According to the final version of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) published on Saturday, the Indian state of Assam now has 1.9 million “illegal foreigners”.
Because these people were not included in the NRC list, they are no longer considered as Indian citizens.
In other words, India can now describe these people – mostly Bengali Muslims – as “illegal Bangladeshi migrants” who came to India after March 1971.
It is to be noted that Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan on March 26 that year.
The delisted people will not be sent back to Bangladesh immediately because they have the right to appeal against the NRC exclusion within four months.
If their appeals are dismissed, they could be put on detention for an indefinite period. Some 1,000 people declared as foreigners earlier are already living in six detention centers across Assam.
A large section of Assam’s Bengali community is Muslim, and activists say that the citizenship verification process has targeted this community.
The Bengali Muslims who migrated to Assam under the supervision of the British colonial rule have contributed to the state’s economy mostly through agriculture.
Over the years, they got hold of substantial land properties, inciting jealousy and dissatisfaction among other ethnic groups who wanted to drive them out.
In 1979, the anti-foreigner agitation – known as the Assam movement – was launched and garnered widespread support. Its main aim was to deport Bengalis and to prevent fresh arrivals.
Saturday’s large-scale exclusion might lead to what the Assam movement was initiated for, but that is still not clear.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) earlier said all “Bangladeshis” in Assam would be deported, but Bangladesh will not accept such a decision as it is already dealing with the Rohingya crisis.
The influx of Rohingyas from Myanmar – who are mostly living in the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf-Ukhia stretch – has made a drastic change in the local economy.
At least for now, the fate of the delisted people in Assam is hanging in the balance.
The exclusion of such a large number of people is likely to spark vehement protests. Many also believe India, the second largest nation on earth in terms of population, will create a new mass of stateless people, fueling further tensions.
Irrespective of whatever happens now, Bangladesh should make it clear to the Indian government that it will not tolerate any pushback attempt of the delisted people.
Bangladesh has to take a strong stance in this regard, and any decision should be based on foresight.
What will NRC fallout lead to?
The move by the BJP to politicise migration, or specifically the ‘Bengali settler’ issue, is a dangerous game as it can evoke communalism and have huge 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 in 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 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 Tripura.
In addition, deportation of thousands of people who have been living in a place for almost half a century is both inhuman 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 politicisation of migration.
India shares one of the largest borders – approximately 4,000 kilometres in length – with Bangladesh. Informal trade between the two neighbours through 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 purposes.
All these will be immensely affected if the NRC scheme leads to unwanted, adverse situations.
The writer is a journalist