The late Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray was always obsessed with Bangladeshis living and working illegally in India. So among the first things the Shiv Sena-BJP government did when it came to power in Maharashtra in 1995 was to deport the Bangladeshis living in ghettos in Bombay. In a massive operation, city police rounded up thousands of ‘Bangladeshis’ and packed them off on the Bombay-Howrah Express train to Calcutta. Cops even accompanied them to the border and pushed them into Bangladesh. No sooner had they turned their backs on these “illegal” immigrants, than the Bangladesh Rifles returned them to India. They bunched up at the Howrah station again.
And the then West Bengal CM Jyoti Basu gave them free tickets on the more prestigious Bombay Mail and all were back to business as usual in India’s commercial capital within a few days. This time the Maharashtra police could do nothing to return these “Bangladeshis” to their so-called country. For, as it turned out, these alleged immigrants were not Bangladeshis at all. They were migrant workers from WestBengal, Assam or Bihar who, being from the same gene pool, were ethnically similar to Bangladeshis, had similar facial features, wore the same kind of attire, spoke similar dialects and had virtually the same food habits.
The policemen in Maharashtra could not tell a Bangladeshi from a Bengali or Bihari or even Assamese Muslim. The only way they could have distinguished a Bangladeshi from an Indian citizen was through his or her papers. And as the government launched an investigation they discovered to their embarrassment that every genuine Bangladeshi had an Indian passport and an Indian ration card—arranged for them by touts who were often Shiv Sena or BJP or Congress workers who helped them acquire these documents in return for their vote during various elections.
While the government could then do nothing to deport these Indian passport holders, the investigators discovered that those they had rounded up were indeed genuine Indian citizens who had migrated to Mumbai for work and to escape poverty in their own home states. Because they were born Indiansand thought they belonged, they had no papers of any sort to safeguard themselves against the authorities. After their deportation experience, these Muslims went back to their villages and returned with photocopies of their ration cards and letters from their sarpanches stating that they were born in that particular village—no birth certificates existed when they were born.
There was not a thing any government could do after that. Today, because these Bangladeshis are Indian passport holders, they also have legitimate Aadhaar cards, perhaps the ultimate evidence of Indian citizenship, while many Indian Muslim migrants with no permanent address by the very nature of their vagabond status, don’t.
This, after all, was at the core of the battle between then Union Home Minister P Chidambaram and technocrat Nandan Nilekani who formulated and introduced Aadhaar cards to India. Nilekani had wanted multiple registration centres to speed up the process while, looking at security issues, particularly along the border, Chidambaram had wanted tighter control over the issuing agenciesFrom the experience of the Bombay police with regard to politically well-connected Indian touts, perhaps Chidambaram’s concerns were right.
For now there could be millions of non-Indians with legitimate documents including the Aadhaar while citizens may not be able to produce any paper to prove their Indian origins. With the Centre planning to extend the National Register of Citizens across the country, many goof-ups like that with the Bombay police are likely to happen.
A case in point is that of Mohammad Sanaullah, a Kargil war hero who was sent to a detention camp in Assam despite 30 years of service in the Army. Only the courts moved by high-profile human rights lawyer Indira Jaisingh could restore Sanaullah to his original status. But his was a high-profile case. There are hundreds of ordinary citizens from Assam, including Hindus, who have been identified as foreigners when they have been born in India and have been living in the state since birth. Sometimes families have been divided— there has been the bizarre case of a brother who has been declared a foreignerwhile his twin continues to be an Indian citizen.
Many other Indian citizens caught without papers have been pushed into committing suicide. The NRC is proving less funny than Bal Thackeray’s mix-up with Bangladeshis in Bombay. Then the government had the sense to let go and not trouble genuine citizens, though they put the suspected Bangladeshis on tight watch and did not allow them to get up to any further mischief. Now the government is determined to weed them out, even if they crush Indian citizens in the process.
The government’s safeguards will not work—the proof of residence of parents and grandparents often does not exist because the obsession with photo identity cards is a more recent phenomenon. Two or more generations in this country after Independence may have lived and died without being called upon to own a single document for residence or free travel or even settling anywhere in this country. The NRC is thus a programme that was flawed right from the start and bound to both fail and terrorise genuine citizens while the real targets go scot free.