Assam’s anxiety

The Narendra Modi government’s religion-based approach casts a shadow over the process of updating the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the hopes of arriving at a solution to the vexed foreigners issue in accordance with the 1985 Assam Accord.

Published : Aug 17, 2018 11:00 IST

Some of the women whose names were left out from the National Register of Citizens’ draft list, when they gathered at Howly block in Barpeta district of Assam on August 6.

Some of the women whose names were left out from the National Register of Citizens’ draft list, when they gathered at Howly block in Barpeta district of Assam on August 6.

NEARLY 33 years after the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, the complete draft of the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam was published on July 30. However, the religion-based approach of the Narendra Modi government for the determination of citizenship has cast a shadow over the measures for a permanent solution to the vexed foreigners’ issue in the State.

There was a political consensus in the State that the final NRC list, to be published after disposal of claims and objections against exclusions or inclusions in the complete draft, would be a piece of legal document for identification, deletion of names from the voters’ list and expulsion of all illegal Bangladeshi migrants, irrespective of their religion, in accordance with the Assam Accord.

However, a set of gazette notification and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, introduced in Parliament by the National Democratic Allaince (NDA) government has given rise to the apprehension that the final NRC list could be reduced to a piece of document to target only illegal Muslim Bangladeshi immigrants while Hindu and other non-Muslim illegal Bangladeshi immigrants would be protected against any action based on the updated citizens’ list.

The political consensus was that the NRC, 1951, should be updated with the midnight of March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date, as agreed in the Assam Accord, for detection, deletion of names from the voters’ list and expulsion of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, irrespective of their religion. The NRC is being updated with the names of all those found in the 1951 NRC or in any electoral roll up to March 24, 1971, or in 12 other documents that establish residency in Assam before the cut-off date and their descendants. All Indian citizens, including their children and descendants, who moved to Assam after March 1971 are eligible for inclusion if they submit satisfactory proof of residency in any part of the country (outside Assam) on or before the cut-off date.

Of the 3,29,91,384 applicants, 2,89,83,677 were included in the complete draft; 40,70,707 applicants have been declared ineligible for inclusion. Among those excluded, 37,59,630 names have been rejected and 2,48,077 have been kept on hold.

From August 10, those excluded from the list will be informed the reasons for their exclusion and they will be given time until September 28 to submit claims for inclusion in the final NRC. Similarly, those who have objection to inclusion of any name will get the opportunity to file objections. Political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress and the Left parties have demanded extension of the deadline for submission of claims and objections on the grounds that the names of a large number of genuine Indian citizens have been left out and names of some declared foreigners have been included in the complete draft so that the final NRC list is “error free”.

The Supreme Court has directed the Centre to place before it by August 16 the standard operating procedure to be approved by the apex court for dealing with claims and objections.

The NRC authorities had not sought any information about religion or language of the applicants as these had nothing to do with the applicants proving their eligibility for citizenship in accordance with existing citizenship law and rules. Therefore, not just the complete draft, the final NRC list will also not have any data on the religion or the language of the applicants. The NRC authorities have not released district-wise data. Yet, there were speculative reports in the media about the percentage of those excluded in different districts in terms of their religion and language. Examples of exclusion of applicants belonging to different religious groups or speaking different languages are in the public domain. Examples of exclusion of genuine Indian citizens belonging to different language groups, including Assamese and speakers of various ethnic languages, Bengali and Hindi speakers, and different religious groups, have come to light. However, no authentic and reliable aggregated data of such examples are available in the public domain. Political parties, various organisations and a section of the media have expressed their views and built up narratives based on their own inputs of specific examples in different districts, which have shaped the perception about the complete draft among different sections of the people, particularly outside Assam.

Despite the fact that a huge number of people have been excluded from the draft, the situation in Assam has remained peaceful. Those left out of the list are looking forward to a smooth process of claims and objections as the Supreme Court, which monitored the rigorous and exhaustive process, has directed that no government authority should take any coercive action on the basis of the complete draft. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has also urged genuine Indian citizens among those left out not to panic and promised that no coercive action would be taken. This explains the disconnect between the narratives outside Assam on the NRC final draft and the ruckus created by opposition parties in Parliament and the hopes of the people of Assam for an “error-free” NRC after the completion of the process of claims and objections.

In all, 6.56 crore supporting documents and 68.31 lakh application forms were scanned and digitised. Some 5.74 lakh documents were sent to other States and Central agencies for verification. Field verification was done by visiting 68.71 lakh households. Family tree verification was carried out in the case of 96.97 lakh applicants to verify the genuineness of the use of legacy data; 9.15 lakh family tree hearings were conducted across the State in approximately 80 working days at 3,935 venues. Altogether 4,111 officers were involved in special verification of certificates issued to married women by the panchayat secretary/lot mandal (land recorder)/circle officer. In all, 78.6 lakh letters of information were sent to applicants for appearing for family tree verification; and 62,634 personnel were involved in the NRC project. (Source: “Milestones and Achievements During Different Phases of NRC Updation Process” published by NRC authorities.)

Although the Congress and the BJP are claiming credit for updating the NRC, it is the Supreme Court’s intervention and constant monitoring which ensured that the entire exercise was carried out within a definite time frame. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) had, in a memorandum submitted to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on February 2, 1980, proposed that the NRC should be updated. The AASU’s six-year-long Assam Movement culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985.

