At a meeting of the freshly minted Assam Accord sub-committee, representatives of the Assam State Government and the All Assam Students Union arrived at a consensus regarding the reverification of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The Sub-Committee for the Implementation of the Assam Accord feels that there is a need for reverification of the NRC.
This is in line with the demands of the Assam state government as well given how they have openly rejected the NRC published on August 31, 2019, claiming it had names of “foreigners”. This despite a previous plea for reverification being shot down by the Supreme Court.
The Sub-committee for the Implementation of the Assam Accord was formed on October 1 “to examine and prepare a framework for implementation of all clauses of the Assam Accord in general” and with special emphasis on clauses 6, 7, 9 and 10.
It comprised eight members with Atul Bora, the Minister for Implementation of Assam Accord acting as Chairperson. Other members include two other ministers and five members of the AASU:
Piyush Hazarika (Minister for Water Resources, Parliamentary Affairs)
Ajanta Neog (Minister for Finance, Social Welfare)
Dipankar Kumar Nath (President, AASU)
Shankar Jyoti Baruah (General Secretary, AASU)
Dr. Samujjal Bhattacharjya (Chief Advisor, AASU)
Prakash Chandra Das (Advisor, AASU)
Uddip Jyoti Gogoi (Advisor, AASU)
After the group held its second meeting on November 17 at Janata Bhawan in Guwahati, Atul Bora was quoted by the Sentinel Assam as saying, “At today's meeting, the AASU favoured re-verification of the NRC as that has errors. The State Government has no objection to this as the NRC is erroneous. The State Government is not satisfied with the NRC. It should not have the names of foreigners.”
He also tweeted about discussing “Article 5 of the historic Assam Accord” and a variety of subjects related to “foreigners”.
Samujjal Bhattacharjya told the Assam Tribune that there was already a petition in the Supreme Court regarding reverification, and that at the meeting, AASU also stressed the need for “strengthening mechanisms for the detection and deportation of foreigners” in order for which to happen “border police force will have to be strengthened. AASU stressed clause-wise implementation of the Assam Accord within a stipulated time.
It is noteworthy that this is not the first time the issue of reverification of the NRC has come up in Assam.
Reverification of NRC
Shortly after the final NRC was published on August 31, 2019, Assam Public Works, an NGO that is at the center of the NRC case in the Supreme Court demanded a complete reverification of the list. But the apex court rejected the plea on July 23, 2019 saying, “We have also read and considered the response of Mr. Hazela, the learned Coordinator on this aspect of the matter and specifically, the stand taken by him in his report dated 18.7.2019, which is to the effect that in the course of consideration/adjudication of the claims, re-verification to the extent of 27% has already been done. In fact, in the said report, the learned Coordinator has mentioned district wise figures of such re-verification which has become an integral part of the process of consideration of the claims and objections on account of the procedure adopted. In that view of the matter, we do not consider it necessary to accede to the prayers for a further sample verification as prayed for on behalf of the Union of India and the State of Assam.”
But the government of Assam remained adamant on reverification and in September 2020, made a formal submission before the Assam State Assembly demanding 10-20 percent reverification.
On October 13, 2020, Hitesh Dev Sarma, who had previously replaced Prateek Hajela as Assam’s State Coordinator of the NRC, issued a directive to Deputy Commissioners and District Registrars of Citizen Registration (DRCR) for deleting ineligible persons from the final draft of NRC. The ineligible persons include persons belonging to categories such as Declared Foreigner (DF), Doubtful Voter (DV) and Pending cases before Foreigners Tribunals (PFT), along with the descendants of persons belonging to these categories.
This led to two contempt petitions against Sarma in the Supreme Court: one by Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind (JUH) which states that the directive issued by him for reverification of final draft of NRC contravenes the court’s previous orders, and another by All Assam Minorities Students Union (AAMSU). Both parties were represented by Kapil Sibal and Fuzail Ahmed Ayyubi. The petitions said that the October 13, 2020 directive for reverification issued by Hitesh Dev Sarma has caused delays in filing of appeals by excluded persons, leaving their identity in the country in much uncertainty. The petitioner stated that the unilateral directions amount to wilful disobedience of the Supreme Court’s orders passed on August 7, 2018, July 23, 2019 as well as judgment passed on August 13, 2019. The SC in January 2021 issued notice to Sarma in connection with the contempt petitions.
