Too few objections worry indigenous communities

Too few objections worry indigenous communities

Gana Satyagraha, a rally opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, in Guwahati. PHOTOs by MANASH DAS

Less than 500 objections have been filed against the possible inclusion of ‘illegal migrants’ in the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC), even as the December 31 deadline is fast approaching.

This, many in Assam fear, could result in illegal migrants making to the final NRC and becoming Indian citizens. More than 200 ‘declared foreigners’ who made to the draft NRC have been caught so far. Are the indigenous people in Assam reluctant to file objections?

Historic agitation

The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which led the historic Assam Agitation (1979-1985), blamed the standard operating procedure (SOP) adopted for filing objections. The SOP makes it mandatory that a complainant has to mention Application Receipt Number (ARN) of the person whom he suspects to be an illegal migrant. This, the students’ body claimed, was responsible for the less number of objections.

“The government is not asking the NRC officials to carry out suo-motu verification against suspected applicants despite having such a provision in the SOP, which is approved by the Supreme Court. Instead, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal is asking local organisations to file objections. Isn’t it difficult for an ordinary person to get the ARN of a suspected applicant?” AASU advisor Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharjya asked.

“Everybody is talking about filing claims by the 40.07 lakh applicants who failed to make to the draft but filing objections is more important. Because once a final NRC is published, the applicant will get an NRC card as the permanent proof of his or her Indian citizenship. Those who are left out can file claims in a foreigners’ tribunal or the high court even after the publication of the final NRC,” another AASU leader said. AASU and 32 other indigenous people’s organisation have been demanding the update of the NRC as per Assam Accord of 1985, which agreed to detect, delete and deport illegal migrants, mainly from the neighbouring Bangladesh, who settled in Assam after March 24, 1971.

They say that indigenous people are facing identity crisis and the threat of being reduced to minorities. “Bangladeshis are even attacking and raping indigenous people in districts dominated by them. Our land has been occupied by illegal Bangladeshi migrants,” said Upamanyu Hazarika, a Supreme Court lawyer, who leads Prabajan Virodhi Manch, an anti-migrants group. Hazarika asked why filing objection had not been made online even as the entire NRC exercise is online. “The process of filing objections has become a joke even as many Bangladeshis have already made it to the draft NRC,” he said.

The fear of possible inclusion of illegal migrants in the draft NRC grew after at least 35 Bengali-speaking Muslim families comprising nearly 200 applicants in central Assam’s Morigaon district made to the draft NRC despite being declared foreigners in 2015. A government official, who was engaged in the NRC update process in Morigaon district was found to be a declared foreigner by a tribunal. He was arrested and the names of his family members were dropped from the draft NRC in August, days after it was released.

Although NRC is seen as a means to detect foreigners, the lack of a mechanism on what would happen to those who would be detected as foreigners has led many warn of ‘more disturbing days’ ahead in the state. “It is going to be a humanitarian crisis situation for India if the country of their origin (Bangladesh) refuses to accept them. The only solution is to give them all facilities except political rights (the right to vote). They should be treated as resident foreigners. But the people of Assam should not take the matter into their own hands,” Hare Krishna Deka, the former director general of Assam police and Sahitya Akademi awardee said recently.

Will NRC protect identity?

The demand to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord that promised constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards for indigenous Assamese people has grown in the state, including the call to completely fence the India-Bangladesh borders in the state. “The NRC will be futile if the protection of indigenous people is not ensured through implementation of the Clause 6 of Assam Accord. Besides, measures to protect the land rights of indigenous people are a must,” RTI activist Akhil Gogoi said. Chief Minister Sarbanada Sonowal recently said unfenced stretches of the border had almost been bridged and efforts are on to install gadgets for constant vigil in the riverine stretches, where fencing is not possible. For implementation of the Clause 6 of Assam Accord, the Centre has set up a committee to first decide who is an indigenous Assamese citizen.

Large parts of Assam erupted in protest against the central government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 that seeks to offer Indian citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis and Buddhists who had migrated from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, due to ‘religious persecution’. Akhil, who is leading an agitation against the bill, said indigenous people in Assam are against it as BJP is trying to polarise people by offering citizenship on religious lines.

“We want to live as Assamese as we have lived for generations, not as Hindus and Muslims. All who settled in Assam after March 24, 1971, must be detected and deported, irrespective of religion. But the BJP and the RSS want to divide us on religious lines and strengthen their Hindu vote bank to remain in power,” he said.

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