Assam – No Easy Solution in Sight
The draft of the National Registration of Citizens (NRC) which was placed in the public domain on July 30 has aroused fears and resentment in Assam as it excludes a little over 40 lakh residents in Assam from the list. However, it is a matter of satisfaction that it has not led to protest or violence, as was apprehended. The state has stayed peaceful. This is owing to the fact that there is assurance from the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh that no genuine citizen will be left out, all those excluded will be provided with the ample opportunity to prove their claim to citizenship and that there are still two months for the excluded ones to submit proof of their residence prior to March 25, 1971, the date set as deadline to be deemed citizens.
The NRC work was taken up in pursuance of the Assam Accord signed on August 15, 1985 between the Union Government and the leaders of the AASU and AAGSP, two bodies agitating for detection of foreigners and deletion of their names and their arrest and deportation to the countries they belonged. It was sequel to an agitation which had continued for six years and consumed many lives, besides causing the Nellie Carnage in 1983, which brought a bad name to the nation. The agitation stemmed from fears that Assamese were being reduced to a minority in their own state and a large influx of immigrants from Bangladesh was responsible for this. The worry was not misplaced, going by the fact that Assamese speakers were shown to be 48.38% in language data of the 2011 Census, against 57.81% in 1991.
The exclusion of 40 lakh names is bound to cause worry and doubt about the authenticity of the exercise. Yet it must be remembered that the exercise has not been a casual and ordinary one. It was monumental and carried out meticulously over a period of three years. It collected 6.56 crore supporting documents and scanned and digitized 68.31 lakh applications; sent out 5.74 lakh documents to other states and central agencies for verification; verified family tree verification in the case of close to 97 lakh applicants; and conducted hearings for 9.15 lakh family tree applicants in 80 working days at around 4,000 venues. Around 4,100 officers were involved in special verification of certificates issues to married women by the panchayat secretaries, 78 lakh letters were sent to applicants to call them for family tree verification, and it took nearly 62,600 personnel to prepare the present draft of the NRC project.
Yet, as it appears from the reports, the exercise has not been foolproof. There are complaints galore about women being left out in large numbers even though their husbands names are there on the list. Similarly, while some parents have found entry into the list, their descendants have not, or vice versa. There are also cases of those who were listed in the first draft of the NRC (unveiled on December 31, 2017) finding their names missing in the current draft. A lot of people who had their names in 1951 NRC too have complained of their names being excluded. There have also been instances of those whose objection to exclusion from first draft was found genuine still not finding their names in the present draft. While a majority of the excluded persons belong to Bengali-speaking Muslim community, a sizeable number of Hindu Bengalis too have been kept out. Many people speaking Nepali (it is useful to be reminded that Nepali-speaking people are different from those who hold citizenship of Nepal) too have complaints on this score.
Even as one would like to repose faith in the fairness of the exercise and hopes that even more rigorous effort would be made to include the genuine citizens, the Union Government’s bill to consider non-Muslim immigrants ‘refugees’ introduces several imponderables. The Assam agitation did not discriminate on the ground of religion among illegal migrants and sought that all those entering Assam illegally after March 25, 1971 (the cut off date was set in consonance with Pakistani Army’s crackdown against Bengalis in the erstwhile East Pakistan) be identified and deported. But the Modi Government is communalizing the issue by moving a bill seeking to differentiate the illegal entrants on religious grounds.
But an even larger issue is that where would the detected ‘foreigners’ be sent or deported. The only destination that could be conceived of is Bangladesh, in whose birth our own midwifery is celebrated rather than denigrated. Pushing illegal migrants through its borders is all likely to create disharmony with this neighbour with whom we can claim a harmonious relationship. The prospects of ‘deportation’ could thus be imagined. With the end outcome being so nebulous, the futility of exercise can best be guessed.