India: Assam's Immigration Crisis


By Oscar Wollen, President of the University of Bristol Politics Society


At least 31 ‘illegal’ migrants have died in Assam's detention camps in the last year (Naqvi, 2020). Currently, Assam (a state in the Northeast of India) has six detention camps that incarcerate more than 1,000 people. One cannot make the distinction between detention camps and jails, as these camps are located inside the latter. Illegal immigrants are locked up with those who have been jailed for criminal offences. The National Register of Citizens is a document, that in Assam has been quite controversial. This is because the publication of the NRC has excluded more than 1.9 million people, typically Muslim migrants, with the current government preparing to incarcerate an extraordinarily large number of people who, more often than not, are voiceless and come from the marginalised sections of society.


The passage of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019 has intensified such concerns, leading to widespread demonstrations and violence across the nation. The CAA will provide easy Indian citizenship to six ethnic communities, most notably with the exclusion of Muslims, from the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, who migrated to the country before 2015 (BBC, 2020). Critics argue that the legislation breaches India's secular constitution by making religion the basis of citizenship. Muslims, fear that the CAA is seeking to make their nationality uncertain.


The Politics of Migration in Assam

Many nations in today's world arrest citizens as illegal immigrants, but most of them are "detained on arrival" (Bosworth, 2014: 8). However, in Assam, people are being detained and taken from their houses, villages and not from the borders. Thus, in order to understand the dynamics of their migration policy, we need to understand the bigger image of the socio-political culture of citizenship in Assam. The immigration problem in Assam is a political one and the notion of illegal migrants continues to form the identity of Assam even today. In the 1980s, the problem of cross-border migration was used by the political elites to create the Assam Movement. During this time, "the illegality of the migrant has become central to the construction of the identity of the Assamese" (Roy, 2010: 32).


The Assam Movement turned incredibly violent and killed a number of people, including in the notorious Nellie massacre (Mander 2008). It ended with the signing of the Assam Accord, and the leaders who led the movement subsequently formed the government, by winning the 1985 state elections. Since then the question of cross-border migration has remained part of the socio-political and cultural debate. In Assam, the Bengali language was used as a "marker of alienation" (Lindskoog, 2018: 7). The political classes, along with the media, invented the myth that millions of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh had taken refuge in Assam. Propelled by this narrative, which criticises the use of vernacular media as hyperbolic and xenophobia, many natives have been hostile to the minority communities living in the state, particularly the poor Muslims from Bangladesh and Deshi Muslims.


The Future of the NRC

The NRC has harassed millions in Assam, driving about two million residents to the verge of statelessness. Moreover, the rhetoric of the new ruling party has been troubling: Home Minister Amit Shah has stated in Parliament that the NRC exercise will be extended to all states in India (Chaturvedi, 2019) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has refuted the presence of detention camps (ANI, 2019), despite clear evidence to the contrary.


People languishing in the detention camps are helpless and destitute; many of them cannot afford legal help. The Supreme Court, in a recent order, clarified that those who have spent more than three years in detention camps can be given bail, with two assurances of Rs 1 lakh (£1000) each (Rautrey, 2019), but the majority of prisoners cannot afford that number. In addition, the Assam Government has recently been ordered to free non-Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh from detention camps (Kalita, 2020). These camps, which are now not restricted to only Assam, should be closed immediately in order to protect the independence and equality of the people guaranteed by the Constitution of India.


International response

The Citizens Amendment Act appears to undermine the commitment to equality before the law enshrined in India's constitution and India's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to which India is a State party, which prohibits racial, ethical or religious discrimination.


Consequently, urging protection for the rights of freedom of thought and speech, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed outrage about abuse and the suspected use of unlawful force by security forces in India against the amended Citizenship Act. Protests have been taking place around the country since this bill was passed in Parliament December 2020. "We are concerned about the violence and alleged use of excessive force by security forces that we've seen that have been taking place in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. We very much call for restraint and urge full respect for the rights of freedom of opinion and expression and peaceful assembly," stated by Guterres (United Nations, 2019).


The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in a new report suggested that the U.S. government should designate India as a 'country of particular concern' and even impose sanctions on Indian 'agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals assets and or barring their entry into the United States’ (USCIRF, 2020). Unsurprisingly, Pakistan criticized the Indian government's move in strong words. Prime Minister Imran Khan criticised India saying that the CAA's passing may even lead to a conflict between the two countries (Times Now News, 2019). Yet, given that the relations between the two countries are constantly strained, such sabre-rattling rhetoric came neither as surprising but Khan’s statement that ‘the CAA could lead to a nuclear conflict,’ adds to the two nations contentious relationship (ibid).


"Although India's broader naturalisation laws remain in place, these amendments will have a discretionary effect on people's access to nationality," the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said (Laurence, 2019). India's response was that "It seeks to address their [undocumented migrants] current difficulties and meet their basic human rights. Such an initiative should be welcomed, not criticised by those who are genuinely committed to religious freedom," the Ministry of External Affairs said (Mohan, 2019). The law "does not affect the existing avenues available to all communities interested in seeking citizenship from doing so" (ibid)


A year on since this controversy, international attention has been diluted by COVID-19 and the CAA is yet to be implemented, but with the socio-political climate in India still the same it is worrying to see what post-pandemic life may bring to India. What has been highlighted, is India’s capacity to exhibit the abhorrent and nefarious persecution of minority groups as part of its immigration policy.


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