193 years ago, on 24 February 1826, the Treaty of Yandabo ended the war between Burma and Britain, resulting in Assam, along with a few other regions, being ceded to the British. Who knew that almost two centuries later, a National Registry of Citizenship would have to be made and an Citizenship Bill be amended to rectify the resulting mistakes.
The British had maintained a liberal policy on refugees and infiltrators entering Indian borders, which we know now, caused irreversible damage to the culture and heritage of the people of Assam. C.S Mullan, the then census superintendent wrote in his report:
“Probably the most important event in the province during the last 25 years—an event, moreover, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole feature of Assam and to destroy the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilization—has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry immigrant.”
In 1950, to tackle this problem, the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 came into effect; it mandated the identification and deportation of illegal immigrants from Assam. However, the task was felt impractical as the borders had no physical boundaries or protection and the plan was dropped. That led to a continuous inflow of infiltrators into the State.
In 1965, one more failed attempt was made to make the National Register of Citizens for Assam. Later in 1971, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh, another exodus of immigrants into India (Assam) was seen. This influx was mainly attributed to the fertile lands of Assam, which promised a stable income and standard of living. In 2012, the government of Assam reported an estimate of 5,00,000 immigrants seeking refuge in the State – a massive number by any standards (the population of Assam in 1961 was a little less than 11,00,000).
Then, in 1979, what was perhaps the largest student driven revolution in the world rocked the State of Assam. The protestors’ demands were simple – a zero tolerance policy towards illegal immigrants. The revolution ended with the Assam Accord being adopted in 1985. But it was a deal breaker as it failed to address the real problem – the continuous inflow of illegal immigrants. As per the Accord, the people who came to Assam before 1966 were eligible for becoming Indian citizens and all those who came after, would be provided citizenship according to the relevant laws in place.
Then, 25 years later in 2010, the first systemic process of detecting foreigners in Assam began. But miscreants who were not in support of the process came out and attacked the Deputy Commissioner in open, which led to massive protests across the State. 4 people were killed in police firing. The administration began to feel that the NRC update was impossible.
Then in 2013, when a petition was filed in the Supreme Court by two organisations, an order was passed to restart the exercise, which would be monitored directly by the Court.
The exercise began immediately and 6 years later in August 2019, the final update of the NRC was released amidst strong criticisms – more than 19,00,000 people had been left out of the register. There were accusations of a scam or two as well, but none have been proven thus far.
How does this affect us?
First, national security. Crime rate is high in almost all places where immigration has been high. Rape, robberies and murders are increasingly common and the law and order situation generally pathetic. This provides an easy route for countries trying to export terrorism to India, which we cannot be tolerated.
Second, the fast-changing demography – most refugees have a strikingly different culture and lifestyle, or sometimes none at all, which directly conflicts with the locals that have been living in the region since time immemorial. You may ask, why should a difference in culture be a problem? Globally, locals are considered first among equals and have the right to preserve their language and cultural heritage, and be represented in the political machinery without having to fight for what is rightfully theirs.
Immigrants begin by demanding equal rights in in the system, in which the biggest losers are the indigenous people of that region. Slowly, as the demography changes, the locals end up becoming a minority in their own land, left to the mercy of people who don’t belong there. If the diversity of India is to be preserved, we must prioritise the people that have made the country a safe and distinct place to live in. While the NRC is doing that from within, the Citizenship Amendment Bill that the government passed on 11th November 2019 will do it at source.