New petition for reverification
In May 2021, Assam’s State Coordinator of the NRC again moved Supreme Court demanding a reverification of the NRC published on August 31, 2019 saying that due to major irregularity many names of ineligible people had made it to the list.
In his intervention application, he also prays for the deletion of ineligible voters from the voters list and seeks updation of the 1951 NRC. The application states that there was absence of backend verification of electoral rolls and the process of Office and Field Verifications being used to check applications was unable to detect “Manipulated or manufactured secondary documents”. Here are the key allegations of discrepancies as stated in the application.
Eligible people excluded
The application also states that sample checks have revealed that out of the over 40 lakh people excluded from the draft NRC of 2018, over 3 lakh people did not apply for the claims and objections process. It was discovered that 50,695 of these people including 7,700 Original Inhabitants (OI) and 42,925 people from other states were eligible for inclusion.
Misuse of Original Inhabitant window
On the subject of OI the application further states that many people have misused the provision and therefore have been mistakenly included in the NRC. It further said that as many as 17,196 persons were included in the NRC even though the backend verification result of their documents was negative, because officers allowed them a chance to reverify their documents.
Allegations against Wipro
Allegations were also made against Wipro which was the System Integrator responsible for maintaining the NRC database. It said that till September 13 2019 Wipro was asked to add or delete names in the database by email, something that was illegal. The application gives an example of the discrepancy saying that while on August 31, 2019 the number of people excluded from the list was 19,06,657, it changed to 19,22,851 on September 14 2019!
Allegations against previous NRC Coordinator
Hitesh Dev Sarma took over from Prateek Hajela as NRC State Coordinator amidst the controversy that erupted shortly after the publication of the final NRC. He has now alleged that not only did Hajela not hand over the password of the official email ID, his computer was found to have been re-formatted and all previous data deleted.
Delay in issuing Rejection Slips
The NRC State Coordinator also submitted that “issues of substantive importance” had also come up during the preparation of rejection slips and thus led to delays. Rejection slips basically list the reason for rejection given in speaking orders by Disposing Officers as a part of the Claims and Objections Process. Over 19 lakh people had been excluded from the 2019 NRC and were required to undergo this process.
According to LiveLaw, the NRC State Coordinator’s application makes two prayers:
- Pass appropriate directions for a complete, comprehensive and time-bound reverification of the draft NRC as well as the supplementary list of NRC under the provision of the Clause 4(3) of the Schedule of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National ldentity Cards) Rules 2003, where major irregularities have been highlighted in the body of the instant application herein above.
- Pass appropriate directions that the re-verification be done under the supervision of a monitoring committee in the respective districts and such committee may be preferably represented by the respective District Judge, District Magistrate & Superintendent of Police.
Now, given this let us examine in detail what the newly minter sub-committee is actually trying to accomplish.
What is the real agenda of the Assam Accord sub-committee?
As mentioned earlier, the Assam Accord sub-committee was formed “to examine and prepare a framework for implementation of all clauses of the Assam Accord in general” and with special emphasis on clauses 6, 7, 9 and 10.
As per an official notification issued by the Department of Implementation of Assam Accord of the Government of Assam, the sub-committee is also tasked with examining and preparing a framework for “updation of National Register of Citizens, issues of flood and erosion, rehabilitation of martyrs' families and victims of Assam agitation and also in regard to the various problems faced by the state of Assam, including the potential for all round economic development.” The notification may be viewed here:
Now, let us examine each point individually.
This clause of the Assam Accord deal with “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards” that aim to “protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”
Now, it is noteworthy that there is already a dedicated Committee to look into Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. The 14-member high-powered Committee had been constituted in July 2019 and had been given six months to submit its report, which it did just days before the deadline. In fact, as SabrangIndia has reported previously, in February 2020, the Clause 6 Committee constituted by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had submitted a slew of recommendations pertaining to Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards for the interests and culture of Assamese people. This Report of the Committee on Implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord was however not made public at that time. Then, six months later, some members of the panel including Arunachal Pradesh Advocate General Nilay Dutta and three members of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) released the report independently.
As per the report, what is key to the Committee’s recommendations is a series of amendments to Article 371 B. The report says, “The Committee is of the opinion that to give full effect to its Recommendations, as stated hereinbelow, several Constitutional and legislative amendments will be necessitated. The existing Article 371-B in the Constitution of India will need to be amended.”
