As over four million people fail to “make the cut” to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, the second draft of which has been released today, July 30, 2018, the political pot in Assam is boiling over. Can a year — 1971 — be arbitrarily selected as a “cut-off” date, a shadow line dividing the legal “citizens” from the “illegal aliens”, making four million stateless overnight? How to account for the lack of documentation owing to deep, generational poverty and illiteracy of many of the now disenfranchised denizens of Assam, mostly Bengali Muslims living there for decades? Such questions loom menacingly in the horizon as we look at the history of what’s essentially an exercise in state power.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a listing of all citizens of India, prepared in 1951 after the First Census. Prepared under a directive issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, it enlisted the houses or holdings in each village, with the number of people residing therein. Each individual’s name, age, sex, nationality, marital status, educational qualifications, occupation, and visible identification marks, and parents’ names were recorded as particulars. These records were initially housed within the offices of Deputy Commissioners and Sub Divisional Officers, but were transferred to the Police authorities in the early 1960s. It is governed by the The Citizenship Act, 1955 and The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003.
The current turmoil within Assam stems from the updation of the NRC being conducted as per the Supreme Court directive issued in 2005. This directive was in furtherance of the tripartite agreement entered into by the Central government, State government and the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to enforce the 1985 Assam Accords.
The call for action came in 2015 when a two-judge bench comprising of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit issued orders in furtherance of the 2005 directive, refuting Attorney General KK Venugopal expressing apprehensions on part of the Union government in lieu of the wide scale unrest the updation may cause. A division bench comprising of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton Nariman further refused to stay the updation process and set the deadline for it, with the first draft being made public on December 31, 2017.
In the year 1979, AASU and All Assam Gan Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) started a movement against illegal migrants settled in the state. The presence of an estimated 45,000 Bengali Immigrant names on the electoral list during a by-poll in 1978 was pointed out by AASU, and lead to the inception of the “Assam Movement”. The Assam Movement called for the names of the illegal immigrants to be struck off the electoral register their deportation. Claiming to be “Assam’s last struggle for survival”, the Movement was an agitation against the “cultural, political and demographic transformation” of Assam, brought upon by the influx of the aforementioned immigrants, which posed a threat to indigenous minorities like the various tribal communities.
The Assam Movement demanded the deportation of all people who had entered the State post 1951, whereas the Central Government asked for March 25, 1971 to be the cut off date for the exercise, as it was the day after the Pakistani Army launched operations against Bangladeshi civilians seeking independence during its struggle for Liberation in 1971, which led to the mass cross border immigration.
Though Assam bore witness to infractions between immigrants, local tribes and anti immigrant organisations, the conflict’s worst low came about in 1982-83. The Assam Movement called for a total boycott of the State Assembly elections that were called for by the Union Government. The Movement’s call led to a complete failure of the electoral process, with voter turnout bring less than two percent in constituencies with Assamese majority. Further, this contest led to a state-wide breakdown of law and order, and resulted in the 1983 Nellie Massacre where at least 2,191 people lost their lives as a result of pent-up resentment against immigrants, even though AASU had called for non-violence. With unofficial estimates claim the death toll to be over 5000
This traumatic occurrence led to the Rajiv Gandhi-led central government resume earnest negotiations with the Movement leaders, which culminated with the signing of the Assam Accords in 1985, with the cut-off date for deportation set as per the Union Government’s demand of 1971. The Accord says that all the relatives of people listed in the National Register of Citizens 1951, along with all the foreign migrants registered between 1961 and midnight of March 24, 1971 will be accepted as legal residents of Assam and the Union of India.
To enroll under the new updated NRC, people in Assam had to submit family-wise application forms to establish the presence of their own name or the name of their ascendants on the electoral rolls published pre 1971, or any one of the twelve identity documents issued before the cut off date deemed as admissible.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1986 classified any person born in India on or after July 1, 1987 as a citizen of India, if either parent was a citizen of India at the time of birth. The pre amendment Act though, provided Indian citizenship on birth, regardless of the parent’s nationality. This leads to the ensuing legal conundrum, as offspring of illegal migrants born in India before the Amendment’s enactment can be seen as Indian citizens, but their position with respect to the NRC remains contentious as they do not have a parental legacy in Assam.
The NRC updation process was headed by an IAS officer Prateek Hajela, the designated NRC State Coordinator, and was monitored by the aforementioned division bench of Justices Nariman and Gogoi. It led to a rise in communal tensions across Assam, the State with the second highest percentage of Muslims in India. This was due to the laws proposed by the BJP helmed Union Government which make it easier for Hindus and other non-Muslim minorities to gain Indian citizenship, with one such piece of legislature being the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. In addition to being discriminatory towards Muslims and Christians among other minorities, this Bill allowed the BJP to pander to its Hindu vote bank.
Apart from the problematic communal tinge of the Bill, it is clearly counter-intuitive to the NRC’s objective, as it still permits for proliferation of illegal immigrants, which has been the bone of contention of the issue since 1979.
On July 30, 2018, the second “complete” draft of the NRC was made public by NRC State Coordinator and Registrar General of India, Shailesh. Unlike the December 2017 first draft wherein 1.9 crore names were included, the updated draft enlisted 2,89,83,677 applicants as Indian citizens, with 40,007,707 applicants being denied. This was preceded by a Home Ministry advisory to the Assam Government deterring them from initiating action against those whose names are not on the list. The same viewpoint was echoed at the second draft’s release, with the Registrar General stating that, “Reassuring those not in the draft, they will get ample opportunity to file claims and objectives with adequate time. People who lack knowledge will be provided assistance. Full justice will be meted to all.”
Photo credit: DNA
With the final draft to be made public on an unspecified date, those who do not feature on its current iteration will be given “ample opportunity” through a process of claims and objections till September 28, and their citizenship status will not be questioned, it has been assured.
However, sentiments and uncertainty over these contentious issues are now boiling over.