The exclusion of over 1.9 million people from the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam is only the beginning of a Kafkaesque nightmare in the border State, especially when neither the Centre nor the State seem to have a clue about what they plan to do with these “stateless citizens”. Those excluded have 120 days to prove that they are Indian or, if reports from Assam are to be believed, be lodged in the 11 detention centres that the State government proposes to build in the coming months. Although senior ministers in the State government like Himanta Biswa Sarma are at pains to underline that no such detainee camps will be set up, televised images of such an exclusive centre being constructed in Goalpara are sinister enough to create panic. The 11 exclusive detention centres are ostensibly going to be constructed in addition to the already existing six detention centres. These existing centres house about 1,000 “detected foreigners” under the special provision for recognising citizenship of persons covered by the Assam Accord in 6-A of the Citizenship Act, 1955. Additionally, there are over one lakh “detected foreigners” who have not been detained because there simply isn’t enough space in the centres. Absurdly enough, the proposed 11 centres are meant to accommodate the additional number. Senior ministers, especially Sarma, have simultaneously asserted that Bangladesh should be persuaded to take its citizens back, a statement fraught with uncertainty because of the process involved in convincing the neighbouring country to accept those who have been claiming Indian citizenship.
Indeed, neither the prospect of lodging, feeding, clothing and detaining such a large number of people nor pushing them across the border seems to be within the realm of the possible. What is likely is that along with the 100 existing Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs) in Assam, an additional 400 such tribunals will be set up till December and the process of hearing appeals by those excluded from the NRC will commence. The BJP, in the meantime, is likely to push the Citizenship Amendment Bill to accommodate the majority of Hindus who have been excluded from the NRC. This sort of communal segregation has the potential to expose the Assamese-versus-Bangladeshi fault-line which had plunged the State into a violent mass movement fuelled by Assamese sub-nationalism in the 1980s.
The best course of action is to revamp the NRC exercise so that the process of identification becomes more meaningful and the solutions more realistic and humane. The migration issue needs to be addressed on multiple fronts, given its religious and ethnic complexities. This would include economic and diplomatic engagement with Bangladesh to reduce the distress on the other side of the border.