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As debate rages over Assam, it may make sense to link NRC with Aadhaar

Creating undesirable social tensions or starting controversial deportations of poor people does not suit an aspiring power like India.

Updated: Jul 31, 2018, 18:52 PM IST

If you only listen to politicians on a vexed social or economic problem, you are only going to get predictable responses based on vote bank politics -- be it of those who want votes from this side or that. That is the thought that comes to mind this week as Assam grapples with the problem of illegal immigration into the state under the Supreme Court's supervision.

With an estimated 4 million people residing in the state not officially recognised as Indians in the National Register of Citizens this week, we have to look at the genesis, nature and details of the problem and also consider meaningful solutions if we are to rise above the noises we hear in parliament and TV news studios.

Two things in the news this year could help us take things forward. They are in a way linked to the problem of migration in Assam. One is the release of the Bollywood hit Raazi starring Alia Bhatt and directed by Meghna Gulzar and the other is the continuing controversy over the unique identification number, Aadhaar. 

Raazi is set in the times of the 1971 war that India fought with Pakistan to liberate Bangladesh after Islamabad sent its troops to quell a popular Bengali uprising. What is increasingly forgotten that though the waves of migration of Bengali-speaking Muslims into Assam goes back several decades, a huge number of people in the state are tormented ones who fled Pakistani troops and arrived in India as refugees or it is their descendants. The clear and present danger in discussing the immigration problem in Assam is the simplistic ethnic and religious profiling of Muslims. In a whipped up mood, people tend to forget that lakhs of Muslims fled oppression in the wake of attacks by Pakistani troops claiming to represent an Islamic nation. So this is not about Muslims but about human rights and other identities, besides socio-economic misery.

Raazi, based on a real life story, showed us how a Kashmiri Muslim woman married into the Pakistani side of Jammu and Kashmir risked her life and happiness to spy for India, providing a crucial piece of information that helped India win the 1971 war. 

If the refugees from what was then East Pakistan challenged the two-nation theory of Muhammad Ali Jinnah that resulted in the partition of India in 1947, Raazi's protagonist, Sehmat, exploded the myth that stereotyped Kashmiri Muslims as unpatriotic.

The Assam problem is too complex to be boxed into a simplistic Hindu-Muslim equation and has social, economic and historical dimensions. India's Constitution allows free movement of people. Waves of Bengali speakers have moved into what is now Assam since pre-Independence days. A PhD thesis in 2015 on immigration into Assam by Madhumita Sarma at the University of Adelaide based on extensive field surveys gives valuable insights into the issue. Sarma says migration has had both positive and negative impact on Assam and particularly helped the state develop during British rule. She concludes by saying large-scale migration from Bangladesh is "undeniable" and "continues" but adds that this problem needs to go beyond vote bank politics and needs a solution that looks at the long-term impact on the state.

Let us step aside now and look at what President Donald Trump has been trying to do desperately in a bid to build a wall to stop immigrants from Mexico. The idea is widely considered to be stupid and is stuck on who will pay for it. India cannot build a similar wall to stop Bangladeshi immigrants but can step up patrolling on the border. However, given the historic waves of Bengalis coming into Assam, it makes more sense to stop further influx into Assam and take steps to identify future migrants rather than go after current residents with a toothcomb. This is where both the NRC and Aadhaar come in handy.

Aadhaar, based on biometric identification, is yet to make it to Assam and is not part of the NRC exercise. Biometrics make it easier to pinpoint citizens. While many of us have genuine concerns about the abuse of Aadhaar and the potential violation of privacy it can bring, those are stratospheric pinpricks compared to the true gains it can bring for poor people whose fundamental identity is being called into question. 

Taking into account the various angles, a long-term solution to the Assam problem could potentially involve the following measures
*     A conditional amnesty or leniency can be shown to the current lot of questionable Assam residents with a cut-off date. They may be asked to take oath under the Indian constitution and flag, the way US swears in naturalised citizens.
*     A new, special economic package can be offered to Assam in return for the unreasonable socio-economic burden its indigenous citizens have been facing for decades. If prosperous Andhra Pradesh can get a special package to allow the creation of Telangana, why can't Assam's people benefit for bearing the pain of a strategic foreign policy and security gain for India in 1971?
*     Aadhaar can be made prospective, linked to the NRC and involve an electronic database can monitor citizens.
*     India can engage Bangladesh more aggressively to set up industries involving Indian entrepreneurs to create local jobs that would minimise the prospect of economic refugees

Creating undesirable social tensions or starting controversial deportations of poor people does not suit an aspiring power like India. You only have to look at how the Trump administration is making a global fool of itself on the Mexico issue in the US, separating parents from children to get an idea.

The past is past, and looking forward with a no-nonsense yet humane sense of precision may be the best way to go on Assam. Just as a Syrian immigrant resulted in the fathering of Steve Jobs, the American phenomenon who built the iPhone and Apple, there may be Sehmats and Steves among migrants into Assam. Perhaps it is time to hum a haunting song from Raazi: "Mud ke na dekho, Dilbaro" Don't look back. Look forward. 

After all, India played a role in the formation of Bangladesh, like a father holding the fingers of a little girl. The mighty Brahmaputra is generous enough.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)