The former student leader and the youngest chief minister of Assam at 33, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta has staged a comeback in the factional politics of his party, the Asom Gana Parishad, (AGP) with his staunch opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill with which the ruling BJP hopes to include the estimated 13-15 lakh Bangladeshi Hindus who have been left out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). In an interview to Poornima Joshi, Mahanta says the NRC’s method of accounting Assamese and Indian citizens is deeply flawed and the BJP’s bid to polarise the citizenship issue will not work in Assam. Excerpts from the interview:

How do you look at NRC’s process to establish citizenship?

The NRC is being monitored by the Supreme Court. The decision of the SC for re-verification of those already included is welcome.

What actually happens on the ground is that genuine people generally do not come forward and file their documents and objections. They don’t doubt their credentials as Indian citizens and they believe no one else is going to doubt them as well. But infiltrators prepare their documents carefully. What has happened, and will continue to happen, is that genuine Indian citizens will not file their objections whereas in areas dominated by infiltrators, every government official is working under duress and they overlook certain things.

Are you suggesting that a large proportion of those who have been included may not be Indian citizens and over 40 lakh who have been excluded from the NRC, a majority will be, in fact, Indian?

Prateek Hajela (NRC coordinator) has himself admitted that legacy data submitted by some people has been stolen; the process is flawed. I had suggested that verification of citizenship is necessary only in the case of those who speak Bengali because, by and large, there are few people from Bhutan and on Nepal, we have a different policy.

And we all know that people from China do not want to come and settle here (laughs); they may be interested in territory but they’re not interested in settling down here. Similarly, there is no logical reason to verify people who speak Hindi. So verification is necessary only for those who speak Bengali because the national language in Bangladesh is Bengali. They speak Bengali whether they are Hindus, Muslims or Buddhists. So, language should have been the basic criteria for citizenship verification.

But they (NRC) have widened the scope of their investigation and that is where the problem lies.

Suppose people are speaking in tribal dialects like Bodo, they can be easily identified and located as Indians. Language, therefore, is a very easy yardstick to identify infiltrators.

Migration is happening from Bangladesh on a large scale and not just to India. They travel on their passport and visa, they travel to Turkey. From Turkey they enter Italy, by boat. They are captured by Italian police.

Then the Bangladesh High Commission provides documents to state that because of the present political climate they cannot stay in Bangladesh. The Italian government lets them stay on for 10 years.

And within these 10 years, if they are not involved in any crime and they marry Italian men/women, they are given Italian citizenship. And from there, they travel elsewhere in Europe. That is why you see so many Bangladeshis running restaurants in London or other European cities. They manage somehow.

So you believe a large number of Bangladeshi infiltrators have managed to get into the NRC?

You can see it here in India that in every Census from 1971 onwards, their population is increasing. It is not a question of religion. In the case of NRC, the government should make it water-proof. In 1951, the population of united Assam was 88 lakh. Now it’s divided into seven States, the population of Assam alone is over 3.5 crore or thereabouts. That is not commensurate with the average national growth. It is an extraordinary growth of 12-18 per cent. This is clearly not natural, it is owing to infiltrators. The Government should take it seriously and exercise utmost caution. We have people living here who own property in Dhaka and Sylhet as well. And despite the NRC, we are not being able to identify them properly for some reason.

I believe the process of documentation and verification is not foolproof. A lot of Indian citizens have not been included and a large number of infiltrators have gotten into the NRC. The infiltrators manage their documents somehow.

Some three months ago, someone approached me and asked for help with the local police -- to let him stay on for seven months. I rang up the SP and I was told that he is a declared war criminal in Bangladesh. Apparently now he has been thrown in jail. There is an agreement to hand over such people to Bangladesh. Such people have been staying here. It is only because I got involved that he was arrested.

In this confusion, your alliance partner, the BJP, seems to be ensuring that its Hindu Bangladeshi vote is secured by the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill…

We are opposed to this Bill. Political parties try to polarise the situation. The BJP seems to believe they will get the Hindu votes. Congress and Mamata (Banerjee) want to win the minority votes. But in Assam, there is a very good relationship between indigenous Assamese Muslims and Hindus, the only problem is with the infiltrators whether they are Hindus or Muslims. Our party and people will work to ensure that the present chaos is not manipulated on communal lines.

Will the infiltrators be able to vote?

There are people I know who have been declared foreigners by the Foreigners Tribunal but they have been included in the NRC. They all hold voter ID cards. I presume they will be able to vote. The situation is very fluid right now.

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