National Register of Citizens

Nationwide NRC: Roll of contention

Print edition : December 20, 2019

Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Photo: T. Singaravelou

Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti adviser Akhil Gogoi leading a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, in Guwahati on November 22. Photo: PTI

The government’s plans for a nationwide NRC and new citizenship laws lead to a fresh round of protests in Assam and other north-eastern States.

THE Narendra Modi-led government is keen on creating a National Register of Citizens (NRC) for the entire country, but it has refrained from announcing a cut-off date. It is also keen on passing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) ahead of the planned nationwide NRC exercise. Parliament has listed the CAB as one of the Bills for introduction and passing in the current winter session.

Assam appears to have become the desired demographics laboratory for the Modi government to test the waters for both exercises.

The government also wants to use the north-eastern State to manufacture consent for a nationwide NRC and proposed amendments to the country’s citizenship laws. The State already has an updated NRC list with March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for determination of Indian citizenship; the exercise cost the exchequer Rs.1,600 crore.

Some 19.06 lakh of the 3.30 crore applicants were excluded from the updated citizens’ register in Assam. The persons excluded allegedly failed to establish their citizenship claim during the paper-based citizenship verification carried out by executives for updating the 1951 NRC under the supervision of the Supreme Court.

Home Minister Amit Shah’s announcement in the Rajya Sabha that the NRC process would be conducted afresh in Assam during the countrywide exercise has created additional anxiety among lakhs of applicants included in the final NRC list in the State. It has also added to the trauma of the 19.06 lakh persons excluded from the final NRC list in Assam who are pinning their hopes on Foreigners’ Tribunals and the higher judiciary to establish their citizenship claims.

Amit Shah has not spelt out the cut-off date or the procedure to be followed for the nationwide NRC exercise. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the rest of the Sangh Parivar in Assam have been pushing the campaign of “one nation, one cut-off date” and making 1951 the cut-off year for updating the NRC afresh. Such a campaign has triggered fears of more exclusions, particularly among migrants from erstwhile East Pakistan prior to March 24, 1971, who acquired Indian citizenship by virtue of the provisions of the Assam Accord.

Existing provisions of the citizenship laws and rules separate the NRC exercises in Assam and the rest of India. Rule 4 of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, deals with the preparation of the NRC in the rest of the country through house-to-house enumeration while Rule 4A incorporates special provisions in the matter of preparation of the NRC in Assam by inviting applications.

Rule 4A(2) specifically provides that the NRC in Assam shall be prepared by inviting applications from all the residents calling for specified particulars relating to each family and individual, including the citizenship status based on the NRC 1951 and the electoral rolls up to the midnight of March 24, 1971.

The Supreme Court has explained why there exist two separate rules for NRC preparation in Assam (under Rule 4A) and the rest of India (under Rule 4).

“The abovesaid procedure was necessitated on account of a large number of persons who acquired citizenship by virtue of Section 6A of the Act without being actually born within the territories of India. Yet, as Section 6A of the Act confers citizenship on such person(s), a special procedure, indicated above, has to be devised for inclusion in the NRC in the State of Assam. This is what was agreed upon under the Assam Accord, which led to the introduction of Section 6A in the Citizenship Act, 1955, with effect from December 7, 1985,” states the August 13, 2019, order of a Supreme Court division bench on updating the NRC in Assam. The division bench comprised the then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman.

The updated NRC in Assam is a list of Indian citizens who were found eligible on the basis of papers submitted to establish their citizenship and residency claims as well as descent. The NRC is not to have the final word on the citizenship claims of the excluded; those claims are to be decided by the courts. But if the CAB is passed, it will be the final word on who can be a citizen of India.

Senior BJP leader and Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the State government had urged the Centre to discard the updated NRC as it included several names that should be excluded and excluded several that should be included.

However, the Assam government has not yet formally written to the Central government in this regard.

The Modi government, on other hand, has defended the NRC exercise in Assam to be a “fair process based on scientific methods”. Amit Shah also announced on the floor of the Rajya Sabha that the Assam government would extend financial assistance to excluded persons who do not have the money to file an appeal.

Amit Shah’s statement clearly indicates that neither the Centre nor the Assam Government is in favour of discarding the updated NRC in Assam. Statements by Sarma and the State BJP on discarding it are seen merely as a campaign aimed at keeping the NRC and citizenship issue alive in the State.

“If the cut-off date is 1971, then it should be the same for all States. We are not asking to scrap the Assam Accord,” Sarma told mediapersons after Amit Shah’s statement in the Rajya Sabha on the proposed nationwide NRC.

Writ petition

A writ petition (No.562 of 2012) filed by the Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha challenging Section 6A is pending consideration by the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court. The organisation has been maintaining the NRC list updated in Assam.

However, neither the Centre nor the Assam government has submitted any affidavit in the apex court in support of this petition, indicating that the two governments officially favour continuation of two separate rules for NRC preparation in Assam and the rest of the country although the BJP has been pushing the “one nation, one cut-off” campaign for public consumption.

