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Restoring a secular nation of citizenship

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Prasenjit Bose Union Home Minister Amit Shah has asserted that a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) will be completed before 2024 to drive out all “illegal infiltrators” from India. Along with the government’s insistence on enacting the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, this reflects a state of desperation. The fact is that the Modi government remains clueless about the fate of the 1.9 million people excluded from the NRC in Assam.
The Bangladesh government has been repeatedly assured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the NRC process will not impact India’s friendly neighbour. If so, where will the 1.9 million stateless persons be sent? Who is going to bear the massive cost of building detention centres for them? After spending over ₹1,600 crore already on the Assam NRC, senior Ministers of the Assam government are now recklessly demanding that the process be repeated again, with a fresh cut-off date.
Irrationality of the NRC This brings out the very irrationality of conducting an exercise like the NRC to identify “illegal migrants”, especially in the Indian context. The 2003 Amendment to the Citizenship Act enacted under the Vajpayee regime defines an “illegal migrant” as a “foreigner who has entered into India without a valid passport or other travel documents”. Given the history of a massive influx of refugees from East Bengal during and after Partition and during the Bangladesh liberation war, such a defective definition of “illegal migrant” amounts to a cruel criminalisation of millions of post-Partition refugees.
Over 5.21 million persons had registered themselves in Indian check posts as “refugees” by 1970 (Union Rehabilitation Ministry data quoted in  The Agony of West Bengal: A Study in Union State Relations ). Another 9.89 million had crossed over in 1971, according to figures provided by the Indian government to the United Nations ( The State of the World’s Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action, 2000 ). While most of the 1971 refugees returned to Bangladesh after the end of the hostilities, a few thousand did not. In West Bengal, where a bulk of these post-Partition refugees sought shelter, they have not only been absorbed into the socio-economic mainstream but have gone on to make stellar contributions to nation-building.
A sizeable proportion of the post-Partition refugees include Dalits from the Namasudra and Rajbanshi communities, among others. Although a large majority of the Bengali refugees are Hindus, the post-Partition refugees also include a section of Bengali Muslims, given the specific nature of the 1971 conflict in Bangladesh, which was fought over language and not religion.
Since none of these refugees had entered India with valid passports or travel documents, they have become “illegal migrants” in the eyes of the law, after the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2003. Moreover, the 2003 amendment has made it impossible for children born in refugee families to become Indian citizens by birth if either of their parents is deemed to be an “illegal migrant”.


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