Year after Assam's NRC list, 19 lakh still in the lurch

A year after Assam's NRC final list, citizenship crisis of over 19 lakh people lingers on

The fear of being declared a foreigner has left rejected applicants worried as more than a year has passed since the final list was published and the process to allow them a chance to appeal has remained on hold.

 A rejected applicant is being provided counselling in Chirang district in western Assam by a volunteer of CJP, an NGO. Credit: CJP

Uttam Debnath of western Assam's Barpeta district was quite sure about making it to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as names of two of his brothers and their family members figured in the final list published on August 30 last year.

"I was just looking for the rejection slip, which was supposed to be issued by the NRC office. That list is required for filing my claim in the foreigner tribunal within 120 days to get my name cleared. But now I am really worried as the government is dilly-dallying with the process and nothing has been done in the past one year to clear our names," said Debnath, 48, a grocery shop owner in Barpeta Road.

Debnath is among the 19.06 lakh people, whose applications for inclusion in the updated NRC list in Assam was rejected. More than 3.29 crore people applied for inclusion in the NRC, which is being updated with March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date. This means those proving with acceptable documents that they or their forefathers lived in Assam on or before March 24, 1971, would be included in the updated NRC and those failing to do so could move the foreigners' tribunals and Gauhati High Court and the Supreme courts thereafter. Those losing their case in the court would ultimately be declared foreigners and lodged in detention camps for deportation to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The fear of being declared a foreigner has left the rejected applicants like Debnath worried as more than a year has passed since the final list was published and the process to allow them a chance to appeal has remained on hold.

"There are thousands among the 19.06 lakh people, whose applications have been rejected due to some clerical errors. We have come across many cases where names of parents have been included but their children dropped, or one child included and another rejected. Thousands of married women have been dropped for slight errors in their link certificates. Also, many local people including tribals have been dropped from the list despite not being migrants. The NRC office should clear these small errors and include their names and should issue the rejection slips quickly for others so that they can get their names cleared in the tribunals," said Zamsher Ali, advisor of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), a Mumbai-based NGO led by human rights defender Teesta Setalvad.

CJP has been providing assistance to such applicants and those lodged in detention camps in Assam.

"These persons are going through a very disturbing state of mind due to the delay. The NRC office got a lot of time since the final list was published on August 30 last year. They did not do much and the ruling BJP remained busy in de-recognising the NRC final list. Then the agitation and violence against the CAA began in December and the Coronavirus pandemic from March," Ali said.

The ruling BJP and a few other organisations moved the Supreme Court seeking "re-verification" of the applicants, in what appeared to be a tactic to delay the NRC exercise. Many in Assam say that BJP, which had promised before the 2016 Assembly elections to complete the NRC in order to end Assam's vexed foreigners' issue for good, was unhappy with the SC-monitored exercise as a majority of those rejected from the final list were Hindus.

"This is really unfortunate that BJP is trying to reject the NRC even as the cut-off date has been accepted by all sections in Assam and Rs 1,600 crore public money already spend to end the foreigner problem. They are trying to reject the list saying that an NPR or a nationwide NRC would be prepared, which is not practical. This shows BJP's lack of will and commitment to solve the foreigner issue in Assam. By keeping the NRC process hanging, Narendra Modi government enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act, which seeks to give citizenship to non-Muslims who migrated from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan till 2014. This is against the spirit of the Assam Accord of 1985, which decided the NRC cut-off date," leader of the opposition in Assam Assembly and senior Congress leader, Debabrat Saikia told DH on Sunday.