On Wednesday, Home Minister Amit Shah said in Rajya Sabha that the government would deport illegal immigrants from “every inch of the country’s soil”. This comes weeks ahead of the scheduled publication of the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, an exercise that Shah and other BJP leaders have promised to extend to the rest of the country.
How many face deportation?
The number of people being left out of the NRC is not yet final, and it is not clear if any of them can be deported at all. First, the numbers. The final draft NRC had left out 40 lakh applicants. Another 1 lakh, originally among the 2.89 crore included in that draft, were removed after subsequent verification. However, the number is unlikely to remain at 41 lakh. There could be more deletions as objections have been filed against 2 lakh of the names included. There are likely be some additions, too. Of the 40 lakh excluded from the draft, 36 lakh have filed claims and some of them may have proved their citizenship with documents later.
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Then there is the possibility of the government reintroducing and passing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, having allowed it to lapse earlier this year. If it gets the numbers in Rajya Sabha and passes the Bill, the Hindu immigrants left out of the NRC may become eligible to apply for citizenship. While no religious breakup has been officially announced, most political leaders and stakeholders have made their estimates and concluded — often on record — that the final draft has left out more Hindus than Muslims. If the Bill does become law, it would greatly reduce the number of individuals excluded from the final NRC.
The final NRC is scheduled on August 31. Those left out will have a series of options for appeal, which is a long haul. Only after that will the question of deportation come up, if at all.
What makes deportation so uncertain?
For a country to be able to deport a mass of individuals to another country, the second country has to accept that they were its citizens who entered the first country illegally. According to government data until February 2019, and published in The Indian Express earlier, Assam has since 2013 deported 166 persons (162 “convicted” and four “declared”) including 147 to Bangladesh. The NRC context is vastly different: this is not about a few hundred but lakhs of individuals, many of whom have lived in Assam for decades and been identifying themselves as Indian citizens.
Over the years, Bangladeshi leaders have frequently been quoted in the media as denying the presence of its nationals in India. Besides, there have been no visible recent efforts by India to push the matter with Bangladesh. In fact, India is understood to have conveyed to Bangladesh, just before the final draft NRC was published, that there was no talk of deportation. This was an effort directed at addressing a friendly neighbour’s concerns about the prospect, even if it was a theoretical one, of being flooded with a mass of deportees. The Indian Express reported last year that then Home Minister Rajnath Singh, visiting Dhaka that July, had briefed Bangladesh Home Minister Khan on the “broad contours” of the NRC and the process that was adopted by the Centre.
If not deportation, then what?
The various points of appeal imply that the process of establishing citizenship or illegal stay in Assam could take years, if not decades. First, there are the quasi-judicial Foreigners Tribunals, which those left out of the final NRC will approach. If their claim is rejected again, they have the option of approaching the High Court and the Supreme Court.
In between, there is the prospect of being sent to one of the six existing detention camps, or one of the 10 being planned. These have often come into focus for lack of basic facilities, and the Supreme Court recently allowed conditional release of those who have completed three years in detention, against a bond. In an interaction earlier this year, Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had told The Indian Express: “As a political leader, I don’t support [detention centres]… I feel their identity should be digitally recorded and they should not be allowed to claim Indian citizenship in other states. Once that is done, they should be given basic human rights.”
For lakhs of people, what the future holds is uncertain as ever. Only a long court battle is certain, while a stateless identity with curtailed rights is a possibility. Deportation, if it ever happens, appears a long way away.