1. As we are all aware, CAB had rocked the North East during the last few years, particularly during the last Lok Sabha election held in the early part of 2019. In spite of stiff and widespread opposition against CAB in the NE region, the ruling BJP had unabashedly included re-introduction and passing of CAB in their election manifesto; and they had been returned to the Lok Sabha with an even larger majority than before. Even in the recently held State Assembly elections in the N E region (well after the CAB 2016 was introduced in Parliament), the BJP did better than in any previous election, capturing power in Assam, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. (The first three states are supposed to be most adversely affected by CAB in descending order. Arunachal have around 60 to 70 thousands Chakma Buddhist refugees who are yet to be granted Indian citizenship). Now that the BJP Govt at the Centre have included CAB in the agenda of the coming winter session of Parliament, it appears we are going to witness another round of protests and turmoil in the NE region.
2. In my humble opinion, the NE region is a bit over-reacting to CAB; and this is largely due to some misconceptions about the intent and possible consequences of CAB. Some of the misconceptions appear to be – (a) that if CAB is passed, it will usher in an ‘open-door policy’ for illegal immigrants to enter India, particularly in the NE; and that this will drastically alter the demographic profile of the NE region; and (b) that in the NE there are already large number of illegal immigrants (belonging to the religious minorities named in the CAB, viz Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Parsis and Jains) who can benefit from this CAB. Both the above presumptions, in my opinion, may not be true.
3. As regards (a) above, we all know that CAB will benefit only the above named religious minority immigrants coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who had entered India without valid documents prior to 31st December, 2014. It will in no way throw open Indian borders for these identified minority communities to come to India as they please. Nor will it provide additional incentive to these communities to try to enter India illegally, because the CAB will benefit only those who had already entered India prior to 31st December, 2014.
4. As regards (b), it is also likely that there would not be too many illegal immigrants in India now who can become Indian citizen through CAB. As per reports appearing in local newspapers, the Hon’ble Lok Sabha MP of Nagaland was quoted as having said in January this year that only around 31,313 illegal immigrants in Assam are likely to be able to benefit from this CAB, (viz., 25,447 Hindus, 5807 Sikhs, 55 Christians and 2 each of Buddhists and Parsis). Whether this estimate is reliable or not is a different issue; I am just quoting it as per newspaper reports. However, this makes us think that after all, it may not be a deluge many of us might have imagined. Even if the figure were in the region of one lakh (and not 31,313 as quoted) in Assam’s population of around 35 million, this will be only like a drop in an ocean, say, around 0.28 per cent. So, this by itself is not likely to alter the demographic pattern of Assam or other N E states.
5. Assam does have a very large immigrant population. The recent exercise of National Register of Citizens in Assam reveals that there are now around 19 lakh immigrants in Assam whose Indian citizenship are yet to be proved. But obviously, most of them are Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, who will not be able to benefit from CAB. As we are already aware, this NCR exercise may result in more immigrants (who cannot prove their Indian citizenship) trying to enter Nagaland through the porous Assam-Nagaland border. So, we would all agree that there is need for better vigilance and stricter implementation of ILP. But this is quite a different issue from CAB. If we are to stretch the argument further, we may say that the more of the existing immigrants in Assam are granted Indian citizenship through CAB, the less will be the immigrant pressure on Nagaland.
6. Even otherwise, since Nagaland does not appear to have any official record of illegal immigrants (of the above non-Muslim religious communities) who are currently staying in Nagaland (especially those have migrated illegally to India/Nagaland prior to 31st December, 2014), there is no likelihood of any illegal immigrant in Nagaland qualifying for grant of Indian citizenship through CAB. If there is any illegal immigrant now in Nagaland, who wants to apply for Indian citizenship under CAB, all his claims in the application form, such as his being one of the specified religious minorities in his country of origin, his illegal entry into India prior to 31st December, 2014 etc shall have to be verified and certified by the Government of Nagaland. In this scenario, there would not be much possibilities and likelihood of any illegal immigrant in Nagaland acquiring Indian citizenship through CAB.
7. At the all India level also, it is likely that there may not be too many people who can benefit from CAB. If that is so, then why the BJP is so keen to push through this bill? I think it is more of a policy statement to their core constituents (the Hindus in India), as part of what we now know as ‘the Hindutva policy’, rather than a demographic oriented policy, or an attempt to bring more Hindus to India. In my view, this CAB is not likely to change significantly the demographic profile of India, or of the North East; especially in view of the cut-off date of 31st December, 2014.
8. The more vital issue is the successive Governments’ failure (including our collective failure also) to guard our Indian borders from illegal immigrants, particularly from Bangladesh. I think this is the real issue, on which we need to agitate more, and do more; on which we need to apply our energy and our mind more seriously. It may also be stated here that although we (the State Govt and the local people) may not be officially in charge of guarding India’s international borders (in the NE region, this task is being entrusted to BSF, ITBP and Assam Rifles) our involvement and eternal vigilance is very important. I think it is through this that Nagas (not the Assam Rifles) have been able to prevent illegal migration from the Myanmar side. But we have been ineffective in preventing entry of outsiders (legal or illegal immigrants) from our western State borders, in spite of being armed with one of the most stringent regulations in the present day world (viz ILP). I will not dwell into the reasons, because I think we all know it by now.
9. There are also people amongst us who criticize CAB from the moral high ground, saying that India being a secular country, citizenship act should not make distinction on the lines of religion. This may sound good, but in reality, no country applies this principle, including the most enlightened Western Christian countries. In the first place, let us remind ourselves that the distinction is not amongst Indian citizens, but amongst illegal foreign immigrants in India, whose circumstances in their country of origin are also quite different. We know that in the matter of grant of VISA and citizenship, most countries apply different yardsticks for people of different religions and countries. Here they are making distinction amongst foreigners seeking entry into their countries, or seeking citizenship; and not amongst their own citizens. If this is found to be an acceptable procedure all over the world, then why blame India for making distinction between Muslim immigrants and Hindu immigrants etc in the matter of granting citizenship. Let us also remember that Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh treat even their very own citizens very differently on the basis of their religion. And our own Christian brothers are amongst those who are persecuted and treated differently as compared to the majority Muslims. So, it may not be very appropriate to bring moral issues into this CAB debate.
10. The intention of my writing this piece is not to support the CAB, but to bring in another view point, or the neglected points, so as to initiate a healthy and meaningful debate on the issue, rather than shouting from the rooftops and organizing bhands etc which will only inconvenience our own people. I hope it will be received with a positive attitude and open mind by all sections. Let us try to have a wider and more rational debate on this issue, so that we may be able to make more appropriate responses to this CAB.
Lalthara, IAS (Rtd), former Chief Secretary, Nagaland.
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