However, it is not known if this specific matter pertaining to a Constitutional amendment was discussed during the meeting held on September 6. What is known is what Bhattacharjya told media persons after the meeting, in broad terms. “Constitutional safeguards, economic safeguards, protection of tribal belts, blocks and government lands, NRC update, sealing India-Bangladesh border, permanent solution to floods and erosion, and rehabilitation of Assam agitation victims and martyrs’ families will be on the agenda of the committee,” he said.
Now, Bhattacharya has been named one of the members of the newly appointed sub-committee. Does bringing Clause 6 under the purview of the new sub-committee mean the government had decided to ignore the recommendations of the original Clause 6 Committee?
This clause of the Assam Accord says, “The Government takes this opportunity to renew their commitment for the speedy all round economic development of Assam, so as to improve the standard of living of the people. Special emphasis will be placed on education and science & technology through establishment of national institutions.”
Assam is famous for its tea estates. However, dissatisfaction has been brewing among tea workers given their abysmal wages. As SabrangIndia has reported previously, Assam’s Tea Tribes have been given a raw deal yet again, with the state’s Chief Minister steering clear of making any concrete commitments when it comes to specific demands of the community, despite holding a five-hour long meeting with representatives of the tea tribes as well as intellectuals on August 30. The final outcome of the meeting was just a promise to set up a few sub-committees to study the needs of the community and submit a report. There was no commitment on granting tea tribes Scheduled Tribes (ST) status or increasing daily wages in line with demands of tea estate workers.
Meanwhile, two of Assam’s most prominent paper mills belonging to Hindustan Paper Corporation Ltd. (HPCL), have been lying defunct. As SabrangIndia has reported previously, as many as 1,200 workers had lost their jobs and therefore a steady source of income, when production stopped at the Cachar mill on October 20, 2015 and at the Nagaon mill from March 13, 2017. They had not been paid for over 50 months and had been demanding that the mills be revived. As many as 95 workers have died since the mills shut down. The mills had been put up for auction to pay off debts, pleas of revival having fallen on deaf ears. In fact, after failing to find any private entity to deposit earnest money for the auction, the government reached out to mill and workers representatives and announced a relief package worth Rs 570 crores. It has also agreed to take over assets of the mills spread of 2,000 acres.
When it comes to other indicators of economic development, Assam’s oil and natural gas industry isn’t faring well either. Memories of the huge blowout of natural gas on May 27, 2020 and subsequent fire at the Baghjan oil well operated by Oil India Ltd (OIL) are still fresh. Then another explosion took place when three foreign experts were examining the site on July 22. What’s worse is that there have been huge delays in payment of compensation to the families of victims. The environmental impact of the fire was also huge given its proximity to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. In fact, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed an interim penalty of Rs. 25 crores on Oil India Limited (OIL) due to its failure in stopping the fire in Assam’s Baghjan number 5 gas well, that adversely impacted the people and ecology in the area.
In an order passed in two original applications – one moved by environmentalist Bonani Kakkar and the other by Assam-based NGO Wild Life & Environmental Conservation Organisation, a bench comprising Justices SP Wangdi and Siddhanta Das directed, “In view of the prima facie case made out against OIL on the extent of damage caused to the environment and biodiversity, damage to both human and wildlife, public health and, having regard to the financial worth of the Company and the extent of damage, we direct the OIL to deposit an initial amount of Rs 25 Crores with the District Magistrate, Tinsukia District, Assam and shall abide by further orders of the Tribunal.”
The Pollution Control Board, Assam (PCBA) had also served a closure notice on OIL on June 19, 2020, stating OIL had started operations “without obtaining prior consent to establish/consent to operate” from the pollution board. As per the notice, the operations at the Baghjan oilfield are a serious violation of the Water Act, 1974, Air Act, 1981 and the Environment Protection Act, 1986.
The notice also stated that the production and drilling operations had been undertaken without proper safety and precautionary measures and that the company wasn’t submitting the Annual Report regularly under Section 9 of the Hazardous and Other Waste Management & Transboundary Movement Rules, 2016 which was a serious violation and liable to be punished under law in force.
It had also mentioned that Oil was destroying to aquatic life of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Maguri-Motapung wetland of endangered species in the name of exploring oil without any mitigation measures.
