Though it may not seem apparent, the twin tasks of Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) are equally significant as the dilution of articles 370 and the repeal of 35A from the perspectives of building a strong Bharat. Much to the chagrin of greedy vote-bank political parties which are opposing these historical initiatives, the Nation is holding its collective breath for these bills to be enacted into laws in the winter session of the Parliament.
This article has two parts. The first part discusses the need and relevance of both CAB and NRC. The second part lists out important precautions while offering a few strategy inputs to ensure their effective implementation. Finally, it urges the Modi government to look into the issue of the religious minorities who were left behind in these neighbouring countries, with compassion.
For the purpose of dealing with data, the article uses the abbreviation 'IR' meaning Indian Religionists which include Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, with Hindus being the overwhelming majority. Data sources include cpsindia.org, censusindia.gov.in, Pew-Templeton, the World Bank, and newspapers.
The CAB seeks to render justice to the oppressed people of mother India who suffered persecutions over long decades for the sins of Partition caused by unscrupulous political leaders of the country. It seems their bitter experience of working with Muslim League leaders in the interim central government for only a few months in 1946-47 made Nehru and other top Congress leaders suddenly abandon the core tenet of the Indian National Congress against Partition. Nor did they, while taking that enormous decision, think it necessary to give one single chance to the religious minorities to choose their post-partition abode. It is strange that the advice of BR Ambedkar on an orderly exchange of people on a voluntary basis was derisively rejected. Destiny of nearly twenty million helpless people of religious minorities was placed under the control of those very leaders with whom the Congress leaders could not run the government even for one full year!
Millions of people on either side of the border paid dearly for that heinous crime with their lives and properties. Just to give an idea of the catastrophe, nearly 95% of the minorities in West Pakistan were shepherded out to India in a very short time following the Partition, while nearly 70% of them in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) came over to India in a staggered manner. The exodus still continues. The following table provides a bird's eye view of the problem:
Despite the issue of refugees being a staggering problem, India, however, did not have any proper refugee policies in place. Offering help and in matters of citizenship to them have been handled in an ad hoc manner. Compounding the discomfiture of the refugees from Bangladesh, the Indira-Mujib pact (March 1972) had virtually robbed them of any government help or citizenship right. The pact had disingenuously ruled out any future refugee movement from Bangladesh into India. The exodus of religious minorities started in a few years i.e., soon after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first President of Bangladesh, was assassinated by anti-India forces. Ironically, the post-war refugees thenceforth were put virtually in the same bracket as illegal infiltrators in India. Rajiv Gandhi's accord with AASU & others (August 1985) further cemented that position.
There is no exact data available on the numbers of refugees awaiting citizenship. If we were to hazard a guess, the 'Matua' community of West Bengal alone numbers several millions and a major chunk of them are waiting for citizenship rights. We need to bear in mind that refugees without any citizenship right are reduced to living like second class citizens vulnerable to exploitation by bureaucracy, local politicians, and anti-social elements.
Infiltration - How it started
Given the long history of communal violence in undivided Bengal in British India which catalysed its partition, it was predictable that West Bengal would be careful to prevent infiltration. The census data suggests that this caution was largely in place till 1971. This is corroborated by census data relating to 1951 till 1971. The percentage of Muslim population to total population of the state during these two decades remained stationary at around 20%. However, India's participation in Bangladesh liberation war in 1971 began to upset the religious demography of the State.
The Indira-Mujib Pact of 1972 had over-optimistically described the borders between two countries as 'eternal' throwing caution to the winds. Taking full advantage of the situation, Muslim nationals of Bangladesh have been entering West Bengal alongside the refugees to take advantage of the absence of any clear policy to treat the refugees as illegal infiltrators. In fact, this thoughtlessness on the part of the central government has lent justification to the ruling parties of border states like West Bengal to treat both groups on equal footing providing them with ration cards, voters IDs and so on. Several political parties today look at them as vote banks. They even dream bigger gains by connecting them with Indian Muslim population on the ground of religious affinity because that can potentially add to the size of their vote bank.
The Case of West Bengal and Assam
A study of changing religious demography of West Bengal from 1951 to 2011 gives the impression that illegal infiltration from Bangladesh has contributed to the sudden increase of the Muslims population in the post-Bangladesh war decades. Table 2 shows how after witnessing a stable demographic balance over two decades following Partition, the State has been facing a steady rise in Muslim population despite continuous addition to arrivals of Hindu refugees:
Assam has been another state deeply impacted by Bangladeshi infiltration. Unlike West Bengal, infiltration has been hurting its demography ever since the colonial days. It continued unabated after India’s Independence. This may be attributed to the indulgence shown by successive regimes that ruled the province for several decades and looked at the infiltrators as its vote bank. Table 3 captures the situation rightly since 1901 till 2011:
Various Zones of Infiltration
Gradually, the greed of political parties for 'vote bank' has helped illegal infiltrators spread their wings in several states be it cities or country sides. Today, the country can be categorized into three zones in terms of the density of the infiltrators: (a) the borderline States like West Bengal and Assam; (b) the eastern belt comprising of States like Bihar, Jharkhand, eastern Uttar Pradesh; (c) rest of the country. Other than the above, there are a few places in the North-East like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Sikkim etc and distant Uttarakhand which witnessed a sudden and drastic change in the demographics of Muslim population. Whether or not this is linked to Bangladeshi infiltration is not clear. However, these prima facie seem to be inorganic in nature.
A deep study of the above is beyond the scope of this article. However, illegal infiltration seems to be playing a role in causing unnatural changes in religious demographic balance in the country as a whole. Its implication can be better understood keeping in mind that these changes show up despite largescale refugee arrival who are Indian Religionists. Table 4 gives a rough idea:
Triggers for NRC
The greed for Muslim vote bank by political parties and the illegal infiltrators as a potential adjunct to that has begun to boost the political, social and religious assertiveness on the part of the latter. No wonder political indulgence is bringing them in conflict with the centuries old social order of India, and law and order machineries intermittently. They are strategic in chalking out their political loyalties driving political parties into competition to guarantee them increasingly more economic, social and political rights and privileges. For example in West Bengal the strategic shift in minority votes played a key role in ousting the Communist regime in 2011.
The wider society in India has been getting restive with the infiltrating population for a variety of reasons. Assam woke up to the danger ahead of others. A massive students movement in Assam in the 1980s led to the demand for NRC and expulsion of illegal migrants. A huge ground swell of discontent against Bangladeshi infiltrators began to erupt in West Bengal in recent years. NRC was a key issue in LS polls this year and the mandate showed that a significant percentage of the state's population endorsed this demand. Far away from West Bengal and Bangladesh border, the ruling regimes in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Karnataka, too have raised demand for NRC. The major political party in Delhi, the capital of the country, has raised a strong demand for NRC too. On the whole, there are increasing signs of the wider society's resolve to get rid of the infiltrators.
PRECAUTIONS & STRATEGIES: Why CAB over NRC?
Both are critical for India but their sequencing needs to be strategic to blunt unreasonable opposition by vested political interests and pseudo-secular forces. In the aftermath of unsatisfactory Assam experience, where NRC was done ahead of CAB under the compulsion of judicial direction, Modi government has rightly decided to reverse the order.
There are a number of reasons why CAB should precede NRC: (a) CAB has a positive face since it renders justice to those who have been persecuted for long in neighbouring countries on account of their religious faith. It will be difficult for the vested interests to oppose this initiative; (b) In terms of its provision to expel sections of population from the country, NRC is seen as a punitive action and it is easier to excite passion against the government by propagating lies and creating fear psychosis, particularly when the extant system does not make any technical distinction between refugees and infiltrators; (c) The help of refugees may be critical to identify the infiltrators, especially in places outside Bengal and the North East.
Challenges in Implementing CAB
Though opposition to CAB is likely to be lesser, it will be naïve to expect a smooth run for it, especially in states where ruling regimes adopt a flagrant pro-Muslim position under the pretext of secularism. Given their irrepressible greed and hunger for minority vote banks, they are likely to be non-cooperative or even sabotage the whole process, by hook or by crook. On the other hand, driven by panic and desperation the potential 'CAB excludes' may try every means to acquire 'eligibility' in terms of the CAB, if the bill seems certain to be passed by the Parliament. As part of such attempts, illegal infiltrators may try to acquire identity documents that would help them qualify as citizens. Finally, there is a risk of 'identity change' on a mass scale. In other words, the illegal infiltrators may fake identities of belonging to any of the five religions specified in the CAB to secure citizenship. With no 'anti-conversion' law in place in the country, they can revert to their original identity later. There is widespread belief that the practice of assuming fake religious identities by infiltrators happened in large scale during left rule in West Bengal.
