The impossible case of India-wide NRC: Potential fallout of India-Bangladesh Relations?

A shadow of doubt and anxiety hangs as India might institute a pan-India National Register of Citizens (NRC).

A shadow of doubt and anxiety hangs as India might institute a pan-India National Register of Citizens (NRC). The complex demographics of the Indian subcontinent, where country lines are blurred and communities converge, are at the core of the issue. Bangladesh, India’s neighbor to the east, and India have a long, porous border that makes it easier for people to travel between them and exchange commodities. The NRC’s implementation, however, poses a threat to upset this balance.

India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) has emerged as a contentious issue, sparking debates and divisions across the nation. Initially introduced in the state of Assam to identify undocumented immigrants, implementing NRC nationwide was declared by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in 2019. He even went on to set a deadline-BJP would drive out all “illegal immigrants” before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Although back then Narendra Modi said at a rally in Delhi that the BJP has no plans for nationwide NRC, now that BJP has announced its CAA regulations just before the election, it looks like India might be walking in the path of a nationwide NRC.

BJP’s goal might sound nice for an election campaign, but does a pan-India NRC actually hold water? To date, India has not exercised its census scheduled for 2021 nor compiled an updated NPR, which is supposed to be the first step toward creating a National Register of Indian Citizens.

In Assam, the NRC procedure has been a complete disaster. The Supreme Court received petitions from multiple Assamese organizations asking for the revision of the draft NRC, which has put the process on hold. The state’s BJP-led administration themselves have declined to accept the current NRC draft as well, claiming that some names were erroneously included or excluded throughout the process.

An overwhelming amount of bureaucratic red tape and unavoidable corruption will follow the already protracted process when people begin appealing to the Foreigner Tribunal (FT) to fix their NRC status. In the case of a nationwide NRC, this will be a living nightmare, as Indian senior advocate Sanjay Hegde puts it: “How do you go about this entire exercise with a population of 1.25 billion people of which 700 to 800 million people may not even have birth certificates?”

The most bizarre issue, though, is that this nationwide NRC, which aims to identify the nation’s “true citizens,” will ultimately force Indians without documentation to apply through the CAA procedure by claiming to be Afghan, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi.

The nationwide implementation of the NRC could have far-reaching consequences for bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh. The two countries have had a complicated relationship throughout history, characterized by times of harmony and other times of conflict. A pan-India NRC could undo all of it.

India has previously assured Dhaka that NRC is an internal matter and that Bangladesh has nothing to worry about. This intentionally delusional statement is not feasible as public and media discourse in India generally equate “illegal immigrants” to “Bangladeshis.” There are still no clear guidelines on what will happen to the so-called “infiltrators,” but it does not take much to conclude that their eventual destination in case of eviction will be Bangladesh.

The prospect of mass deportations from India will be a grave humanitarian and diplomatic challenge. Bangladesh is already burdened with Rohingya refugees who are unlikely to be repatriated back to Myanmar. Despite already having the ninth-highest population density in the world, Bangladesh is currently hosting over 1.1m Rohingya refugees living in camps and is in no position to receive further immigrants.

High poverty and infrastructural challenges already make hosting Rohingyas a socioeconomic suicide for Bangladesh. Plus, there have occasionally been conflicts between host communities and the refugees due to the Rohingya’s continued perception as outsiders; Bangladesh will face a similar situation if it is forced to house the population excluded from the NRC list.

The fallout from the NRC could reverberate across various sectors, including trade, security, and people-to-people exchanges. In the golden age of their relationship, when bilateral trade is at USD 15.9 billion and the liaison shown at G-20 last year, India walking might be backward DEOM Bangladesh with NRC. Any contention related to NRC risks further pushing Bangladesh towards China, which is currently its largest trade partner. India risks losing Bangladesh, an emerging “hub for connectivity,” important for its Act East Policy.

The potential displacement of millions could create fertile ground for radicalization and extremism. It’s no surprise that Bangladeshis, or at least a part of its society, harbor anti-India sentiments due to India’s alleged meddling in its internal matters, decades-long water sharing issues of Teesta, and border killings by the Indian BSF (Border Security Force). This issue has, time and again, caused public disdain and scorn among Bangladeshis. The CAA and NRC are just fanning the already burning flames of contempt between the two nations. 

The last time when the issue of immigrants got a huge momentum was in 1979 in Assam; it resulted in the deaths of more than 5000 Muslims of Bengali origin. Already enraged by CAA regulations, Anti-Indian blocks in Bangladesh will see pan-Indian NRC as further attacks on Islam, especially if the deportees are primarily Muslim. This may become the stick to target the Hindu population in the country. India’s curious case of xenophobia will pull Bangladesh into its dirty politics.

The BJP government must realize NRC is not an internal issue anymore if it risks causing a transborder humanitarian crisis. The mass deportations or the establishment of prison facilities for people classified as “illegal” is highly concerning and goes against India’s values as a democratic and humanitarian country. India must think through if, at the cost of families being split apart, people being uprooted from their homes, and vulnerable populations becoming stateless, winning a list of India’s actual citizens is really an achievement.

Sadia Aktar Korobi
Sadia Aktar Korobi
I’m Sadia Aktar Korobi, currently studying at University of Dhaka in the department of Peace and Conflict Studies (MSS). I have graduated from the same department recently. My research interests include peace studies, international relations and gender studies.