OPINION: In search of identity in India
KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - With new ways to list citizens of foreign origin, the inconsistencies are too harsh and frequent.
India is in the process of getting rid of its old soul and finding a new one. The process is undefined and confusing while the architects are imposing their will in calling it ‘New India’. The low hanging fruit is a choice of ‘dramatic change’ that helps the ruling dispensation in carrying forward its long-committed plans to homogenise the nation. At the heart of the matter is ‘disenchantment’ of citizens who in large numbers are oblivious to governance and welfare issues, and envision a future where the legislators chosen by them will fulfil their long-cherished wishes beyond a democratic framework. In the recent past, the elections were fought on this line, and virtually any other idea representing the old world view about India was wiped out.
One of the key populist projects, the National Register for Citizens had left out over 1.8 million people in Assam state. Reportedly, over 100,000 people belonging to the Nepali community have been excluded from Assam’s newly introduced National Register for Citizens. The same is confirmed by official sources and the Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangha. While the National Register for Citizens was meant to exclude mainly illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar, it shockingly also brought into its fold Nepalis who have been living in Assam for decades and making it their home in all possible ways.
Contrary to the spirit of friendship with Nepal, the turnout of the National Register for Citizens is alarming, posing a question mark over the experiment itself. With the National Register for Citizens having a close bearing on the Assam Accord, it was not supposed to raise any discomfort to the special bond India and Nepal.
The Nepalis living in Assam have been identified as genuine Indian citizens with citizenry rights accorded to them. Their contribution to Assam’s socio-economic development was never questioned earlier. However, the new policy coming up through Foreigners’ Tribunals are troublesome for even those who have proof of citizenship. With new ways to list citizens of foreign origin, the inconsistencies are too harsh and frequent.
As per the Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangha, Sahitya Akademi award winner and Assam Nepali Sahitya Sabha president Durga Khatiwada and his children have been included. But founding member of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee Chhabilal Upadhyay’s granddaughter Manju Devi has been left out along with her two children. What can be the justification? Historically, the Gorkhas living in Assam received the identity of ‘local citizens’, and they shared the plight and concern of the masses. They took part in the crucial Assam agitations of the 1980s that were stirred against illegal immigrants. In those agitations, four Gorkhas sacrificed their lives along with 851 other protestors.
It is ironical now when the old bond and commitments are not being taken into consideration. The matter has yet not reached the level of bilateral negotiations between India and Nepal. It should be noted that last year, the government of India clarified that Gorkhas holding valid Indian citizen identity cards and living in Assam for a long time will not be sent to the Foreigners Tribunals for determination of their nationality. The Ministry of Home Affairs supplemented the notice with a directive to the government of Assam asking it to file a petition before the High Court. Since the petition was filed at the wrong bench in the High Court, the Nepali community’s imminent suffering couldn’t be averted.
The intervention happened in response to a memorandum given by the All Assam Gorkha Students Union to the Union Home Minister of India seeking relief for the Nepali community from being marked as ‘doubtful voters’. These developments had taken place long before the National Register for Citizens came into existence, now members of the Nepali community are facing a harder assault on their identity, and the disconnect between the centre and the state appears to be far from over.
While the uncertainty is causing agony and alienation among those who are affected in a dramatic manner, no initiative has been taken so far to end the stalemate and bring life to normal. After the release of the final National Register for Citizens list, an assurance came from the centre saying that people whose whole names don’t appear in the final National Register for Citizens list cannot be declared ‘foreigners’ till legal options are exhausted. It added that individual citizens left out from the final Assam Citizen List can appeal to the Foreigners Tribunals.
To resolve this complicated matter, the aim and motivation have to come from the highest decision-making level. Any further delay in provisioning an institutional solution may hurt India’s bilateral relations with Nepal. There has to be an understanding that actual official engagements have to move beyond ‘tokenism’ and real issues should be given priority. The policy regime in Kathmandu must play its part too.