CAB - Strategies for Implementation
The CAB must therefore have well thought strategies in place with regard to its implementation. The foremost need is to ensure that the respective state governments extend their unreserved co-operation to the Centre. Next, it must be a nationwide exercise and thoughtfully devised to make the states and the target beneficiaries participate in it without reservation. For example, the government may seek to spread the burden of refugees across various states. This might require sections of refugees to move away from the place of their present settlement. They must be educated to co-operate. At the same time every State should be reconciled to accept their fair share of burden without demur in long term interest of the Nation. Next, the process for application and list of documents need to be kept simple yet effective so that genuine do not suffer and ineligible cannot sneak in. Towards that end identification of a refugee and his or her land etc by fellow villagers or neighbours in Bangladesh as was done in Punjab in the after math of partition may be used. On the whole, care must be taken to ensure that the fakes cannot avail CAB due to corruption at the level of lower bureaucracy.
NRC is a Huge Challenge
In some cases, especially in West Bengal, NRC poses far grave challenge than what meets the eyes. The persons who are presently refugees or have a 'refugee past' are many times larger here than Assam, presumably numbering a couple of crore or even more. They have overwhelming legitimate concerns about NRC and all 'vote-bank' parties seem determined to aggravate that for electoral purpose. Unless people are reassured through prior implementation of CAB and friendly procedural regime, this is the one single issue that can undo the labour the BJP put forth in this state all these years and the gains it made in LS elections 2019 may disappear like quicksand. This will be setback to the initiative nationally too.
Besides political opposition NRC would pose an unprecedented administrative challenge. Preparing the list of 1.3 billion people is an enormous task. If not carefully planned it can potentially claim substantial time of the entire population, bring the economic activities to a grinding halt and retard productivity of the nation. The country cannot face another major dislocation after demo & GST. The strategies need to be thought through ahead of time. The Assam NRC experience has shown how large numbers of people were required to devote huge time and undergo procedural harassment. Worse, lakhs of refugees excluded from NRC are still running from pillar to post though they are proposed to be included under CAB. To optimise the exercise it may be useful to prepare a 'base-line list of citizens' using technology and meticulously marshalling the whole range of data available with the government that are conventionally used to confirm citizenship of persons such as birth certificates, passport, etc and displaying the list in the website for public access. Given that 65% of Indians are below 35 years of age and most would have birth certificates, nearly 800 million people may straightaway come into the list. It will be easier to pay careful attention to the population outside the 'base list'. It needs to be borne in mind that to prepare a full proof NRC at one go would be an impossibility, but it is essential to prevent future infiltration forthwith. The quicker a full-fledged NRC is in place, India will stand ring-fenced. Being pragmatic will save time and energy of the bureaucracy and the nation as a whole.
It is necessary to dismiss the predictions of the pseudo secular lobby that Bangladesh will never take back any of these illegal infiltrators. Rather, there are several reasons for Bangladesh to lend its co-operation: (a) The foremost is the fact of largescale infiltration is truth which it cannot morally deny; (b) India has uncomplainingly shouldered the responsibility of huge numbers of refugees of religious minorities from Bangladesh. In addition to that expecting India to keep accommodating a large numbers of Muslim Bangladeshi nationals is patently unjust; (c) Bangladesh has been expressing its gratitude to India for the latter's support and sacrifice during its liberation struggle.
The best way to reciprocate India's help will be to accept its own nationals back; (d) Bangladesh self-interest warrants that it must get back the radical Islamist fundamentalists who are its own nationals but presently residing in and using Indian soil to plan against the Hasina government. Getting them back with rest of the infiltrators will help cut down seditious activities in its land;
The CAB in its present form provides for citizenship to refugees who came from three neighbouring countries on or before 31st December 2014. The fate of those who would be left behind are stark. The minorities are not only compelled to life of slavery in Pakistan, but their young women are being frequently kidnapped, raped, converted and forcibly married to Muslim men. These are sure recipes for exterminating the whole religious monority. As regards Bangladesh, despite there being warm government to government relationship, the helplessness of its government and the sway of the fundamentalists over the wider society continues. Recent report of massive protest there against abolition of Art 370 & 35A in India is stark reminder of situation in that country. It may not be far from truth to infer that these minorities virtually survive at the mercy of the majority community.
The religious minorities in these countries were never ever given a chance to choose the country of residence. Modi government can win the heart of entire humanity by giving them this choice now. As a matter of fact, their total population today may not exceed 2 crore. For a country of 130 crore people it is not a tall order to give them shelter and settle the minority issue once and for all. Already nearly 2 crore of illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh are thriving in India. With their essentially anti-India attitude they have no business to be here. Though India and Pakistan became independent in 1947 these unfortunate victims of communal hatred never ever have known what it is to live as free men and women. Modi govt can liberate them and complete the process of freedom that remains unfinished as yet in its true sense.