Assam’s NRC Is An Opportunity To Shed The ‘Soft State’ Label

Assam’s NRC Is An Opportunity To Shed The ‘Soft State’ Label

by Prasenjit K Basu - Tuesday, September 11, 2018 03:17 PM IST
Assam’s NRC Is An Opportunity To Shed The ‘Soft State’ LabelPeople check their names on the final draft list of Assam’s NRC list in Guwahati.  (Rajib Jyoti Sarma/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
  • Every sovereign nation has the right – indeed, the obligation – to enforce its laws.

    That is what law enforcement and human rights should look like in a functioning democracy that isn’t a “soft state”.

When Ceylon (the nation known as Sri Lanka since 1971) became independent in 1948, one of its first acts was to introduce a citizenship law disenfranchising 11.9 per cent of its people – those labeled “Indian Tamils". Unlike the "Ceylon Tamils” who had lived on the island for millennia (and made up 11 per cent of the population), the 'Indian Tamils' were descended from those who had arrived in Ceylon since the 1830s as indentured labourers to build the tea and rubber industries that provided Ceylon’s key exports.

Having lived in Ceylon for three-to-five generations, the mislabeled "Indian Tamils" had few remaining roots in India. So, Jawaharlal Nehru’s government should have vehemently protested this disenfranchisement of nearly a million people – who suddenly faced deportation to India after a century of living and working in Ceylon. When Malay(si)a began proposing a similar attempt to marginalise its Chinese minority, both Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek made it clear that no expulsions of Malayan-Chinese would be tolerated.

India has long been seen as a “soft state”, incapable of enforcing policy choices great or small. In foreign policy, Nehru’s India made itself a soft target for its neighbours in the earliest months. By 1949, Ceylon operationalised its citizenship law by introducing a high income bar for citizenship that no more than 100,000 “Indian Tamils” (about a tenth of the total) could meet.

In January 1954, Nehru signed a pact with Ceylon’s prime minister John Kotelawala, under which India agreed to accept the “repatriation” of any “Indian Tamils” who chose Indian citizenship. Although India refused to automatically grant Indian citizenship to any Tamils who didn’t qualify for Ceylon citizenship, Nehru’s acceptance of “repatriation” became the thin end of the wedge that Ceylon used to expel 600,000 “Tamils” to India over the next three decades.

The “Tamils” included the Malayali family of M G Ramachandran (“MGR”, himself born in Kandy). The repatriated families were resettled in various parts of Tamil Nadu, where they had no remaining roots. MGR of course went on to become a charismatic Tamil movie star and chief minister of Tamil Nadu for 10 years – and a leading advocate of an Eelam for Sri Lanka’s Tamils.

The trail blazed by Ceylon would be emulated by Burma’s General Ne Win in 1962. Soon after the second military coup that began his 26-year reign as dictator of Burma, Ne Win ordered the expulsion of some 400,000 Indians, and confiscated their businesses. Nehru, debilitated and demoralised by defeat in the China war of that year, was barely able to mount a protest.

Today, Indians account for just 2 per cent of Myanmar’s population, down from 16 per cent in 1940 – when slightly more than half the population of Rangoon (now Yangon) was Indian. Anti-Indian riots in the 1930s – fomented as part of Britain’s Divide and Rule tactics – started the exodus, and perhaps half a million Indians left after the British defeat by Japan in 1942. But 1962 completed the saga of impunity.

No nation other than India accepted such large-scale “expulsions” of ethnic kin who had settled in another country for generations during the colonial era. Ceylon’s 1949 Citizenship Act was called Indian and Pakistani Residents Act No. 3. The 1946 census counted 6.1 per cent of Ceylon’s population as “Moors” (Muslims), most of whom spoke Tamil but self-identified as being of Arab descent. Neither any Arab nation nor Pakistan ever accepted the principle of “repatriation” of these Muslims to those countries from Ceylon.

Today, just 12.6 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population is Hindu – down from 22.7 per cent in 1946 and 23 per cent in 1953 – as a direct consequence of the “repatriations” of Tamil Hindus that Nehru and his successors failed to stop. By contrast, Sri Lanka’s Muslims now comprise 9.7 per cent of the population, up sharply from 6.1 per cent in 1946. That Pakistan accepted no “repatriations” arising from the 1949 act was the key.

The example of Kotelawala and S W R D Bandaranaike in Ceylon and Ne Win in Burma probably emboldened the Ugandan despot Idi Amin to order the expulsion of all 80,000 of Uganda’s Indians in 1972. Just over a third of them went to the UK, others to Canada and the US, and some 4,500 were given refuge in India. Indians alone were victims of reprehensible expulsions on such a large scale from at least three different countries.

Ironically, just before Idi Amin’s expulsions, India faced a much more acute refugee crisis, arising from Pakistan’s genocide in its eastern wing, which began with “Operation Searchlight” on 25-26 March 1971. As many as 10,000 people were killed during the first 48 hours, mainly Hindus and Bengali-nationalist Muslims, and the Ramna Kali Mandir was demolished.

