Illegal immigration is a volcano waiting to explode

Is it time to grant more powers to individual Indian states to detect, obstruct, and capture illegal immigrants, wonders
T V R Shenoy.

It has been said that the United States is one of the world’s youngest nations, but is also one of the oldest democracies. The flip-side of that could be said of India, that it is one of the oldest nations on the planet but is a relatively young democracy.

Comparing the two is inevitable because there is really no third country of similar size and complexity. The European Union it is anything but a ‘union’ — as the current economic crisis is demonstrating. China and Russia sprawl across various time-zones and have huge populations but each is dominated by a single ethnic group — Russians in Russia, Han Chinese in China; more to the point, both countries are, and always have been, ruled by despots.

But what exactly is a ‘democracy’? The loosest and most famous definition is that given by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’.

But which ‘people’? Only those who are ‘citizens’ of a country? Or also those that are ‘residents’ in a country? And who is to decide anyhow?

Both India and the United States share a reverence for their respective Constitution, for the Supreme Court as the ultimate guardian and interpreter of that Constitution, and for the federal structure mandated by the Constitution. But there are crucial differences too, none more so than in the relationship between the Union and the constituent States.

I suspect many in our Constituent Assembly would have, if left to themselves, created a far more unitary structure. Instinct and education alike nudged Congress leaders to look to Britain, and the Britain of those days — for decades thereafter for that matter — was a strictly non-federal model.

The component units of the United Kingdom — whether English counties, the kingdom of Scotland, or the principality of Wales — were firmly under Westminster’s thumb. In any case, the living memory of Partition would probably have driven the Congress to tighten the bonds of Union, making the constituent units completely subordinate to New Delhi.

Luckily, a man educated in the United States — Columbia University in New York City — held a key position in the Constituent Assembly, chairman of the Drafting Committee. I refer, of course, to Dr Ambedkar. Apart from Dr Ambedkar and Jayaprakash Narayan — who wasn’t, I think, a member of the Constituent Assembly — was there any prominent Indian leader educated in the United States? There were several — notably Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel — that had studied in Britain.

Key features of our Constitution — the Upper House as a ‘Council of States’, whose members were elected for six-year terms, and the federal structure itself — probably owe much to Dr Ambedkar’s years in America. The Drafting Committee was, however, only of the many such sub-groups that did the actual work of writing a Constitution for India.

Significantly, the Union Powers Committee was chaired by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

This may well be why the Indian and the American Constitutions differ on one crucial point; the older document grants residual powers — those not specifically named — to the states whereas in India it is the Union that enjoys these.

We have an Election Commission to run the whole process, but no fixed dates. The American constitution lays down the date of a presidential election — the Tuesday after the second Monday in November of every fourth year — but does not specify the mode and manner of elections.

That is why India has been using electronic voting machines for several years while many states in the United States are stuck using paper ballots, as they might have in the eighteenth century. That is the downside of giving the states too much power.

The advantage, however, is that it permits individual American states to tailor the electoral mechanism. As many as 32 of the 50 states permit early voting, meaning that voters can walk up to a duly designated polling booth anywhere from five days up to fifty days before the actual Election Day.

Since the American constitution has mandated that Election Day will always be a Tuesday and, unlike India, Election Day is not a holiday, this allows states to open booths on weekends, normally Sundays.

Republicans believe that African American and Hispanic (Spanish speaking) voters favour the Democrats, and that they turn up at these booths en masse after attending Sunday mass. (Safety in numbers, perhaps?) The only thing demanded at these special polling booths was some form of photo identity, and an (easily obtained) driving license would serve.

To counter this — especially the menace of illegal immigrants from Mexico and the rest of Latin America — Republicans in some states have mandated the use of voter identity cards, that require tougher proofs of citizenship, age, and domicile. Their colleagues in other states are proposing to stop early voting on weekends.

Republicans claim that these measures are being taken to prevent voter ‘fraud’. Democrats say they are being implemented to prevent voter ‘participation’. Ultimately, given the litigious nature of American society, the various measures are likely to be lumped together before the US supreme court.

The debate is getting increasingly heated because of what is at stake, not just who gets to sit in the White House for four years but also who gets control of the American welfare State. Are illegal immigrants entitled to use public health facilities? Are their children entitled education in public schools, which in the United States may be run by local governments? (There are now Spanish-medium schools in California, all funded by English-speaking tax-payers.)

We in India should be paying attention because recent events in Assam have demonstrated that illegal immigration is a volcano waiting to explode in India too.

Assam may have borne the brunt of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh but over the decades they have spread to other parts of India too. (Even perhaps in Kerala?) And, as with the Democrats in the United States, there may be political formations in India who see some advantage in turning a blind eye to illegal immigration.

New Delhi cannot possibly micromanage everything; it has neither the resources nor the local knowledge. Is it time to grant more powers to individual Indian states to detect, obstruct, and capture illegal immigrants?


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