FTAs and discrimination usually do not go together. An FTA would be a win-win for both Bangladesh and India.
The Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, is reported to have raised the issue of the Assam National Register of Citizens (NRC) with Narendra Modi during her four-day visit to India last week. Modi is said to have assured her that this is an internal matter of India, and she should not be unduly perturbed about it.
One wonders if news reports on this issue accurately depict what actually was discussed in the Modi-Hasina and other bilateral meetings, but they are out of sync with what Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicians have been saying. From Home Minister Amit Shah to some state-level chief ministers (Haryana, for example), they have been talking about implementing the NRC all over India, and deporting illegal immigrants. This is BJP code for Bangladeshis who entered India illegally and continue working and staying here.
For starters, the BJP should stop using the NRC as some kind of political crutch when it has no clear idea about what this would really entail. While Assam is a different case, since the NRC has been implemented under Supreme Court supervision as a follow-up to the Assam Accord, when it comes to the rest of the country, following the same NRC process would be counter-productive and highly destabilising. The BJP should not talk loosely about NRC without explaining how it is going to go about implementing it all over the country without disrupting lives and local economies.
There is nothing wrong in India having its own National Register of Citizens, but its aims and implementation processes must be thought through before putting it in motion. The Assam process has been implemented without any plan on what to do with those declared non-citizens, of which there are 1.9 million. If the plan is to offer citizenship to those persecuted in our neighbouring countries, the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) ought to have preceded the NRC, not followed it.
Any declared aim on NRC, especially with respect to Bangladesh, also ought to reckon with the reality that these porous borders cannot be effectively sealed. As long as there are push (persecution of Hindus) and pull factors (better livelihood prospects for the rest), no fence can keep illegal migrants out.
Also, if we want the cooperation of Bangladesh, we can’t be shouting about our intentions to throw the illegals out.
The aims of an NRC thus ought to be the following:
One, identification of illegal immigrants should go hand-in-hand with a clear promise that no one will be deported except for criminal activities. Livelihoods already at stake here should not be erased through such threats.
Two, there must be a formal process for separating illegals who entered with purely economic motives, as opposed to those who came here due to persecution. This will help those who are entitled to fast-track citizenship under CAB, and stymie those who are not.
Those who are not entitled to citizenship should be struck off the voter lists. But their residency and civic rights, including the right to work here, should not be affected. The only requirement should be that they should formally return to their homes in Bangladesh (or wherever) for a few months every, say, three years, so that they don’t claim permanent citizenship rights. Bangladesh should be amenable to these restrictions for it cannot claim that its citizens must have a right to vote in Indian elections.
Three, the logical way to have a deal with Bangladesh is to enter into a free trade agreement (FTA) with it. This will bring Indian investment into Bangladesh, and regularise Bangladeshi workers who illegally entered India with legal work permits. Bangladesh is already benefiting from US-China trade tensions in industries such as garment exports. There is no reason why Indian companies should not also invest there to gain from the same regulatory environment that boosts labour-intensive investment.
Boosting the Bangladesh economy is the best way to keep out illegal immigrants who only want better livelihoods. If they can do so back home, why would they emigrate to India illegally? Higher and visible Indian investment in Bangladesh should also provide persecuted Hindus in that country a new reason to stay on and fight the persecution. FTAs and discrimination usually do not go together. An FTA would be a win-win for both Bangladesh and India.
Four, Bangladesh should also be told to provide safe zones for Hindus who feel threatened by Muslim fundamentalism and jihadi elements. If needed, India can provide some help in ensuring security in those safe zones. Bangladesh may not agree to Indians providing security in those safe zones, but the idea needs to be discussed and quietly pushed. Bangladeshi Hindus themselves can be given jobs to operate these safe zones with security training from India.
Next, there is the process to follow for NRC.
First, any nation-wide NRC must be an extended process and involve a whole lot of documentation that would be acceptable for proving long-term residency and citizenship.
Second, there should be no time limit for proving one’s citizenship. Long-term residency alone should be a guarantee against any termination of voting or citizenship rights, and livelihoods should not be threatened.
Third, those who cannot prove citizenship can remain permanent residents with reduced rights – especially on the right to vote. But their children born here should not be denied the same rights after naturalisation (but not just due to birth in this country).
Fourth, there should be a formal citizenship oath that accepts and mandates respect for religions and practices that originated in the sub-continent. While new citizens can practice whatever religion they want, there should be lines in the oath restraining them from propagating exclusivist faiths that denigrate local faiths. Usage of words like kafir and infidel and non-believer should be deemed hate speech, and worthy of prosecution.
NRC should be about protecting India and Indian religious practices from evisceration, and preventing immigration-driven demography from destabilising the polity in some states. It should not be against the free flow of labour and capital in the Indian economy.