Over the next few months, the Pakistan Army was unrelenting in carrying out dictator Yahya Khan’s order: “kill 3 million Bengalis and the rest will eat out of our hands”. As the massacre proceeded, some 1.5 million Bengali Hindus and Muslims fled East Pakistan in the first two months. On 20 May 1971, at Chuknagar (Khulna district), the Pakistan Army slaughtered 10,000 Hindu civilians seeking to escape to India, one of the largest single-day genocides of the gory twentieth century.

By the time the India-Pakistan war began in December 1971, at least 10 million East Bengalis had sought refuge in India. Despite India’s emphatic victory on 16 December 1971, the post-war arrangements did not include any formal procedure for the return of East Bengali refugees to the newly-liberated nation of Bangladesh. There has never been a proper count of how many returned.

United Nations population data for Bangladesh tell the clearest tale. Between 1960 and 1965, East Pakistan’s population grew by 15.35 per cent, marginally faster than the 15.32 per cent increase in the population between 1955 and 1960. East Pakistan’s population increased at a faster pace, by 15.73 per cent between 1965 and 1970.

Yet, between 1970 and 1975, Bangladesh’s population increased by only 5.53 per cent. At least 10 percentage points of Bangladesh’s 1970 population (ie, 6.688 million people) are unaccounted-for in the 1975 population. Pakistan’s genocide killed 500,000 people, but another 6.19 million are likely to have stayed behind in India (primarily Assam and West Bengal) after the 1971 creation of Bangladesh.

Until 1970, East Pakistan’s population was 20 per cent larger than West Pakistan’s. But one side-effect of the mass migration from East Pakistan to India in 1971 was that, by 1975, Bangladesh’s population was only 5.6 per cent larger than Pakistan’s – and a decade later, the two countries had the same number of people.

Ironically, India had welcomed East Bengali refugees in 1971 on humanitarian grounds, but their failure to return created a socio-economic crisis in the neighbouring states that had borne the brunt of the 1971 exodus. West Bengal, Assam and the north-eastern states of India were also the silent recipients of Indians expelled from Burma between 1937 and 1962.

Assam’s population grew 36 per cent between 1951 and 1961 (versus 22 per cent in India as a whole), and 35 per cent in 1961-71 (versus 25 per cent for all India). The number of voters in Assam leapt by 50 per cent between 1971 and 1978, contributing to an increase of 89 per cent between 1971 and 1991 – compared to 51 per cent growth in voters from 1951-71, and 53 per cent from 1991-2011.

Impoverished Bangladeshis kept entering Assam and West Bengal, and Congress (and CPI-M) governments either connived or participated in enabling further infiltration. The prospect of becoming a demographic minority in their own state led the Assamese to protest vehemently in the 1979-85 period against the infiltration of illegal migrants, which had begun in pre-partition Assam itself in the 1937-45 period when the Muslim League was largely in power. (In 1938, when Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was Congress president, he toppled the Assam government led by Saadullah, and replaced it with one led by Congress’ Gopinath Bordoloi – partly to stop the widespread resettlement of Muslims into Assam; but this government resigned with other Congress governments when the Second World War began a year later).

The protests eventually culminated in the 1985 Assam Accord – signed by Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government. The accord made 25 March 1971 the cut-off date for legitimate citizens: anybody who had entered the state before that date was a legitimate citizen of the state, anybody who had entered subsequent to that date (the start of “Operation Searchlight”) was implicitly expected to have returned to Bangladesh.

The Assam Accord was supposed to have ended illegal immigration, but subsequent Congress governments continued to allow illegal immigration because it was too tempting from an electoral standpoint. That it took 33 years before the provisions of the 1985 Assam Accord began being implemented was partly a consequence of the passage (by Indira Gandhi’s government) of the “Illegal Immigrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act” in 1983.

This IMDT Act was written specially for Assam, where it was to supersede India’s Foreigners Act of 1946 (which applied throughout the country). The IMDT made it almost impossible to prove that someone was a foreigner, allowing anybody carrying a ration card to automatically be deemed a citizen – a transparent ruse by the Indira Congress to gain the votes of illegal immigrants. In 2005, the Supreme Court of India struck down the IMDT Act as unconstitutional, ruling in favour of the legal challenge launched by Sarbananda Sonowal (who subsequently became Assam’s first Bharatiya Janata Party Chief Minister in May 2016).

A decade after the repeal of the IMDT Act, the Supreme Court began monitoring the updating of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) in 2015, and the update was duly completed at the end of July 2018. Despite spurious appeals to the “human rights” of illegal immigrants, the NRC process simply amounts to basic law enforcement. Every sovereign nation has the right – indeed, the obligation – to enforce its laws.

Illegal residents will have the right to appeal, and obtain work permits enabling them to stay on as non-citizens. That is what law enforcement and human rights should look like in a functioning democracy that isn’t a “soft state”.

Note: The (Ceylon) Sri Lanka data is based on the SL census documents for 1971 – "The Population of Sri Lanka", published by the UN CICRED (Committee for the Coordination of National Research in Demography), 1974. The Assam data is primarily India Today (issue dated 6 August 2018).

Prasenjit K Basu is the author of Asia Reborn: A Continent Rises From the Ravages of Colonialism and War to a New Dynamism (Aleph, 2017). He has served as chief economist for SE Asia & India at Credit Suisse First Boston, director of the Asia Service at Wharton Econometrics, chief global economist at Khazanah Nasional Berhad, and chief Asia economist at Daiwa Securities.

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