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

On August 31, the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published for Assam. It left out 1.9 million people, or roughly 6 per cent of the state’s population. The NRC is a list of people who can prove they came to Assam by 24 March 1971, the day before Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan.

People left out of the list will have 120 days to appeal against their exclusion in Assam’s Foreigners’ Tribunals. But a majority of them are poor and may live far away from NRC tribunals.

Given’s India’s poor record for data, proving citizenship on the basis of documentary evidence to establish ancestry, which goes back nearly half a century can be nearly impossible.

So, it’s unclear what lies ahead for the 1.9 million people, as uncertainty prevails over the process that could make them ‘stateless’, if they fail to prove their Assamese lineage.

Though the NRC process was driven by the Supreme Court (SC), the exercise has seen vigorous politics around it. The BJP has long rallied against illegal immigration in India, but made NRC a priority in recent years.

However, publication of the final NRC list has left the BJP a prisoner of its own rhetoric. While it pushed for an NRC-like exercise for the entire country in the last Lok Sabha election, it increasingly distanced itself from the process in Assam.

In run-up to the final NRC, the BJP in Assam did a volte-face, going from enthusiastically backing the process to criticizing it as a flawed exercise when it realised that the list could exclude a large number of Hindus.

With the final NRC list throwing up an exclusion of only 19 lakh, the BJP has completely discounted the process and threatened that the exercise to identify foreigners will continue.

However, it is not the only party which is unhappy with the NRC, chiefly because of the “low exclusion” numbers and “exclusion of genuine Indian citizens”.

Others who have expressed their reservations against the NRC include the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), a stakeholder in the ongoing NRC case in the SC, Assam Public Works (APW), the original petitioner whose petition in the SC led to the beginning of the NRC updation exercise six years ago, and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a member of the BJP-led government in Assam.

Assam is a multi-ethnic state. Questions of identity and citizenship have long annoyed a vast number of people living there. Among its residents are Bengali and Assamese-speaking Hindus and a mix of tribal people. A third of the state’s 32 million residents are Muslims.

Many of them are descendants of immigrants who settled there under the British rule. However, illegal migration from Bangladesh, which shares a 4,000-km long border with India, has been a concern in Assam for decades.

This concern and resentment against illegal migration was the cause of a violent agitation in the early 80s. The Assam Accord of 1985, which ended the six-year long agitation, broke the deadlock over the vexed issue of “outsiders” between the Centre and AASU.

NRC was the outcome of the Assam accord under which it was proposed that people deemed illegal immigrants or foreigners would be disenfranchised for a 10-year period.

The NRC draft of July 2018 had left out 40 lakh people who were then asked to file claims for inclusion in the final NRC. The final draft has left out only 19 lakh people.

This number is now being questioned because it is far lower than earlier claims made by political leaders over the years. For instance, Union home minister Amit Shah had claimed that there are 40 lakh foreigners in Assam.

Earlier, former Union minister Sriprakash Jaiswal had claimed the number to be at 50 lakh in 2004, while in 1997 home minister Indrajit Gupta had put the number at 40 lakh.

Jaiswal however withdrew his statement later, saying the figure was hearsay. APW has said there were at least 41 lakh foreigners in Assam. But the Centre’s standard position has been that “it was not possible to have accurate data on Bangladeshi nationals living in the country”. So, all figures are either hearsay, guesstimates or extrapolations.

The context that has compelled a large section of people in Assam to settle for NRC is the pressure on land and livelihood. It is this aspect of strong resentment against foreigners that was evident in the violent movement against illegal immigrants in the 80s which has remained unaddressed.

Assamese locals, particularly the tribal villagers, fear that they may lose their rights on land and livelihood and may become culturally insignificant in their own homeland.

It is for this reason that there was large scale opposition to the government’s attempt to bring in changes to the Citizenship Act through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, that would guarantee citizenship to a non-citizen, as long as he or she is a Hindu. The bill was so staunchly opposed in Assam and in other North-eastern states that the government was forced to abandon it, at least temporarily.

NRC is probably the last hope of the genuine Assamese to protect their identity, rights on land and livelihood. But it is being questioned and disowned by almost everyone who earlier tried to own it mainly because the exclusion tally is far lower than their expectations.

However, constitutionally, according to legal experts, NRC is a flawed exercise because it violates the Citizenship Act of 1955. Under Section 3 of the Citizenship Act, all those born between 26 July 1950 and June 30, 1987, are Indian citizens by virtue of birth, while the cut-off date for Assam NRC is March 24, 1971.

The eligibility criterion for NRC is lineage and not birth, which is a violation of Section (3) of the Citizenship Act. Moreover, since NRC has been done under rules for register for citizenship and national identity, rules cannot violate the Act.

Denying citizenship on the basis of a process which is legally flawed is a violation of fundamental right and hence unconstitutional. Speed and administrative convenience cannot be given precedence over constitutional right before declaring an individual illegal immigrant or foreigner.

But this is precisely what has happened in Assam under the supervision of SC. Discrediting NRC on the basis of low exclusion numbers suits politicians, but the SC should take a fresh look at NRC and make it a legally sound and fair exercise.

The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.

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