NRC: Hope or mirage?

Let's clear a few points before delving into the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of NRC

People wait to check their names on the final draft of the state's National Register of Citizens after it was released, at an NRC Seva Kendra in Nagaon. PTi

Assam remained calm, contrary to expectation, after the release of the draft NRC on July 30. The NRC is the ‘National Register of Citizens’ that will contain the names of Indian citizens of Assam. The exercise is the updation of NRC 1951 across Assam in order to identify illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. As soon as it was announced that 40 lakh names were excluded from the draft list, it attracted the attention of the nation for all wrong reasons.

There is a need to clear a few points before delving into the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of NRC. First, NRC is not a Hindu-Muslim issue or an Assamese-Bengali issue. It is about detecting illegal immigrants that have entered Assam, irrespective of religion or language. Second, this list is just a draft and not the final list. So, the question of what happens to these people after detection does not arise yet.

Third, all the 40 lakh people excluded from the list are not illegal immigrants. It seems politicians reacted too soon, some claiming credit, some predicting a bloodbath. Many genuine Indians, including some indigenous people of Assam, found their names missing because of problems in legacy data. Delay in responding to request for legacy data from other states also resulted in exclusion of those from other states. It is reported that West Bengal failed to verify the legacy data of about one lakh people not in the list.

Fourth, a large number of illegal immigrants are reported to be in the NRC draft list. For example, about 200 suspected foreigners from Morigaon, belonging to 39 families with cases pending in foreigners tribunals, made it to the NRC draft. So, to brand everyone in the list as genuine citizens and those not in the list as illegal immigrants is misleading. Sixth, no political party can claim credit, the NRC was supervised by the Supreme Court.

To understand why such registration of citizens was felt necessary in Assam, we have to start at the beginning. Assam witnessed an unmanageable influx of migrants from East Pakistan right after Partition in 1947 which continued unabated due to porous borders. It was considered prudent to prepare the NRC in 1950.

The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) demanded that it be updated as they started the Anti-Foreigners Movement in 1979. The state lost 885 young people in those six years. It was not a Hindu-Muslim conflict. There were several Assamese Muslim AASU leaders who lost their lives at that time. The painful memory of subsequent army operations against United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) still remains.

The movement ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord between AASU leaders and then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Little did these naïve Assamese realise that their struggle was all in vain.

The central government was not serious about detecting illegal immigrants. Assam was placed under the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983, famously known as IMDT Act. Unlike the Foreigners Act, the IMDT Act mandated that the burden of proving citizenship rested on the accuser, not the accused. So, it became impossible to detect illegal immigrants in Assam.

In 1998, the then governor of Assam, Lt Gen S K Sinha, had sent a report to the Centre highlighting the danger of illegal immigrants. The governor warned, “This silent and invidious demographic invasion of Assam may result in the loss of the geostrategically vital districts of lower Assam…It will then only be a matter of time when a demand for their merger with Bangladesh is made.”

According to the 2001 census, the districts of Dhubri (74.9%), Barpeta (59%), Goalpara (54%), Karimganj (52%), Hailakandi (57%) already have a Muslim majority population, and the districts of Bongaigaon (39%), Cachar (36%), Darrang (35%) and Marigaon (47.5%) are close to a Muslim majority. The IMDT Act was eventually challenged by Sarbananda Sonowal, now chief minister of Assam, in courts in 2000. The Act was stuck down by the apex court in 2005.

In 2005, a meeting on illegal immigration was forced on authorities by AASU by threatening to boycott the prime minister’s visit to the state to flag off the first Indo-ASEAN car rally. However, neither the Centre nor the state took any steps. It was a PIL filed by Assam Public Works (APW), an NGO, in July 2009 that finally revived the process of updating the NRC in 2015.

Unquestionable intent

There may be many reasons to find fault with the draft list. The primary one is the absence of any strategy regarding what to do with those people that are identified as illegal immigrants. But the intent cannot be questioned.

As more details about the names in the list become public, it is feared that illegal immigrants might have managed to get their names in as they had fake documents to prove their legacy data. Not surprising, as they are the vote-bank. But many Indians, even blue-blooded Assamese, do not have their names in the list. Women, in particular, have had difficulty proving their legacy data.

Then, what did this NRC achieve? First, there may not be any more large-scale influx of illegal immigrants. Second, securing the border may become imperative. Third, there may be demands from other states for a similar registry. Manipur has recently passed Manipur People’s Bill that fixed 1951 as the base year for distinguishing the indigenous, which led to violent protests in Jiribam area.

The people of Assam strongly oppose the Citizenship Act of 2016 that proposes to grant citizenship on the basis of religion. This will make the Assam Accord of 1985 meaningless. The major political parties should come forward to support the people of the state, if not for anything else, at least for national security. 

(The writer is a research scholar at IIFT)

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NRC: Hope or mirage?

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