The final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a document meant to weed out foreigners from Assam, was published last week with the names of over 2.89 crore included in it. However, over 40 lakh people, nearly 10 per cent of the state’s population, were left out from the draft. The purpose of the NRC was to identify ‘genuine Indians’ living in Assam and detect the ‘illegal migrants’. A question mark looms over the identity of those who have been left out of the NRC: are they Indians or ‘illegal migrants’ who have been living in Assam for generations?
Since the release of the NRC draft on July 30, the exclusion of 40,007,707 people, who the BJP has hastily and irresponsibly called ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’, has become a strong point of contention between the ruling party and the opposition. While some parties, like the Congress for instance, have objected to the implementation of the NRC process and criticised the BJP for using it for political gains, all opposition parties are unanimous in their view that it is a humanitarian problem that is being reduced into an electoral tactic by the BJP.
The uncertainty over the legal status as Indian citizens of over 4 million people is indeed a matter of great concern. Around 3,29,91,384 people had applied for inclusion of their names in the Supreme Court (SC)-monitored NRC. The first draft, with 1.9 crore names, was released in December 2017. The second draft has 2.89 crore names of people. In the second draft, names of doubtful voters and their descendents and those whose references were pending before the foreigners’ tribunal were kept on hold. This accounts for 2.48 lakh people, including 1.5 lakh whose names appeared in the first draft but were not included in the second draft owing to mismatch in their family tree verification.
The NRC is a mammoth exercise and causes for concern have been aplenty. Given the frenetic pace to meet the deadline set by the SC, there are lingering doubts whether the process was indeed foolproof as the second draft has its share of notable omissions. The NRC job is not complete yet and the future of over 40 lakh people is still to be decided. All hope is not lost for those who have been excluded from the second draft as the exercise moves to the next phase of filing claims and objections and submitting further proof of their residence. The NRC, a bureaucratic nightmare, is being justified with the aim to identify and segregate illegal migrants. But politically it offers a polarised religious and regional platform to contest and win elections.
The political blame game has already begun with some taking credit for it, while others questioning its reliability on the basis of subjective bias. The inherent flaws in the NRC of 1951 and the electoral rolls of 1961 and 1971, which make up the core of the ‘legacy data’ for the current NRC, can make proving citizenship a difficult task for many. It is one thing to expect the rich and the empowered people to provide documents to prove their citizenship, but quite another to expect the illiterate and landless poor to furnish documents that go back nearly half a century on both paternal and maternal lineage to prove their ‘Assamese’ lineage. In a country with a poor record for data, proving citizenship on the basis of documentary evidence, especially for the rural poor, can be nearly impossible. It’s not a surprise that a large chunk of those who have failed the NRC test are the poor.
Those who have failed the test include both Muslims and non-Muslims. But if the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, which has been referred to the Joint Parliamentary Committee, becomes a law after it is reintroduced in the parliament, it will provide a fast track path way to obtain Indian citizenship to the minority communities, such as Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Therefore, the exclusion of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh from the NRC will be of no consequence as they will no longer be considered ‘illegal migrants’, while the rest of the people excluded from the NRC will be rendered ‘stateless’.
The problem of illegal migrants has been a lingering issue for several decades and a simmering one for more than three decades after the 1985 Assam accord, which ended the six-year long violent agitation against illegal migrants. Although the Assam accord broke a deadlock with the All Assam Students’ Union — now a political party known as Asom Gana Parishad that fought and won subsequent elections — successive governments failed to implement it. In 2005, representatives of the Central government, state government and AASU decided that the electoral rolls of 1971 would be used to decide who is an Indian citizen and who is not. This was also ratified by the Assam assembly in 2010 and urged the Central government to update the NRC of 1951 by taking 1971 electoral roll as the basis.
The NRC is still a work-in-progress; modalities of a standard operating procedure are being worked out to determine the final list. But political parties have started formulating their respective positions on it, keeping in mind the next Lok Sabha elections. While there is still hope for the 40 lakh-odd people, what happens after the final NRC list determines the precise number of people deemed illegal immigrants? The Assam accord proposed the disenfranchisement of ‘foreigners’ for a 10-year period. But this is said to be not the end-all solution to a long-term problem. Another way out, according to experts, is to issue biometric work permits, for those who fail to produce necessary documents to prove their Indian citizenship.
However, such an option should function on the premise that people have full citizenship rights in another country, which is not so in the case of those who will eventually be declared ‘illegal immigrants’. The Assam accord was signed in 1985; the work on updating the NRC began in 2015, thanks to the SC. Therefore the question: is it fair to strip people of citizenship on the basis of March 1971 as cut off date which was decided in 1985? When people have lived for generations in India, built their lives here and know no other home, denying them their citizenship raises significant human rights concerns.
A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist.