The Indian government has stated that citizens whose names are missing from the NRC to be issued by Assam later this month will not be detained.
The announcement comes amid increasing concerns that Muslims will be targeted in the name of detecting illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
In 1951, the first census of independent India was conducted. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) was prepared after the census, recording the particulars of those who belonged to Assam. It was compiled exclusively for the state based on fears expressed by Assamese nationalist leaders who had feared a post-Partition conspiracy to bring about demographic change in the state. At the time, the state had 80 lakh citizens.
During the Bangladesh Liberation War, the Bangladesh-India border was opened to allow Bengalis fleeing genocide by the Pakistan Army's SSG units to render safe shelter in India. The state governments of India, such as West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura established refugee camps along the border. As the massacres in Bangladesh escalated, an estimated 10 million refugees fled to India causing financial hardship as well as regional conflicts in the north-eastern states. Post 1971, the government failed to send illegal immigrants back to the newly-founded state of Bangladesh.
The Citizenship Act of 1951 was amended in 2009 and 2010 to facilitate the NRC to ascertain the Indian citizenship of those residing in or belonging to Assam. Eligibility for Indian citizenship is based on the NRC compiled in 1951 and other documents such as land and tenancy records, passports and permanent residential certificates up to 24 March, 1971. Applicants born after 1971 can submit documents pertaining to their ancestors. In addition, documents that prove the relationship will have to be attached. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) had launched a six-year agitation demanding the identification and deportation of illegal immigrants in 1979. It culminated with the signing of the Assam Accord on August 15, 1985, in the presence of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, which decided the cut off as the Bangladesh Liberation War had begun on 25 March, 1971.
In the run up to the 2014 general elections, Narendra Modi had warned illegal Bangladeshi migrants to leave the country. Those whose names were not in the NRC would be held in detention centres, to await deportation. However, Bangladesh has denied the migration which has left the prospect of a diplomatic solution rather bleak.
The NRC is being updated in accordance with the Assam Accord signed in 1985, and will be published on 30 July. It is being carried out as per the directions of the Supreme Court, which is monitoring the process. The Citizenship Rules provide the opportunity to any person who is not satisfied with the outcome of claims and objections to appeal to the Foreigners Tribunal within a window period of one month. “We will ensure that every individual gets justice and is treated in a humane manner. All individuals will have sufficient opportunity for all remedies available under the law,” Rajnath Singh, India’s home minister, said in a statement. “Any person who is not satisfied with the outcome of claims and objections can appeal in the Foreigner’s Tribunal. Thus, there is no question of anyone being put in a detention centre after the publication of NRC.”
Assuring that the exercise is being conducted in an impartial and transparent manner, he asked the government to step up security to avoid any harassment in the name of citizenship. “All individuals will have sufficient opportunity for all remedies available under the law, as the publication is only a draft. At every stage of the process, adequate opportunity is given to all persons to be heard. The central government will provide all necessary help to the state government of Assam in this regard,” he said.
The first draft of the NRC was published on 1 January 2018, where names of 1.9 crore people out of 3.29 crore applicants had been incorporated.
The current exercise, which was started in 2005 under the Congress government, gained momentum after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Assam for the first time in 2016. During the election campaign, Hindu nationalists had vowed to act against illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. The process of identifying illegal immigrants and citizenship in Assam has become a contentious issue. According to several rights activists, the drive to register citizenship is also targeting Muslims who are Indian citizens.
Our assessment is that the publication of the NRC is an attempt by the government to maintain records of individuals living in the border state of Assam. However, it can be expected that names will be amiss owing to administrative inefficiencies or otherwise. We believe that the situation in Assam has worsened due to the recent influx of migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar. We feel that the governments of both India and Bangladesh should work on a policy framework to resettle displaced communities and provide necessary opportunities for education and employment, thus, preventing the outbreak of communal violence.