The Modi government introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, when the exercise of updating the NRC was on in full swing. The Bill seeks to grant Indian citizenship to six non-Muslim communities—Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis—in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan and not treat them as illegal immigrants. Before the introduction of the Bill, the Modi government issued two gazette notifications on September 7, 2015, the Foreigners (Amendment) Order, 2015, and the Passport (Entry into India) Amendment Rules, 2015, to exempt these six non-Muslim minority communities in Bangladesh “who were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution and entered India up to December 31, 2014” and came “without valid travel document or with valid travel document but validity expired” from the application of Foreigners Act, 1946, and orders made thereunder in respect of their stay in India without such documents or after expiry of those documents and prohibition under Passport (Entry into India) Rules. The Modi government has also relaxed long-term visa norms for these six communities.

Official figures, however, do not reveal any picture of Hindu Bangladeshis coming to Assam with passports seeking exemption on a massive scale necessitating any relaxation to Passport Entry rules. In reply to an unstarred question raised by former Chief Minister and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) legislator Prafulla Kumar Mahanta in the Assembly on August 25, 2014, the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government informed the House that until August 25, 2014, 64,387 Bangladeshis had entered Assam with passports, of whom 64,160 returned while 227 remained. Of those who came, 27,372 were Hindus and 36,992 were Muslims and 23 belonged to other religions. The information also demolishes the theory that a large number of Bangladeshis, who had entered Assam after March 24, 1971, with valid passports, had not gone back and were staying illegally in the State.

Major discourses

Different interpretations of the exclusion of over 40.70 lakh applicants in the complete draft are to be seen in the context of two major discourses around the issue of illegal immigrants. One is the Assamese ethno-nationalist discourse that unabated influx of immigrants from erstwhile East Pakistan, at present Bangladesh, through the porous international border has changed the demography in Assam and posed a grave threat to the identity, language and culture of Assamese and other ethnic communities and that the updated NRC will be an important legal document for safeguarding them from illegal migration of Bangladeshis into the State. The 2011 Language Data, which was released in July, has bolstered this discourse with the data revealing a decline in Assamese language speakers from 48.80 per cent of the population in 2001 to 48.38 per cent in 2011. The percentage of Bengali speakers in Assam increased from 27.54 in 2001 to 28.91 in 2011. In 1991, the percentage of Assamese speakers in Assam was 57.81 per cent and that of Bengali speakers was 21.67 per cent.

The other discourse is the Hindu nationalist discourse of the BJP and other constituents of the Sangh Parivar which singles out Muslims from erstwhile East Pakistan, that is Bangladesh, as “infiltrators” and pushes for their deportation while treating Hindus coming to Assam and other parts of India as “refugees”. In a bid to push this discourse, the Sangh Parivar has been trying to build the narrative that the Assam Accord is not sacrosanct and that the cut-off year for identification of illegal immigrants should be 1951 instead of 1971. Attempt to dilute the Assam Accord and the NRC updated on the basis of the Accord is seen as the Sangh Parivar’s desperate bid to push the Hindu nationalist discourse among Assamese and other ethnic communities and replace the identity markers of language and culture with religion.

Amit Shah, BJP national president, described the NRC as the “soul of the Assam Accord”. What he did not state is that the Assam Accord made no distinction of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants on the basis of religion and that is why the people of Assam overwhelmingly supported the updation of the NRC on the basis of the Assam Accord while they opposed tooth and nail all moves of the Modi government to make distinctions among illegal Bangladeshi immigrants or to grant and decide citizenship on the basis of religion.

‘D’ voters excluded

Among those excluded are 2.48 lakh ‘D’ voters (D standing for doubtful or disputed) and their descendants and those whose references are pending before Foreigners’ Tribunals. In 1997, the Election Commission directed tagging the letter ‘D’ against names of voters who, as alleged by the E.C., had failed to establish their Indian citizenship. According to NRC modalities, ‘D’ voters are eligible to apply for inclusion in the updated NRC, but their names would be included only after they are cleared by the respective Foreigners’ Tribunal.

Minutes of a meeting of the Cabinet Sub-Committee for Updation of the NRC and Implementation of the Assam Accord, held on September 12, 2016, and tabled in the Assam Assembly, states: “Regarding inclusion of descendants of ‘D’ voters and Declared Foreigners [DV/DFs] in the updated NRC, the committee observed that those persons shouldn’t be included in NRC, except for those who are protected by the recent orders of the Ministry of Home Affairs about minorities leaving Bangladesh due to religious persecution.” The Cabinet Sub-Committee constituted by the Sarbananda Sonowal government includes Finance, Health and Public Works Department Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma as Chairman and Asom Gana Parishad president and Agriculture Minister Atul Bora and two BJP Ministers, Ranjit Dutta and Parimal Suklabaidya, as members. The complete draft has given rise to apprehensions of break-up of families as some members of the family have been included while some others have been left out. The NRC State coordinator, Prateek Hajela, told Frontline that eligibility for nationality was not based on family and that each applicant should prove her/his eligibility separately.

In the coming days, the Modi government will be under pressure to clarify as to what action it contemplates after the publication of the final NRC list. Demands for withdrawal of the controversial Bill and notifications of the Modi government may gain ground to prevent the final NRC in Assam from being rendered infructuous.

With the Modi government’s religion-based approach to citizenship casting a shadow over the process of updating the NRC in Assam and its objectives, the BJP may find it difficult to push its campaign for an NRC for the entire country.


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