But this closure notice was later withdrawn, allegedly due to an “indirect role” played by Sarbananda Sonowal who was the Chief Minister of the state at that time. On June 22, he was quoted by local media as saying that “authorities need to be more sensible” mentioning that “a lot of industries right from the thermal power plant in Namrup, Assam Gas Company, Brahmaputra Cracker and Polymer Limited and all tea gardens in upper Assam are completely dependent on the OIL.”
Therefore, it appears that the government of Assam is determined to support industrialists in the state, but may not always have worker and ecological welfare as a priority.
This clause of the Assam Accord deals with security of the International Border. Assam shares a 280.06-kilometer-long border with Bangladesh, of which over 60 kilometers lie in the char or riverine area. It is this portion that is yet to be sealed off. The challenge arises due to the constant shifting of land masses due to a change in the flow of the rivers and tributaries in the region. A village on one char could get completely washed away, forcing people to take shelter on the nearest drier and higher ground in an erosion prone region. There are longstanding allegations that these shifting lands and course changing rivers enable illegal Bangladeshi immigrants to easily enter India. But given how these vagaries of nature are beyond the control of anyone, it is difficult to determine if the migrating villagers were originally on the Indian side of the border in the first place, as the border itself is hard to determine. The migration of char villagers also ties in with provisions of Clause 10.
This clause deals with prevention of encroachment on government lands. This subject is particularly topical in wake of the eviction drive being carried out in the char regions of Darrang district. Though it is nowhere near the international border, the evictions here are significant, because they appear to be selectively targeting families hailing from the Bengali-speaking Muslim minority community.
Here are a few examples of recent evictions:
June 6, 2021 - 74 families evicted from Kaki in Hojai District. Roughly 80 percent of the population here is Muslim.
June 7, 2021 - 49 families evicted from Dhalpur, Phuhurtuli in Darrang District. All, except one family, are Muslim.
August 7, 2021 - 61 families evicted from Alamganj in Dhubri District. 90 percent of the population here is Muslim.
September 20, 2021 - Around 200 families evicted from Fuhuratoli, Dhalpur in Darrang District. All were Muslim families.
September 23, 2021 – 150 families evicted from Gorukhuti, Dhalpur in Darrang District. All were Muslim families.
Such was the hate for these alleged “encroachers” that when the families tried to protest the September 23 demolition, Assam Police personnel opened fire on them, killing two people including a 12-year-old boy, Sheikh Farid, who had nothing to do with the protest and was walking back home from an Aadhaar Centre.
There is growing suspicion that the eviction drives are just another method to get rid of Bengali speaking Muslims because not enough of them could be evicted using the National Register of Citizens (NRC). All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen president Asaduddin Owaisi said as much when he tweeted, “Their names are in 1951 NRC & 1966, 1970-71 voter lists. Their names now appearing in NRC is seen as huge slaps on the face of “anti-foreigner movement” NRC 2019 demolished the myth of illegal migration, all these decades they said there are 5-7m illegal migrants in Assam. But NRC excluded "only" 1.9m - out of which Muslims will be around 4-5L, that too mostly women & children - which means almost every excluded individual has family members in NRC. The reason to demand "re-verification" of NRC is also this failure to exclude “enough” Muslims.”
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) was updated in Assam as part of a Supreme Court monitored process. The mammoth task involved verifying 6 crore documents submitted by 3.29 crore people. Over 40,000 government employees were engaged in the NRC update process under which 2,500 Nagrik Seva Kendras (NSK) were set up.
When the final draft of the NRC was published on July 31, 2018 and it excluded over 40 lakh people sending shockwaves across the state! An Additional Draft Exclusion list of 1,02,462 names of people excluded from the NRC was released on June 26, 2019. This list named people who were previously included in the NRC but were subsequently found to be ineligible for inclusion, mostly on account of being siblings and family members of people who had been declared foreigners. What followed was an elaborate Claims and Objections process, after which the final NRC was published on August 31, 2019. This excluded a total of 19,06,657 people, at least two thirds of whom were women – many of them unlettered housewives and grannies!
However, as alleged by many, including the aforementioned Owaisi, they failed to exclude enough Bengali-speaking Muslims. This could explain the Assam government’s reluctance to accept the NRC 2019, and repeated insistence of reverification despite the Supreme Court having shot down the request once.