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Prolonging the NRC process may lead to its death

The BJP, which is in power in the state, too is opposing the NRC in its present form, pitching for 20% re-verification of the names, particularly in the districts bordering Bangladesh.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Sep 08, 2019, 09.13 AM IST
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NRC
People in Morigoan district of Assam queue up to check their details on the final NRC list
The National Register of Citizens or NRC was supposed to end a four-decade impasse in identifying illegal immigrants living in Assam.

On the contrary, the final list that excluded 1.9 million applicants has further muddied the waters. Ardent NRC supporters have turned hostile, threatening to prolong the process to identify true illegal immigrants, which may ultimately defeat the purpose of the entire exercise.

The All Assam Students Union, a grassroots body that led an agitation from 1979 to 1985 against illegal immigrants, now says it is “unhappy” with the “small number [of people who were excluded]”. The student leaders say the number of people excluded does not match the estimates Union ministers have provided in the past.

The BJP, which is in power in the state, too is opposing the NRC in its present form, pitching for 20% re-verification of the names, particularly in the districts bordering Bangladesh.

NRC in Numbers
33 mn Applicants since August 2015
31.1 mn Applicants included in NRC
1.9 mn Applicants excluded. They have 120 days to appeal to the Those excluded from NRC show foreigners’ tribunals
4 mn Applicants excluded from NRC at the draft stage. Of this, 3.6 mn appealed for inclusion
0.4 mn Those who applied but did not appeal once their names were excluded from draft NRC

State BJP leaders claimed that many of the foreigners who entered Assam after March 24, 1971, (the cut-off date as mandated by the Assam Accord of 1985) used fake documents to get their names in the final NRC tally of 31.1 million.

All this can lead to one simple conclusion: the NRC process will drag on till it collapses under its own contradictions. Here is why. Will the Supreme Court that propelled the mega NRC exercise retain the same level of commitment once the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, becomes a law?

The Bill, which seeks to make non-Muslim illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship, will dilute the NRC’s tenet of religion neutrality.

After the citizenship bill is passed, the NRC is likely to be seen as a list that goes after only one religious community — the Muslims. Will the Supreme Court continue to rally behind such an exercise, and back the demand for making more such registers of citizens in other states? In its present avatar, the NRC does not discriminate an applicant on the basis of religion.

Thus, religion-wise data of the final list is not yet available. But initial reports suggest that besides Muslims, a large number of Hindus too, presumably from Bangladesh, have failed to prove their Indian citizenship.

So the narrative of the NRC being the BJP’s ploy to target Muslims does not hold water, at least for now. But as soon as the citizenship bill is okayed, something the BJP is expected to push for ahead of the West Bengal elections to accrue political dividends, the NRC will be seen as an exercise with communal tones.

Will the Supreme Court continue to back the NRC then? It is unlikely. To put it into context, since 1985, successive governments in Assam had failed to find a proper mechanism to identify illegal immigrants, let alone deport them, until the top court stepped in. The court appointed a coordinator in 2013 and supervised each move of the NRC apparatus handled by 52,000 Assam government officials on deputation. On the ground, the NRC headcount started in 2015.

WOMAN
A woman from Morigaon district shows her name in the NRC

No doubt the NRC has glaring errors: many Indians are believed to be among the 1.9 million people excluded from the final list. There are claims that NRC also failed to detect fake documents. But these gaps can still be rectified. The foreigners’ tribunals across Assam will hear pleas of those excluded, who will get 120 days to appeal. Later, they can even appeal in higher courts. As for those who allegedly submitted fake document, there is a routine criminal justice mechanism.

But the real problem, one that neither the tribunals nor the police can resolve, comes from the stand Assam’s indigenous groups and political parties are taking, a stand that will inevitably delay the NRC process and may even cause its collapse.

Also, shouldn’t the NRC experiment in Assam remain separate from any follow-up pan-India NRC exercise some political parties appear to be seeking? One must also note that the previous NRC prepared way back in 1951 was also undertaken only in Assam. Already, a large number of Indians, including those from tribes in Assam, found it extremely hard to arrange legacy data and other relevant documents to prove that they or their parents or grandparents had lived in the state before 1971.

NRC
Those excluded from NRC show papers they used to prove Indian citizenship in Kamrup district

Now, imagine a similar situation in MP or Kerala or Gujarat, where ordinary people are asked to prove that they are Indians. It can only lead to chaos and may lead to the pulling down of the NRC itself. Also, unlike Assam where the cut-off year for proving citizenship is 1971 (the year Bangladesh was formed), the rest of India will continue to have 1951 as Year Zero to segregate citizens from foreigners. This means, people will have to retrieve even older documents from trunks or lockers to link their names to their forefathers.

Will that not create confusion, risking the entire NRC of Assam? Shouldn’t Assam’s case be seen as different from the rest of India? After all, in Independent India, no state except Tripura and Assam, had to bear the brunt of large-scale illegal immigration. According to the 2011 Census, the population of indigenous tribals in Tripura had fallen to 31% from 49% in 1951 and 70% in 1931.

Assam’s demography too is going Tripura’s way — only 48% of the state’s population were Assamese language speakers as of 2011. The holes in the final NRC list and the government’s move to allow illegal Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh to become Indian citizens (as proposed in the citizenship bill) will only confirm the speedy marginalisation of the native Assamese who never lived under the suzerainty of the Mughals, and fell under British rule only in 1826.
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