The Supreme Court-mandated exercise to prepare Assam’s National Register of Citizens has excluded forty lakh people, over ten percent of the State population, from its final draft. The excluded still have a chance to establish their bona fides. The preparation of the Assam-specific NRC began in 2015 following the SC directions. The first draft released last year had omitted far more people than the final draft released on Monday. The NRC of 1951 was meant to be updated under the 1985 Assam Accord signed by the Rajiv Gandhi Government following agitation by the All- Assam Students’ Union and All-Assam Gana Parishad.
The resulting Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act set 1971 as the cut-off for detecting and deporting illegal migrants. Despite this, the process was tardy and hardly any illegals were deported. But in the meanwhile the anti-illegals agitation had lost steam. However, the resentment against the illegals remained strong under the surface, with the BJP exploiting the anti-Bangladeshi sentiment to grow itself in the State. The basis for detecting illegals was the 1951 census and the electoral rolls of the 1971 poll. Descendants of those listed in the above records were to be included in the latest NRC. However, sincerity was lacking in successive state and central governments. The issue gained traction yet again with the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, and the SC directions to prepare the NRC draft was undertaken seriously for the first time since 1951. Predictably, the outcome has generated widespread controversy. In particular, the Trinamool Congress took the lead in criticizing the NRC process. Rival political parties were out to nurse their respective vote-banks.
The ruling BJP in Assam and at the Centre sees gains from a heightened sense of polarization which is bound to occur since a vast majority of the 40-lakh Assamese excluded from the NRC draft are Muslims. On the other hand, Mamata Banerjee would seek to consolidate her grip on the Muslim vote-bank, the West Bengal population is nearly one-third Muslim, by opposing the NRC draft. The Congress is caught in the middle, having been lately at pains to counter the impression that it is pro-Muslim, it cannot take a clear-cut stance against the NRC. Though the situation is tense in Assam, there had been no untoward incident. Also, the safety- valve of a second chance to prove one’s claim to citizenship would have helped keep the tempers in control. But the issue is bound to come to a boil early next year ahead of the parliamentary poll. It is hard to see the deportation of forty lakh illegals to Bangladesh. In any case, Bangladesh has always claimed that it has no illegal citizens in India and had in the past refused to accept a few illegals when they were sought to be sent back by the Indian authorities. No doubt, the issue is complex and does not lend itself to quick and simple solutions.
Knocking off the names of the forty lakh people from the electoral register too would be strongly resisted, though at the minimal disallowing the illegals from distorting the electoral process should evoke no protests. Besides, the illegals’ claim on the welfare schemes and subsidies would immediately come into question. Quite aside from these issues, the BJP has suggested that the Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, etc., found to be in the list of illegals ought to be granted citizenship since they are victims of discrimination and even persecution in the neighbouring countries, whereas Muslim illegals should be deported as they are economic migrants. Admittedly, the percentage of non-Muslims among the NRC-excluded will be minuscule, while Muslim illegals from Bangladesh constitute the bulk. Without doubt, the problem of illegals was aggravated by the successive Congress governments in Assam and at the Centre which encouraged illegal migrants to bolster their electoral prospects. Former President of India the late Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed often boasted that so long as there were ‘coolies and Alis’ in Assam, nobody could defeat the Congress Party. Because they were short-sighted, the problem came to a head in the 80s and led to a popular agitation. The nation is paying the price for the Congress’s folly — just as the party’s dalliance with the Sikh extremists had culminated in the Khalistani trouble. Hopefully, rival political parties would succeed in defusing the potential time bomb which is the NRC draft. While cultural, ethnic and religious diversity ought to be welcome, the presence of illegal migrants is always worrisome and should be discouraged.