensuring the rights of these long-term inhabitants instead of deporting them.
There are also long-term strategic costs for India because of the BJP’s politicization of migration. India shares one of the largest borders – approximately 4,000 kilometers in length – with Bangladesh, and informal trade between the two neighbors through the border and other routes amounts to billions of dollars. Indian apparels flood Bangladeshi markets, particularly during Eid festivals. Almost half a million Bangladeshi people visit India every year for tourism, medical treatment, and shopping.
All these will be immensely affected if there is any fallout of the NRC exercise.