Panic grip Assam over NRC re-verification notices

Panic grip Assam over NRC re-verification notices

Gitanjali Sarkar with her son outside Divasagar circuit house on Tuesday. Photo by Zamsher Ali.

Gitanjali Sarkar and Yakub Ali of western Assam's Kamrup district felt relieved on July 24, when the Supreme Court rejected a petition by Assam government and the Centre seeking sample re-verification of documents submitted by NRC applicants.

Names of Sarkar, a Bengali Hindu and Ali, a Bengali Muslim appeared in the final draft of the NRC published on July 30 last year. And so the Supreme Court's July 24 order made them confident of no further test of their citizenship. But the relief turned into panic on Saturday morning, when many in Baruapathar village received notices from NRC authorities asking them to attend the hearing in Sivasagar circuit house in eastern Assam, about 500-km away within 48-hours for re-verification of their documents.

Panic has gripped many NRC applicants in Kamrup, Barpeta, Goalpara and Darrang districts,  belonging to the two minority communities since they were served "sudden notices" since Saturday. "This is a sheer violation of the Standard Operating Procedure of the NRC approved by the Supreme Court. The SOP says an applicant must be served a notice at least 15-days before the hearing but these people were handed over the notices before 24 to 48-hours before hearing for claims and objection hearings. The question also remains how can the NRC office carry out re-verification drive when the Supreme Court rejected a petition by the government for the same on July 24," asked Zamsher Ali, an activist of Citizens for Justice and Peace, a Mumbai-based NGO helping such applicants.

Although the NRC officials and Assam government remained tight-lipped, sources said they were served notices saying the legacy data they used to prove their Indian citizenship with March 24, 1971, as cut-off date was also used by some others in Sivasagar, about 500-km away. So documents of their family members needed to be re-verified and be present during the hearing.

Gitanjali, wife of a daily-wager and two of her family members had to walk miles, cross a river by a boat to reach Sontoli in Kamrup district at 6 pm on Monday and hire a car for Sivasagar at Rs. 16,000.  The car reached Sivasagar at 6 am on Tuesday. "They had to borrow money and rush since they had only 24-hours for the hearing. If they get late, they may be dropped from the final NRC to be published on August 31. They had no option but to borrow money," Ali said.

Although there is no word from the NRC authorities, sources said over 60,000 applicants belonging to Muslims and Bengali Hindus have been served re-verification notices, less than a month before the publication of the final NRC.

This comes days after Assam government tabled data about NRC dropouts, in the state Assembly to stress that number of NRC dropouts was more in "indigenous people" majority districts like Sivasagar and Tinsukia than in minority-dominated districts like Dhubri and South Salmara, bordering Bangladesh. The state government had sought sample re-verification of 20% applicants in bordering districts and 10% in others. 

"This is arbitrary and whimsical. Why is the state government silent now when poor people are harassed like this, that too in violation of the Supreme Court order?" former chief minister and senior Congress leader, Tarun Gogoi asked.