Assam NRC Protest, Screengrab, (Courtesy: India Today)
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“How I wished during those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or better still, to none at all”

-Winfried Georg Sebald, Vertigo

Sayera Begum, a 60-year-old woman from the district of Sonitpur in northern Assam, jumped into a well on Saturday morning. She was rushed to the hospital, however, could not be saved.

Sayera apparently couldn’t bear the rumour that her name was excluded from the final NRC. It was later found out that Begum along with her husband and son, were not excluded from the list, it was, however, too late.

In the final list published on Saturday, 19,06,657 people have been rendered state-less overnight. But what lies ahead for the 1.9 million and more excluded? Here is all that you need to know:

What is NRC?

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a register that contains the names of Indian citizens. The purpose of the register is to identify ‘illegal migrants’ from mostly Bangladesh but also Nepal.

The register will include only those names who can prove that they came to the state before 24 March 1971, the day before Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan.

The current updation of the list happened after 68 years, ending four years of work and a four-decade-old demand seeking detection of illegal immigrants.

Why Assam?

Assam is the only state in the country to create such a document. How did this happen?

Colonial Assam had witnessed large scale migrations from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The problem didn’t die down post-independence. Taking this into account, the Government of India went on to formulate the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950.

The act validated the expulsion of illegal immigrants from the state of Assam. And NRC was prepared for the first time in Assam along with the census of 1951. However, this measure against illegal migrants suffered a major setback since only from October 1952 onwards the regulations of passport and visa became operational between India and Pakistan.

The legacy of Assamese sub-nationalism

Further, between 1948 and 1971, large scale migrations were happening from Bangladesh. To protest this there was a students movement which demanded detention, disenfranchisement and deportation of illegal immigrants from Assam.

The movement later came to be known as Assam agitation, continued for 6 years and culminated in the signing of the landmark Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) – the Assam Accord. Officially the accord wasn’t implemented until 2013 when the case reached the Supreme Court.

The bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Rohintan Fali Nariman directed the Union Government and the State Government to complete the update of NRC, to be implemented in adherence to Citizenship Act, 1955 and The Citizenship Rules, 2003, in all parts of Assam to rule out immigrants from the state.

What will happen to 19,06,657 people?

Over the next 120 days, those excluded from the list can now appeal to Foreign Tribunals which are specially formed courts. They can also appeal to higher courts like a Supreme Court or High Court. There is no doubt that with more than 1.9 million people excluded from the list, the process of appeal is going to be equally exhaustive and long.

However, these foreign tribunals have run into controversies many times. There would be over 1000 special courts in Assam by the end of October and most of them are known for its bias in judgement.

Amnesty International has described the work by the special courts as “shoddy and lackadaisical”.

Detention Centres

There are around 6 detention centres that are already built in the prisons of Assam. It has over 1000 people who are already declared foreigners. A report from BBC also suggests that Mr Modi’s government is also building an exclusive detention centre, which can hold 3,000 detainees.

There have been complaints that around 120 were stuffed into the rooms of these detention centres which only could hold 40 people.

Indefinite Incarceration

Human Rights activist Harsh Mander visited two detention centres in Assam and submitted a report to NHRC.

“In its visit to the two detention camps, we found a situation of a grave and extensive human distress and suffering. They were held in a corner of the two jails for several years, in a twilight zone of legality, without work and recreation, with no contact with their families, rare visits from their families, and with no prospect of a release,” reads the report.

“Since there is no formal agreement between India and Bangladesh governments for India to deport persons they deem to be foreigners, not only are the persons who the Foreigners’ Tribunal judge to be foreigners detained for many years, there is no prospect of their eventual freedom from this incarceration. At present, it appears that they may be detained for the rest of their lives,” the report adds.

United Nations Responds

United Nations refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi has voiced concern at the publication of a National Register of Citizens in India’s northeast state of Assam that could leave some 1.9 million people in danger of becoming stateless.

“I appeal to India to ensure that no one is rendered stateless by this action, including by ensuring adequate access to information, legal aid, and legal recourse following the highest standards of due process,” he said.

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