The author is a senior Guwahati-based journalist. He’s a Chevening scholar and has worked with the Times of India, Indian Express, The Telegraph and Times Now television. He is the author of two books on the northeast dealing with continuous insurgency
The final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam which was released on 30 July excluded nearly 4 million people out of a total of 3.29 crore applicants in a long drawn and cumbersome exercise that began three years ago. The process was initiated after the Supreme Court responded to a PIL filed by Assam Public Works on the non-implementation of a tripartite pact inked in 2005 between the Centre, state government and All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) that promised an update of citizens’ list in the state called the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Therefore, despite the claims made and credit taken by political parties, it may be safely concluded that the update of the citizens’ list would not have started without the apex court’s intervention and its subsequent scrutiny at regular intervals. Identifying citizens in Assam by the NRC is an intricate process where 24 March 1971 was fixed as the cut-off date that was accepted in the Assam Accord. This means that any foreign national who settled in the state after that date would not find mention in the register. The NRC Secretariat had allowed the submission of 14 documents from applicants for establishing proof of citizenship which were scanned and their authenticity verified by as many as fifty softwares developed by Wipro Limited and Bohniman Systems Pvt Ltd. Besides the legacy data to be submitted with links to data till 1951, the applicant will also have to scrape through what is called the Family Tree Verification. Hazy Picture Details about the people who have been excluded from the list have not yet been released. However, cases that are being highlighted by the media reveal that the rejected category cuts across various communities including the indigenous groups. A retired army officer, government servants, two legislators belonging to the BJP and the opposition AIUDF are some instances whose names are missing from the final draft. One report also says that a large number of Hindu Bengalis have also been left out which further proves that the excluded category is not confined only to Bengali Muslims. There are also reports of declared foreigners who were able to manipulate the system to get their names included. The NRC Secretariat has however assured that the anomalies would be rectified ahead of the final list to be declared some months later through a process that will accept ‘claims and objections’ till August 30. The NRC came into being in 1951 in Assam as a method to check the influx of a huge number of refugees of East Pakistan. They added to the lakhs of migrants who were already settled in the state during the British Raj deliberately either for enhancing the agricultural output or for manning the clerical posts in government departments. In 1971, the influx increased following the genocide by the Pakistan army but the refugees were never asked to return after the war ended. The border was porous with extremely low surveillance which also offered an incentive to economic migrants to cross over and settle in reserve forests, village grazing grounds and along suitable spots along the banks of the Brahmaputra. Close to six lakhs of foreign nationals were identified in 80 assembly constituencies following an operation by Assam Police in the late 1970s but there was no effort either to evict them or delete their names from the electoral rolls. Escapist Politicians The issue of illegal migrants has fuelled agitations and accords but no political party was willing to take the plunge to adopt a stringent policy to identify the aliens or check their movement from across the border. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), formed after the historic Assam Accord (1985) with the specific mandate to detect and deport the migrants also failed to fulfill the commitment even after winning the assembly polls and having its own government twice between 1985 – 2001. . Meanwhile, the numbers of the foreigners kept on increasing which also triggered occasional riots with the locals. Thousands were uprooted from their homes in the disturbances of 2008 and 2012 in some districts of central and western Assam. The alarming situation compelled former Assam governor Lt Gen (Retd) SK Sinha to despatch an exhaustive 42 page report to the President with some recommendations that were to be implemented immediately. But they were also put on the backburner by the home ministry for unknown reasons. Keeping the issue of illegal migrants alive in Assam has served the purpose of all political parties. The Congress is apprehensive that its traditional vote base among the migrant Muslims would be shaken if a large number is deleted from the electoral rolls. The BJP is equally concerned since a sizeable chunk of Bangladeshi Hindus are also expected to be excluded from the final list. Not unnaturally, Parliament was rocked over NRC and there were allegations that genuine citizens have been excluded and harassed in the name of detecting the migrants. Biased Campaigns Some of these allegations are true but the international campaign carried out by organisations like Avaaz against the NRC or the biased media reports are undoubtedly efforts at shielding all migrants. In all likelihood, the NRC would come up with the final list ahead of the general elections next year. The Election Commission has not yet spelt out if the names of the declared foreigners would be deleted from the electoral rolls. However, it is certain that there would be hue and cry if declared foreigners are allowed to vote in the general elections next year. In such a scenario, the Election Commission could be left with no option but to bar this category from exercising their franchise but that could also fuel violence and arson in the sensitive areas of the state. According to intelligence reports, fundamentalist outfits and cadres from different parts of the country have been putting in efforts to expand base in several pockets of the state. These developments are indications of a flare-up in the post-NRC situation. Laggard Planning What is most disturbing is the lack of a long term plan by the government to deal with the issue in Assam. Although declared foreigners had been deported to Bangladesh in small batches in the past, it is unlikely that the neighbouring country would accept such a large number and New Delhi is also unlikely to put pressure since maintaining cordial ties with Dhaka is also equally important. So, where will the declared foreigners be sent after they are identified? There is still no answer but demands from the locals to expel them could get shriller after the final list is declared. If media reports are to be believed, the home ministry is toying with the idea to issue long term work permits and visas to the migrants. This clearly means that a distinction could be made on the basis of religion which again would be unacceptable to large chunks of the indigenous sections in Assam. It may be mentioned that the state had been rocked by agitations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 which sought to provide citizenship to some sections of non-Muslim citizens from the neighbouring countries. The intensity of the agitation forced the RSS and BJP to redraw their plans and shelve plans to immediately table the bill in Parliament during the monsoon session of Parliament. prognosis So what is the prognosis? It is too early to venture any firm prediction. Nobody knows precisely when the NRC will come to an end. Nobody knows what will happen to these people because the government doesn’t have any plan. There was apprehension about trouble after the final draft but nothing has happened so far. Authorities are expecting some trouble after the final list is out. It is important to bear in mind that about 7-8 lakhs of migrants have got into the list through fraudulent means, though nobody will come on record to say this. An absolutely false narrative has been created as if there are no illegal migrants in Assam. Had there been no NRC, the Northeast would have been cut off from the rest of the country after a couple of decades. Regarding what is happening on the ground... now the immediate focus would be upon filing claims and objections which, will begin from August 30 and will take two more months.