Guwahati/New Delhi: Over 19 lakh people have been disenfranchised and stare at an uncertain future in Assam after the publication of the final list of the Supreme Court-monitored National Register of Citizen (NRC) on Saturday. The list was being updated for years in order to certify whether the residents of Assam are Indian citizens or foreigners.
This is in addition to more than lakhs of people who are already ‘Doubtful Voters’ (D-Voters), against whom a reference has been made by the Border wing of Assam Police and who have to prove their citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs) — a quasi-judicial body, which decides whether a person is a foreigner as per the Foreigner’s Act, 1946.
Most of those who have been excluded from the citizens’ register had the same set of documents that generally proves an individual’s citizenship — birth certificates, land documents, educational records, name in electoral roll, passport, etc. What they were called upon to prove was their linkage with their ancestors named in the legacy documents of 1951 to 1971.
The cut-off date to be a legal Indian citizen in Assam was fixed at March 24 (midnight), 1971 — a date formalised by the Assam Accord, which was signed by the All Assam Students Union, Assam government and Central government in 1985.
The Draft NRC was published on July 30, 2018 wherein 2,89,83,677 people were found eligible for inclusion. Out of the 3.29 crore applicants, 41 lakh were excluded from the draft. Thereafter, claims were received from 36,26,230 applicants against their exclusion.
“Verifications were carried out of persons included in Draft NRC under Clause 4(3) of the Schedule of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003. Objections were received against inclusion of 1,87,633 people whose names had appeared in the Complete Draft. Another Additional Draft Exclusions List was published on June 26, 2019 wherein 1,02,462 people were excluded. Taking into account all the persons already included and after disposal of all Claims and Objections and proceedings under Clause 4(3), it has been found that a total of 3,11,21,004 (3.11 crore approx) persons are found eligible for inclusion in the Final NRC, leaving out 19,06,657 persons — including those who did not submit Claims,” reads a written statement issued by NRC State Coordinator Prateek Hajela.
Hard copies of the supplementary list of inclusions are available at NRC Seva Kendras, offices of deputy commissioners and offices of circle officers, as also on the NRC website.
The government has assured those who have been excluded that they will get a window of 120 days to prove their citizenship before their respective tribunal.
Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has also assured the excluded people that “nobody will be subjected to any unnecessary harassment”.
The Ministry of Home Affairs had planned to set up a total of 1,000 foreigners’ tribunals in phases. As of now, 100 foreigners tribunals are functioning across the state. The government had also assured that legal help will be extended to the poor, so that they can pursue their cases in FTs and in higher courts.
BJP on Backfoot?
Meanwhile, in an apparent realisation that BJP’s alleged plan to polarise the Assamese linguistic and religious societies in the name of NRC has backfired, as a large number of Bengali Hindus (who helped the Right wing party to win in the state elections), too, were excluded from the list, senior BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma told reporters soon after the publication of the final list, “We have lost hope in the present form of the NRC exercise as it has left out so many genuine Indians.”
He added that the party was already mulling a “fresh strategy on how we can drive out the illegal migrants”.
The ruling BJP is worried that the exclusions may impact its electoral fortunes. It may be recalled that BJP President Amit Shah, who is now Union Home Minister, had in July 2018, termed all the 40,07,007 applicants left out of the final draft NRC as ‘ghuspethia (infiltrators)’.
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This was seen by political observers as a significant development because the top leadership of the BJP in Assam has often made public statements calling for a mechanism to throw out “termites” and “infiltrators".
Bengali Hindus of Assam are considered to be a strong base of the Right-wing party, which made its maiden entry into the Assam Assembly in 1991 with a strong support from the community. BJP and its ideological mentor, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had successfully cashed in on their narrative that Bengali Hindus migrating from Bangladesh (previously East Pakistan) were “refugees” while Muslims were “infiltrators”.
The party registered an impressive victory in the Assembly elections in 2016 through clever use of the slogan ‘jati, mati, bheti (home, hearth and identity)’ – implying protection for the Hindu community from “illegal Bangladeshis”.
Hindu and Muslim organisations in the state, surprisingly, were on the same page and expressed serious concerns ahead of the publication of the final list. They have threatened to agitate.
Those whose cases have been rejected by the tribunals and who have exhausted all other legal avenues can be declared foreigners. They would be sent to six detention centres and will possibly face deportation, although Bangladesh is yet to promise its cooperation.
The government has announced that it will set up 10 new such detention camps and their construction has already started. One with the space for 3,000 is being constructed in Goalpara, West of Guwahati. According to the state government figures, the camps currently hold 1,135 people and have been operating for years.
NRC Updation Invites Criticism
The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) has expressed its disappointment with the NRC final list. “There are faults in the latest NRC. AASU is disappointed with the document. When AASU wanted only 10 documents to be given for reverification, the Centre and the state governments insisted on 15 in the Supreme Court. Officers who were diligently working were transferred out. The NRC is incomplete, but we have complete faith in the judiciary. We will approach the Supreme Court to appeal for rectification of these mistakes,” the students’ body president, Dipankar Kumar Nath, told reporters in Guwahati.
AASU General Secretary Lurin Jyoti Gogoi added that the state government has lost the opportunity to hand over a foreigner-free NRC. “Since the Central and state governments have failed to update the NRC for the last six decades, since 1951, such mistakes have crept into the latest documents. Had it been done every 10 years, it would not have been so. The political parties have failed to fulfil their responsibility. We demanded that reverification be done using government agencies, but it was not done. However, we have faith in the Supreme Court and we will approach it. Only due to the apex court, things at least took shape. In fact, in the last one year, only 75 people were referred to the Foreigners' Tribunal,” he said.
The Assam Public Works (APW), the original petitioner in the Supreme Court which led to the updation of the National Register of Citizens six years ago, also termed the final NRC a "flawed document" as its prayer for re-verification of draft NRC was rejected by the apex court.
The NGO also wondered whether the software used in the updation exercise was capable to handle so much data and if it was examined by any third party Information Technology expert, APW president Aabhijeet Sharma said, as per a PTI report.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), while calling for ensuring justice to the over 19 lakh people who have been excluded, asked the government to clearly spell their “status and rights".
“Till their appeals are heard and the process is completed, the status quo should be maintained with regard to their existing rights and facilities. In Assam, an all-parties meeting must be convened to discuss the matter,” the CPI(M) politburo said in a statement.
The party also demanded that the right of appeal should be processed through a judicial mechanism, as also the the “present system of sending those declared as foreigners by the Tribunals to detention camps has to be stopped as it is violative of basic human rights.”
The NRC updation process was started in the state of Assam as per the order of the apex court in 2013. The process of updating differs from rest of the country and is governed by Rule 4A and the corresponding schedule of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issues of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003.
Also read: Assam Tense; Over 19 Lakh Names Excluded from NRC List