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This is not the first time that Mr L.K. Advani has brought up the question of multipurpose identity cards for Indian nationals. Earlier, his proposal had found few takers, chiefly because of fears about the misuse of this instrument against members of the minority community. This particular objection came mainly from human rights groups, but there were some state administrations too which were wary of the idea. The drive to identify illegal immigrants, chiefly Bangladeshis, in Maharashtra a few years ago had ruffled a lot of feathers by appearing to be targeted against members of the minority community alone. This time, however, Mr Advani has made his point. The fight against terrorism has become an everyday reality within the country, and considerations of national security are now uppermost in the minds of office-bearers. At a recent national conference, chief secretaries and directors general of police came to agree that identity cards for national citizens would help state agencies weed out foreigners who had overstayed their stipulated time. The number of entrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh in 2001 who appear not to have left the country is worrisome, not simply from the point of view of security and prospective terrorist activity, but also of simple law and order. Half the Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in India seem to be concentrated in Assam and West Bengal. None of these facts is reassuring, since porous borders add to the problem, totting up the figures of illegal passage.

It is ironic that shared ethnicity should be one of the root causes of the difficulty in locating illegal immigrants. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis “merge” and blend into the local population, they look the same and talk in the same language. Added to this is the unwillingness of some states to conduct the witchhunt; local administrations at many levels reap benefits of various kinds by turning a blind eye to illegal residence. It is a pity that the idea of multipurpose identity cards should be mooted under circumstances of such urgency. In itself, the concept is a rational one, and could have been of much use to the citizens themselves long before this. The prior existence of the system could have actually prevented the problem of illegal immigrants from reaching such staggering proportions. There is now the danger of hurrying through the procedure, increasing the chances of error and also of slips in the kind of monitoring that the home secretary has mentioned. In this situation, what is needed is the full cooperation of all the states and of the citizens themselves, something that is yet to be achieved.

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