As a recent development in the long standing issue surrounding the implementation of NRC in the state of Assam, the Supreme Court extended the deadline for filing claims and objections on the inclusion of names in draft NRC. Of the 3.3 crores of people who applied to be included, almost 40 lakh people were left out of the final NRC draft published on July 30.
What is the NRC?
National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a register that contains the names of Indian citizens. NRC updation is the process of identification of citizens based on electoral rolls up to 1971 and NRC of 1951. The Supreme Court had sanctioned this update of the NRC in its 2014 Sanmilita judgment, thereby endorsing the long-standing concerns voiced by Assamese nationalist groups involved in anti-immigrant agitation. The purpose of the register is to identify illegal migrants from mostly Bangladesh but also Nepal. However, the union government haven’t clarified what happens to those who are left out of the list.
In a recent communication between India and Bangladesh, India assured that no one would be excluded from the register and sent back especially with Bangladesh not wanting to entertain anymore ‘refugees’ after the recent influx of Rohingyas from Myanmar into the country.
State of ‘statelessness’
If excluded from the register, a large population would be rendered stateless. Furthermore, there is no legal framework to address statelessness in India, meaning those excluded would governed by the Foreigners’ act of 1946 which gives the State extended powers to detain or deport these individuals. If not detained, they would lose their civil and political rights including the right to property. Presently, there are 6 overcrowded detention centres carved out of local prisons in the state holding almost 1000 people. The government is currently expanding detention facilities in the state.
Many people who have sufficient documents to prove their legality have now found their names missing from the draft. The reasons include stringent verification process, specificity in terms of documents, bureaucratic inefficiency, and prejudice. To make the situation more complicated, the demography that keeps shifting due to repeated floods have caused document destruction and changed addresses. The 1.3 lakh ‘d’ voters or doubtful voters are also missing in the draft NRC. Some within a family have been declared citizens while others have been declared foreigners. In the aftermath of the release of the NRC, more than a dozen people have committed suicides in the past few months following the release of the draft NRC under the fear of losing citizenship.
More than a bureaucratic exercise, the identification of citizens is turning out to be a communal, racial and political issue. And the issue is not recent but dates back to the colonial period when Bengalis migrated to Assam under colonial protection. Subsequently, anti-immigrant sentiments took root in the Assam population owing to fear of losing their land, identity and culture. These sentiments were echoed by the chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, a former All Assam Students Union (AASU) president, when he promised to build a wall to deter immigrants from entering the state during his election campaign in 2016. Interestingly, AASU was one of the key players of the anti-immigration agitation which resulted in the Assam accord signed in 1985, which is another reason that led to the update of NRC, besides the Supreme Court judgement.
Bengalis and Nepalis face the brunt of NRC. However, Bengali muslims are the worst off amongst the marginalised. Between 1961-69, several thousand Muslims were forcefully deported to East Pakistan under a draconian scheme called ‘Prevention of Infiltration from Pakistan (PIP)’. After the Nellie massacre in 1983, the communal sentiments of the majority rendered them incapable of forging a larger solidarity. The Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, which is not yet law, states that it will grant citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants who came into Assam even after March 24, 1971, but deny the same to Muslims. This has been justified on the ground that Hindus and Buddhists are minorities in Bangladesh who fled to India to avoid religious persecution but Muslims are a majority in Bangladesh and so the same cannot be said about them. The move is clearly an effort to push forth the right-wing propaganda and aims to target votes during the 2019 general elections.
Swati Bidhan Baruah, the state’s first transgender judge in a Lok Adalat in the court of Kamrup (Metropolitan) District and Sessions Judge Court, also notes that not a single transgender person from the Assam transgender community of over 20000 people has been listed in the draft NRC. Swati has now filed an application with the Supreme Court seeking the apex court’s intervention on the issue. Abandoned at birth or deserted later, the community finds it extremely difficult to establish their link with families and provide proof that they belong to families which have been living in Assam before March 25, 1971.
What is the condition now?
The reduced number of claims filed serves as evidence of the difficulty faced by the excluded in filing them. The reduced awareness in the pockets of the state regarding the procedure and illiteracy deter many from filing claims. Almost 200 objections have been filed to the inclusion of names suspected to be illegal immigrants in the draft. The verification of the claims shall commence on February 15th.