Why Critics Of Assam’s NRC Are Terribly Wrong

Why Critics Of Assam’s NRC Are Terribly Wrong

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Wednesday, August 1, 2018 11:10 AM IST
Why Critics Of Assam’s NRC Are Terribly WrongPeople check their names on the final draft list of Assam’s NRC list in Guwahati.  (Rajib Jyoti Sarma/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
  • Despite what many critics of the NRC update exercise are saying, there is little chance of the 40 lakh people being disenfranchised or losing their rights.

    Here is a quick guide for all those who may want to know more about the exercise.

Minutes after the final draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam was made public in that state at 10 am on Monday (30 July 2018), a host of politicians and organisations started protesting and criticising the NRC. Their prime concern is the fate of the 40-lakh-odd people whose names do not figure in the final draft NRC. But the criticism is unfounded and based on a lack of knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the Constitutional, legal, procedural, and other aspects of the mammoth exercise that involved 55,000 state government employees toiling for over three years to compile the list.

Here is a quick guide for all those who may want to know more about the exercise:

What is the NRC?

The National Register of Citizens is a comprehensive list of all citizens of India. It was prepared for the first and only time for the whole of India in 1951, after the first census of the country that year. Even though it ought to have been updated every decade since then, that was never done.

Why was the NRC update exercise undertaken in Assam?

The entire exercise stems from the Assam Accord of 1985, signed between leaders of the Assam anti-foreigners' movement and the Union government in the presence of then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The movement was launched by student bodies and other organisations against the large-scale presence of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam. Such was the magnitude of this migration that the indigenous Assamese faced the prospect of being reduced to a minority in their own land. The Assam Accord promised to detect and deport all 'foreigners' (illegal Bangladeshi migrants) from Assam's soil.

The cut-off date for the detection of such 'foreigners' was set at midnight, 24 March 1971, when Bangladesh formally came into being. After many hurdles, and thanks also to foot-dragging by Congress regimes in the state, the process of updating the NRC for Assam, as agreed to under the Assam Accord, was delayed. Finally, a pilot project was launched in the Muslim-dominated Barpeta district of Assam, but the exercise was derailed after massive violence was unleashed by the minority organisations, led by the All Assam Minority Students Union.

But the Supreme Court finally intervened and ordered the Registrar General of India (RGI) to update the NRC for Assam. The apex court also ordered the Assam government to extend all help. The Supreme Court has since been strictly monitoring the entire exercise and set strict timelines for its completion. The court has also turned down the Assam government's plea for more time to complete the exercise.

Thus, the NRC update exercise in Assam is mandated and monitored by the Supreme Court and done as per the Assam Accord of 1985. Any criticism of the exercise is thus tantamount to contempt of the apex court.

Why and how did migration from Bangladesh begin?

It started during British rule over India. The British brought in large numbers of educated Bengali Hindus from what was then East Bengal to man government offices and work as clerks in various private establishments, including tea gardens and oil installations. But they also encouraged tens of thousands of peasants – Bengali-speaking Muslims – from erstwhile East Bengal to settle down in Assam so they can cultivate fallow and forest lands. Muslim politicians of Assam, especially Sir Saadullah of the Muslim League (which had ruled over Assam province) got into the game and encouraged large-scale migration of Muslims to change the demographic profile of the province. Their motive was to strengthen the claim for inclusion of Assam in East Pakistan.

During partition, a large number of Bengali Hindus migrated to Assam, and this migration continued due to religious persecution of the minority Hindus in East Pakistan. Another big wave of Bengali Hindus entered Assam in 1971 because of the infamous genocide launched by Pakistani troops under 'Operation Searchlight' in March 1971.

But much more than Bengali Hindus, it is Bengali-speaking Muslims from that country who have flooded Assam, causing a dramatic change in the state's demography. Successive Congress regimes in the state have encouraged this illegal migration in the name of vote-bank politics. The illegal Muslim migrants were captive vote banks for the Congress, which maintained a stranglehold on power in the state on the support of these illegal migrants, called ‘bidexis’ or ‘foreigners’ in Assam.

How did the anti-foreigners movement begin in Assam?

Resentment had been brewing against the presence of lakhs of illegal migrants in Assam for many years and was only deepening with time, as the influx continued through the porous international border and successive Congress governments did little to stop it or take action against those who had already entered the state illegally.

In March 1977, Janata Party's Hiralal Patwari won the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha seat. There were, at that time, 560,297 voters registered in that constituency. Patwari's death necessitated bypolls in that constituency in 1979. But people of Assam were stunned to find that in a matter of just 14 months, the electoral rolls in that constituency had swelled by 80,000! It was widely believed that the Congress was behind this mischief and had done so to ensure the victory of its own candidate.

The people of Assam were outraged and launched a movement that crippled the state for six long years and resulted in many deaths. Ultimately, the Assam Accord brought an end to the movement. But the most critical provision of the Accord – detection and deportation of foreigners – remained on paper till the Supreme-Court-mandated NRC update exercise started in early 2015.

How has the NRC been updated?

The RGI prepared an extensive database of citizens based on the electoral rolls till March 1971 and put that out in the public domain. All applicants for inclusion of their names in the NRC had to submit proof that they, or their parents or grandparents, featured in that database.

The RGI listed 14 documents, like passports, land ownership documents, bank or post office deposit records, LIC certificates, education certificates, and driving licence among others that would be accepted as proof of citizenship. If any of these documents dated back to 24 March 1971 or before that, they would be sufficient proof that the person was a resident of Assam, as on the cut-off date. Documents dated after that were cross-checked and many were found to have been acquired fraudulently. Lakhs of such cases were detected and the applications, thus, rejected.

For instance, if a person submitted a passport issued in 2010 but could not submit proof that his father was a resident of Assam as on 24 March 1971, the application was rejected. A large number of applicants claimed to progeny of people whose names were in the electoral rolls in 1971, but the claims were found to be false. The verification process also threw up many cases where people from different parts of the state fraudulently claimed to be children of the same set of parents.

Crores of documents were thus verified and cross-checked multiple times before applications were accepted or rejected. It was a very complex exercise involving billions of man-hours.

Why were documents like passports and EPIC (electoral photo identity cards or voter ID cards) not taken as automatic proof of citizenship?

Because, as the cross-verification of lakhs of such documents submitted as proof of citizenship (and thus in support of inclusion of names in the NRC) has ultimately revealed, they were procured by fraudulent means. It is common knowledge that the millions of illegal migrants from Bangladesh who have flooded into Assam and Bengal have procured ration and Aadhaar cards, driving licences, voter ID cards, and even passports through fraudulent means. They have been helped in procuring these documents by politicians driven by petty political interests (to build and secure vote banks) or by corrupt officials. Hence, it was decided by the RGI that submission of these documents would not automatically lead to inclusion of the names of the applicants in the NRC. The documents would be cross-checked and collated and verified with databases. Only those documents dating to March 1971 and before that would be taken as proof of citizenship at face value.

What happens to those whose names have been excluded from the draft NRC?

The 40 lakh-odd people whose applications have been rejected will be given a chance to re-submit their claims in prescribed forms between 30 August and 28 September. Their claims will be verified once again and, if found to be genuine, their names will be included in the final NRC, which is expected to be published by the end of this year.

After the publication of the final NRC, those whose names still do not figure in that list can approach the Foreigners Tribunals in Assam and, if dissatisfied with the ruling of the tribunal, the Gauhati High Court and the Supreme Court. It is a long-drawn process and, thus, despite what many opponents and critics of the NRC update exercise are saying, there is little chance of the 40 lakh people being disenfranchised or losing their rights and becoming stateless people in the near future.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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