The order of the Supreme Court passed on August 13 made it clear that the NRC in Assam would be updated “subject to orders as may be passed by the Constituent Bench” in the writ petition challenging Section 6A and in the writ petition (No. 311/2015) which challenges Section 3 of the Citizenship Act.

While Section 6A is critical to deciding the cut-off date for the NRC in Assam, Section 3 is key to the disposal of claims and objections for updating the NRC. The issue pending in respect of Section 3 is whether the expression “every person born in India” would apply only to persons born to Indian citizens and whether the expression “either of whose parents is a citizen of India at the time of his birth” in Section 3(1)(b) of the Citizenship Act, 1955, would apply to only a person one of whose parents is a citizen, the other being a foreigner, provided he or she has entered India lawfully and his/her stay in India is not in contravention of applicable Indian laws.

Samujjal Kr. Bhattacharjee, adviser, All Assam Students Union (AASU), said that the NRC was not a new thing in Assam. “It was compiled in 1951 and has now been updated in accordance with the provision of the Assam Accord under the constant monitoring of the Supreme Court. We have not rejected the final NRC list, but we have moved the apex court to re-examine it to remove the errors to ensure compilation of a correct list, free from the names of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. The errors would not have occurred if all the directives of the Supreme Court were followed. Instead of removal of the errors in the updated NRC, the BJP-led government at the Centre wants to make the updated NRC irrelevant by bringing the CAB and for granting citizenship to illegal Hindu Bangladeshi migrants,” the AASU leader told Frontline.

The Congress party alleged that the BJP-led government wanted to include Assam in the nationwide NRC exercise as it wanted to exclude genuine Indian citizens belonging to religious minorities and include illegal migrants belonging to a linguistic minority. Assam Public Works (APW), the original petitioner in the NRC case in the Supreme Court, has welcomed Amit Shah’s announcement.

APW alleged that the final NRC list was flawed as it included the names of illegal migrants and excluded genuine Indian citizens and had sought 100 per cent reverification of the final NRC list.

The All Assam Minorities Students’ Union (AAMSU) has opposed the inclusion of Assam in the nationwide NRC exercise. AAMSU adviser Azizur Rahman said that the State had already undergone a long-drawn exercise under the monitoring of the Supreme Court and that there was no justification in subjecting the people to a fresh exercise.

“Instead, the government and others should approach the Supreme Court to ensure that genuine Indian citizens are included and illegal migrants excluded,” he said.

Renewed anti-CAB protest

Amit Shah insisted in his statement in the Rajya Sabha that the NRC and the CAB were different processes and were not linked. However, he himself has been assuring Bengali Hindus and other non-Muslim “refugees” excluded from the final NRC list in Assam that the Modi government will introduce the CAB and pass it before compiling the nationwide NRC.

For parties and organisations opposed to the CAB in north-eastern States, this assurance by the Modi government reveals its real intention of determining citizenship on the basis of religion and targeting only Muslims among the “illegal migrants” in order to create a vote bank of Bengali-speaking Hindus from Bangladesh and erstwhile East Pakistan.

These parties and organisations insist that all illegal migrants need to be identified and expelled irrespective of religion. They have expressed fears that the CAB will not only facilitate granting of Indian citizenship to Hindu and other non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh who have been illegally staying in the region but also encourage more migrants to come to the region. This will further alter the demographics of the region and pose a grave threat to the identity and culture of smaller nationalities in the region, according to them.

The BJP has been trying to garner support for the CAB by claiming that the cut-off year of 2014 means that no migrants would be eligible to acquire citizenship after this year. However, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have not changed their position that a Hindu of undivided India cannot be treated as an “illegal immigrant” in the country. This position keeps open the option to amend the CAB to extend the cut-off year beyond 2014.

In the CAB, 2019, which lapsed, the government proposed to reduce the residency period for non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan from existing 11 years to six years in order to be eligible to apply for citizenship. The December 31, 2014, cut-off date as mentioned in the proposed CAB will mean that any non-Muslim migrant from Bangladesh who entered before this date will be eligible to apply for citizenship from January 1, 2021, onwards. Assembly elections in Assam are due in 2021. The BJP’s campaign to push this date is being seen as a bid to neutralise opposition to the CAB in Assam and other north-eastern States.

The CAB, if passed, will be reduced to an exercise in segregating Muslims from among the “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as from among immigrants from erstwhile East Pakistan who have acquired Indian citizenship by virtue of the Assam Accord.

The Modi government’s move to introduce and pass the CAB in the current session has revived the anti-CAB agitation in the north-eastern States. Political parties and organisations across the region have taken to the streets opposing the CAB.

Amit Shah assured the fourth conclave of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance that concerns expressed by the States in the region would be incorporated in the new Bill. However, the assurance has failed to cut much ice, and protests seeking the withdrawal of the CAB are growing. For the Modi government and the BJP, gathering support for the CAB may be harder than imagined.

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