NEW DELHI: On March 14, India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, in a written reply to a question posed to him in the Rajya Sabha, stated the following:

“There is no specific treaty or agreement with the Government of Bangladesh regarding repatriation of its citizens who have illegally entered into India.”

He was speaking in context of the ongoing state-sponsored exercise to identify and deport illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam through the National Register of Citizens (NRC) - a much-touted, much-awaited list that intends to cleanse the state of Assam from a decades-long ‘alien invasion’ from the neighbouring Muslim-majority country.

Rijiju’s blunt response encapsulates a critical question that looms over the whole exercise, which beyond drawing battle lines in an already-fractured state, serves little in terms of effective policy-making: what happens once the list is prepared?

The natural (and logical) answer is: deportation of the illegals.

But, contrary to what most fervent supporters of the NRC might believe, deportation is not linear business. As astutely pointed out by eminent political scientist from Assam, Sanjib Baruah, some time back, “deportation in today’s world is not a unilateral matter; it has to follow international protocol.”

The December 2014 Supreme Court order that laid the legal foundations of the NRC exercise also states: “While taking note of the existing mechanism/procedure for deportation keeping in view the requirements of international protocol, we direct the Union of India to enter into necessary discussions with the Government of Bangladesh to streamline the procedure of deportation.”

But, so far, it does not seem like New Delhi has been able to move ahead on this front.

Why is a bilateral deportation agreement imperative?

The question around what happens the morning after the identification process - which in itself is a hugely complicated and tedious exercise - is complete, hasn’t been wholly overlooked in the public discourse. It has begrudgingly featured in media and academic circles over the past few months. Yet, the government has done little to address these concerns in sufficient measure.

By logical progression, identification of illegals should immediately segue into administrative detention, following which deportation must take effect. Notwithstanding the centrality of the identification stage, the detention-deportation stage would ultimately determine the overall success of the NRC project. In this regard, the time period between detention and deportation is pivotal to how the process is perceived within and outside Assam.

However, deportation is wholly contingent on factors that go beyond the direct mandate of Assam’s own political actors i.e. bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh.

Given the scale and scope of the potential deportation process, New Delhi would find it impossible to deport millions of detained immigrants peacefully without Dhaka’s express consent. Thus, without a bilateral agreement, the detention-deportation process risks turning into a shoddy mishmash of unending ghettoisation, deeper social segregations, fresh conflict cycles, and prolonged political instability.

The grim possibility of detentions turning into prolonged confinements for the identified immigrants - a clear violation of international legal standards - in the absence of a bilaterally-agreed return policy remains stark. In this regard, Gauhati University professor, Akhil Ranjan Dutta, asks in a February 2018 EPW essay: “Can a person declared a foreigner, be detained in a camp forever? [...] why should such detention camps be maintained at the cost of public money?”

Besides the obvious maintenance costs, a protracted detention process is also bound to have drastic socio-psychological impacts on the Assamese society at large. The NRC has already polarised the atmosphere in the state, dividing most into binary camps of those who support deportation and those who do not. The extended presence of detention camps will only aggravate the terseness, and in the longer term, alter the infrastructural map of Assam’s collective consciousness.

After all, detention camps that house members of a particular community or nationality are not the most pleasant sights, are they? They echo an ugly past and do not belong in democracies. To retain them indefinitely would be to allow vested groups to feed off from living vestiges of their toxic agendas and perpetuate their hegemonic discourse in popular perception. What more, examples from around the world tell us that long-term camps almost always end up as permanent ghettos.

Is a bilateral agreement feasible?

Several observers, including Baruah, have argued that the issue of illegal immigration has never featured in official bilateral talks between India and Bangladesh. In response, the Indian government has claimed that the issue was raised in multiple bilateral forums like the Joint Consultative Commission, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary-level talks, Joint Working Group on Security and Border Management, and Joint Task Forces on Human Trafficking and Fake Currency Notes (Assam Tribune 2018, quoted by Dutta).

Despite the government’s claim, truth remains that the illegal immigration issue is an extremely delicate component of an otherwise amicable bilateral. So far, neither party has been sufficiently comfortable to talk about it with prominence in a single bilateral public meeting.

Neither was the issue mentioned in the joint statement released by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s state visit to India in April 2017, nor did it come up during Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid’s visit to Assam in March 2018. Notably, it doesn’t even feature in the MEA’s official brief on India-Bangladesh relations.

The current government in Bangladesh - led by the Awami League (AL) - has been on good terms with India since long now, especially after it handed over a prominent Indian militant leader in 2015. Since the coming of the Narendra Modi government in 2014, the bilateral has only reached new heights, with much-awaited land swaps having concluded under unprecedented diplomatic harmony.

In such a situation, insertion of the immigration issue could play spoiler. What more, the NRC exercise comes at a particularly tricky time for two reasons.

First, national elections are fast approaching in Bangladesh, slated for end of 2018-early 2019. Any abrupt throttling of the illegal immigration agenda - a sensitive issue within Bangladeshi political discourse - by the Indian government is bound to antagonise PM Hasina and resultantly, distance her from New Delhi. India surely does not want a slide-back to the murky days of a hostile administration in Dhaka.

Second, the India-Bangladesh bilateral seems to be drifting astray in pivotal geopolitical junctures. With China’s rising influence over Dhaka and the latter’s aspirations to come on board the former’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), India has begun to watch its step along the eastern frontiers.

On 19 March, The Economic Times revealed that certain subversive elements within Bangladesh’s army were covertly receiving Chinese arms - a worrying development that compels India to further support a pro-India civilian government in Dhaka that could shield its northeastern frontiers from third-party sabotage. Further, India’s staunch pro-Myanmar stance (as opposed to Bangladesh’s critical position) on the Rohingya refugee issue has rippled relations between New Delhi and Dhaka. This is even more so because of China’s proactive involvement in mediating between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and in the same context, India’s negligible engagement.

Thus, if reelpolitik is what is on New Delhi’s mind, then this is literally the worst time to bring up the illegal immigration issue with Dhaka. A particularly sour bilateral between India and Bangladesh would spontaneously translate into a larger threshold for Beijing in eastern South Asia - not the best neighbourhood arrangement for New Delhi, which is already losing crucial strategic space in domains next door.

So, it would be fair to conclude that the Indian State has a long way to go before it can deport the identified illegals in a non-violent and legally tenable manner. But in order to even initiate the process, both the Indian government and the country’s apex court would do well to revisit the judgment that mandated the process in the first place:

“The implementation of the aforesaid directions [to enter into bilateral talks with Bangladesh and notify the court thereafter] will be monitored by this Court on the expiry of three months from today. In the event it becomes so necessary, the Court will entrust such monitoring to be undertaken by an empowered committee which will be constituted by this Court, if and when required.”

The government, in this regard, is yet to abide by the Court’s order. The Court, too, is yet to set up any committee to follow up on its own directives. Without plugging these gaps, the NRC will soon be added to the expanding basket of jumlas.

(Angshuman Choudhury is Researcher and Coordinator, Southeast Asia Research Programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi)