National Register of Citizens (NRC)
National Register of Citizens (NRC)

The list of the National Register of Citizens in Assam having finally been made public over the last weekend, the flaws are much too glaring to be brushed under the carpet. Though no less than 19 lakh people have been deemed non-citizens, this figure is expected to come down to less than seven lakhs or thereabouts. 

Serious concern has been expressed by a cross section of people including senior politicians like former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi and others that the Centre's approach to the NRC, a life-or-death situation for those left in the lurch, has been rather casual. Impartial observers insist the NRC points to a deeper crisis of citizenship and distorted Indian nationhood. 

A major casualty pertains to the indigenous people of Assam who will be far outnumbered by the migrants over the next two to three decades. This is where the major fault lies with regard to the NRC. 

At the same time the BJP Finance minister in Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma drew attention to many people who migrated from Bangladesh as refugees prior to 1971 have not been included. Names of many figure in the list because of manipulation of data. He insisted that this NRC should be put on hold. 

Amid all this Union Home minister Amit Shah, who is also the BJP chief, has made it clear that all those staying illegally in this country will be sent packing. Already there are instances of the NRC declaring the parents of a seven-year-old as citizens but not the child. 

What is of serious concern is that the NRC has flaws leading to problems which cannot be wished away. Consider the statistics of 33 lakh people having applied for inclusion in the NRC. Nearly 31 lakh have found place in the register while 19 lakh have been excluded thereby facing an uncertain future and no less than 41 lakh people were left out in the first NRC. 

At the same time the ruling BJP in Guwahati stressed it did not trust the updated NRC in Assam and appealed to the state government and the Centre for a nationwide exercise. Simultaneously, those who have been excluded from the list have 120 days to appeal at Foreigners’ Tribunals. Thereafter if they are not satisfied, they can move the High Court or the Supreme Court. 

The saving grace is that the state government will not undertake detentions for now till the verdict by the Foreigners’ Tribunals. It would have been naive for anyone to expect that the report of the NRC would have led to closure of this controversial issue in Assam, considered the gateway to the Northeast. 

The closure of the citizenship issue in that border state remains complex and distant. Expectedly the exercise of the NRC has inevitably brought to the fore several faultlines. Even as erstwhile career-diplomat-turned-External-Affairs-minister S Jaishankar emphasised that the NRC is an internal matter of this country, no political entity is happy with the outcome of the NRC.

At the same time the number of illegal migrants in Assam is alarming. Impartial observers insist that the NRC can be traced to the Assam movement when indigenous Assamese mobilised sentiments against the influx of immigrants from Bangladesh. 

The ruling BJP at the Centre took the opportunity of fulfilling an old promise of deporting the migrants as a majority of them were expected to be Muslims. This was in keeping with its political activism of enlarging its sphere of influence in the country by making inroads in new regions. 

The task was anything but easy which took nearly four years to complete. There were instances of people with long and dedicated service to this country cutting across religious communities and ethnicities suddenly confronted with having to prove their citizenship. 

Political parties insist that the NRC in Assam has left out genuine citizens. This has added a new dimension to the communal divide not just in that state but in other parts of the country as well where the BJP has pledged to implement the NRC process. 

These measures have the portends of deepening divisions in society between the majority and minority communities. The NRC process has inevitably thrown up problems. The fate of those excluded adds a new dimension as deportation is not an easy proposition which is bound to create avoidable complications having an adverse impact on the country's democracy. 

Already there are voices being raised in Bangladesh with whom the Modi government has a good relationship even as New Delhi has assured Dhaka that the NRC is an internal affair of this country. The misgivings in Assam is nothing short of a reality check about the political and human cost in the wake of the NRC which is widely believed to have gone terribly awry. Already murmurs are gaining ground about the dangers of having the NRC in other parts of the country. 

--T. R. Ramachandran

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Free Press Journal