The recent publication of the first draft of the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) of Assam was an important event that met a key requirement under the Assam Accord of 1985. The preparation of the draft was a long and arduous task which faced many obstacles, some of them political. The Supreme Court intervened to set a deadline of December 31, 2017. Yet, even now, it is a draft with only 19 million names of citizens, out of 32.9 million applicants, figuring in it. The applications of 13.9 million persons are yet to be scrutinised. Even the published list is said to carry many mistakes and omissions. The entire exercise is expected to take yet another year. The final NRC will form the basis of actions to be taken against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, decided under the 1985 accord. But the issue is not as simple as it seems.
Assam was a major destination for migration from the then East Bengal before Independence, and from what became Pakistan after 1947, and from Bangladesh after the creation of that country in 1971. The migrants have changed the demographic character of the state and the six-year Assam agitation from 1979 to 1985 was for the identification and deportation of illegal migrants. The accord decided on a cut-off date of March 25, 1971, and those who entered the state after that were to be deported. The NRC would be the basis for the identification process. But the practical difficulties are daunting. It will be next to impossible to deport lakhs of migrants to Bangladesh, especially when India does not have a deportation treaty with Dhaka. Even if the migrants are proved to be non-Indians, Bangladesh might deny they were ever from that country. India will not be able to put much pressure on Bangladesh on the issue as it is a strategically important neighbour.
Governments and parties in Assam and West Bengal had ignored and even aided migration for political reasons. Even now, infiltration is taking place and the sealing of the border is shoddy and incomplete. The BJP, which is against illegal Muslim migrants, has welcomed Hindu migrants as political refugees from neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh. The partys move to make Hindu migrants eligible for Indian citizenship has attracted widespread criticism and opposition in Assam. There is no rationale for awarding citizenship on the basis of religion. The proposed legislation for this will be discriminatory and might not stand legal scrutiny. It is unlikely that the whole NRC exercise would achieve the specific aim for which it is being undertaken.