The National Register of Citizens (NRC), rendering 1.9 million stateless, has thrown up serious questions on how applicants can submit proof of citizenship in a region that is evolving and historically lacked the culture of precise documentation.
The question of migrants locally referred to as ‘bahiragats’, has been politically and ethnically a contentious issue in Assam for decades. The state has seen major influxes of migration, both under British India and as a border state of independent India.
After the partition of India in 1947, widespread communal riots had led to large population exchanges which resonated across national borders. In 1971, consequent to large scale atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan, millions of refugees fled into Assam.
In 1979, ethnic Assamese launched an anti-foreigner’s movement alleging that the refugees/illegal migrants had gotten themselves included in the electoral rolls with political/ bureaucratic connivance. The indigenous communities viewed this as a conspiracy to divest them from political power through the creation of vote banks. The movement under the banner of the All Assam Student’s Union (AASU) culminated in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord.
Under the framework of the Accord, immigrants entering the state between 1966-1971 would be removed from the electoral rolls. They would lose franchise for 10 years, post which the right to vote would be restored. All immigrants who entered Assam on or after 25 March 1971 (start of the crackdown in East Pakistan) would be declared a foreigner liable for deportation.
The process of updating the NRC began in 2015. The first draft of NRC was released in July 2018 and excluded 40.07 lakh people; with an additional exclusion list increasing the number to 41 lakh. The final NRC list left out close to 19 lakh people, essentially declaring them stateless.
Assam has a population of 33 million people. The publishing of the final list of the NRC has led to widespread anxiety and is on the verge of turning into a law and order situation. Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure has been imposed in many areas of the state with the deployment of central armed police forces to maintain peace.
Immediate updating of the NRC was one of the main clauses of the Assam Accord signed in 1985. Political expediencies and apprehensions of serious civil disturbances/ethnic clashes caused the actual process to update the NRC to remain in limbo until 2013 when the Supreme Court intervened.
The definition of an illegal immigrant has been given in the Assam Accord and forms the basis for NRC to declare an individual a foreigner. Anyone who entered Assam on the eve of the 1971 war (March 1971), fails to meet the criterion of citizenship. People in this category would mostly have already spent nearly five decades as residents of Assam. Their children, born in Assam would be almost 50 if born soon after entering India. Producing documentary proof of residence after passage of 50 years is not easy, especially if there is little or no culture of precise documentation in an archaic state bureaucracy.
When in 2018 the NRC draft excluded 41 lakh people, doubts were raised on the accuracy of the list and the basis on which inclusion-exclusion was taking place. Now that the number has gone down to 19 lakh in the final publication and transparency in the modalities of conducting the verification process has come under a cloud.
The political undertone of the entire process has further created divisions amongst its critics and supporters. Supporters of NRC demand its countrywide application to root out “foreigners’” who have seeped into the very fabric of the country, threatening its integrity. Its critics/human rights activists fear that it will target minorities and those that form a “vote bank” for a particular political segment.
This fear was further strengthened when the government introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill which would guarantee citizenship to non-citizen Hindus who were rendered stateless. This bill was initiated when it came to light that a large number of Hindus had also been excluded in the first draft NRC. The Bill was vehemently opposed by both the public and the opposition and was thus temporarily suspended.
The Supreme Court on September 2019 has ruled that the Assam NRC authorities need to levy heavy protection protocols on the list, similar to the Aadhar protection programme. This was done before the list was shared with the Centre, the Assam government and the Registrar General of India.
The government in Assam has assured that those who are not included in the list will not be immediately declared ‘foreigners’ or illegal immigrants. They can register their case with Foreign Tribunals (FT) and further appeal to the Assam High Court and even the Supreme Court if they are not satisfied with the FT ruling. Free legal aid has also been promised.
There are signs of alarm over the setting up of detention camps across Assam to accommodate disenfranchised people. In some cases, district jails have been converted into camps like in Assam’s Tezpur, Silchar and Goalpara district. The state government has already submitted requests to set up more camps, to the Centre.
The Home Minister on his first visit to Assam since the release of the NRC told North East Democratic Alliance leaders that the chances of implementing the Citizenship Bill are not obsolete. His statement raised hopes and concerns about the passing of the Bill which will essentially provide Indian citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Jains, Parsis, Buddhists and Sikhs. The people can be from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan and need to have only 7 years of prior residence in India rather than 12.
- The whole world is watching how India is going to manage this complex maze of defining citizenship from within this resident population, some of whom have been living for over five decades. The success or failure of this bold experiment will determine whether NRC strengthens Indian security and integrity or deepens existing fault lines.
- Viewed in tandem with the recent developments in Kashmir, Indian secularism is certain to come under a microscope.
- The fate of petitioners who lose their appeal at the Foreigners Tribunal (FT) remains uncertain. Financial constraints, the existing logjam of pending cases in higher courts and whether they would be permitted to pursue their appeals after obtaining bail from detention centres are issues which need clarification.
- Historically, those who are deemed foreigners are sent to detention camps. With no repatriation treaty with Bangladesh in place, they cannot be deported. Bangladesh has categorically denied that any of its citizens are residing in India, and will not agree to the deportation of so-called Bangladeshi citizens.
- Detention camps conjure unpleasant images, not in tune with the image of India as a liberal democracy.
- FTs are quasi-judicial bodies set up under the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act of 1983. The act has since been abolished with only the FTs remaining. The FTs follow a slow and old process as decided in 1983. Other flaws in the process include lack of legal rights to repatriate those who have been declared illegal without a trial.
- It is important to address the grievances of the local ethnic Assamese communities. NRC was conceptualised with the aim of addressing their concerns/ fears of being marginalised/turned into a minority in their homeland, It was to seek remedy for those very concerns that the demand for NRC was made in the first place. Long-term solutions for their grievances over land and livelihood is essential.
- Those declared foreigners must appeal within 120 days to the FT. While over 200 more FT’s are being set up at a priority in the state, there are great chances of them being overwhelmed. The list has excluded almost 6% of the total population of Assam, which means FTs will be adjudicating on close to 3 million cases within 120 days.
- Implementation of a nation-wide NRC would be disastrous as many of the rural people would find it hard to provide documentation.
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