In India, citizenship register in State throws open fault lines

The first draft of the register has reportedly excluded 4 million people, leading to grave concerns and debates on issues of citizenship

August 07, 2018 by Natasha Narwal
(Photo: NorthEast Now)

‘Is your name in the NRC’? This is a question that most people hailing from the North-Eastern state of Assam living across India have been asking each other in the context of the recent update of the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) in the State. The final draft list, released on July 30, has reportedly left around 40 lakh (4 million) people in the State out of its ambit, leading to a situation of panic and fear.

The NRC is an exercise first carried out in India in 1951 to enumerate its citizens, their homes and holdings. In Assam, which has seen waves of migration, first as a colonial province and then as a border State in independent India, the citizenship issue is a layered and complex one. Assam has been recurrently rocked by agitations against ‘infiltrators’, especially from East Bengal, which became East Pakistan and later Bangladesh. The Assam Movement of the 1980s was the strongest expression of these sentiments. A settlement was reached on this issue in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord, which created an exclusive cut-off date of March 25, 1971 for Indian citizenship for the residents of the State. The date for the rest of the country is November 26, 1949, and for those migrating from East Pakistan, it is is July 19, 1948. However, even after the agreement, certain groups kept highlighting the ‘spectre’ of ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’ taking away the jobs and resources of the rightful citizens of Assam.

In the hope of finally putting this issue to rest, a broad consensus of political forces was built in the State to update the NRC, resulting in a tripartite agreement between the Manmohan Singh government at the Centre, the Tarun Gogoi government at the State and the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to implement the Assam Accord in 2005. Subsequently, in response to some petitions seeking implementation of the main clause of the accord, which was the detection and deletion of ‘foreigners’ from the State’s electoral rolls, the Supreme court gave a directive for the same in December 2014. This is why a two-judge bench of the apex court of the country is monitoring the NRC update process.

However, since then, the political scenario in the State has become even more polarized, especially after the right-wing BJP, which is in power at the Centre, also won the elections in the State. Its attempts to portray the complex history of migration and survival as an issue of ‘rightful’ citizens versus ’illegal’ Bangladeshi (mostly Muslim) immigrants has led to further divisions in the State. The party and its allies have also sought to portray all concerns and apprehensions about the NRC as against the interests of ‘real Indians’ and is even trying to push for similar processes in other parts of the country as well.

Given all this, there is an atmosphere of palpable fear and uncertainty across the State, especially among the Bengali-speaking Muslim communities, who are mostly seen as ‘outsiders’. A lot of organizations representing them have been voicing their concerns about the anomalies in the update of the NRC. But it is not just the Muslim communities who are/will be at the receiving end. As with any bureaucratic exercise of such scale and nature, the NRC too is bound to push people living on the margins without proper records into an even more vulnerable position even if they had migrated before the cut-off date for citizenship or have been residing in the region for a much longer time as is the case with many tribal communities in the region. It is hard to imagine that various tribal or nomadic communities would have proper documents to prove their residence or claims to land before or after a certain date decades back. Reports of many such anomalies are already coming in from various quarters of the state.

To soothe the nerves of people, NRC State coordinator Prateek Haleja has said that the 4 million people whose names are reportedly not in the list cannot be termed illegal migrants, and that they will get a chance to file objections and  prove their credentials. Even after that, whether a person is an illegal migrant or not is something that can be decided only by judicial scrutiny. But the status of the people who will be finally left out of the register after all the inquiries is still unclear. India can’t unilaterally declare them Bangladeshi citizens and deport them as that requires bilateral agreements with Bangladesh which do not exist.  No efforts have been made in this direction either. In their absence, it seems that a huge humanitarian crisis is in the making, leaving a large segment of the population in a state of uncertainty with regard to their rights, which cannot be solved only through bureaucratic exercises.

Though various political groups are pushing for a free and fair NRC update in the hope that it will finally solve the ‘immigration question’, this process has, in fact, cleaved open many fault lines cutting across ethnicities, language and religion, and it will take a lot to start closing them.