July 21, 2019

Whither NRC Process in Assam?

THE National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam of enumerating citizens is to reach its completion with the publication of the final list on July 31, as ordered by the Supreme Court.  The way the process has been conducted has raised a host of apprehensions and shown up a great deal of flaws in the matter of including genuine Indian citizens in the Register. 

Last year, 40.7 lakh persons were excluded out of 3.29 crore applicants in the draft list of the NRC published on July 30, 2018. As per the procedure, those not included could file claims for inclusion and objections to those included could also be made. 

It was after this process was undertaken that the final list would be prepared and published on July 31.  However, on June 26 this year, an additional 1,02,462 names were excluded from the draft NRC by the authorities stating that they were found to be ineligible.  It was stated that the current exclusion includes those who were in the “D”, i.e., doubtful category in the voters list, or, were facing trial before the Foreigners Tribunals as they were suspected to be foreigners.  This additional exclusion itself raised many questions as it had been announced at the time of the draft NRC that all those persons in the “D” category had been excluded.

That the process is flawed and riddled with errors became evident with some of the cases highlighted in the media. One is the case of Mohd. Sanaullah, a non-commissioned officer who, after serving in the army for 30 years, joined the Border Police as an Assistant Sub-Inspector.  His name was in the “D” list and the Foreigners Tribunal declared him a foreigner,  even though he was born in Assam and has deep familial roots where he was born.  He was sent to a detention camp and he could come out only after ten days when the High Court granted him bail.

Another case is of Sunirmal Bagchi. His name figured in the draft list published in July 2018. But his name was struck off from the draft NRC in the additional exclusion list published in June this year.  The reason given to him is that he has been declared a foreigner.  Bagchi was born in Silchar town on September 21, 1943. How he could be a foreigner defies explanation.  Now the NRC authorities claim that it was the result of a clerical error. 

Another disturbing report concerns the detention of Madhubala of Chirang district, a poor widow, for a period of three years having been declared a foreigner by a Foreigners Tribunal.  Recently it was found that she had been wrongly identified as another person of the same name – Madhubala – and was released.  But there is not even a mention that she would be compensated for illegal detention.

There are innumerable such cases where a father has been excluded from the list while the son is included or one of the siblings is in the list while another has been excluded. 

The BJP government at the centre has been harping on getting rid of illegal migrants from Bangladesh.  Amit Shah, now the home minister, had called them “termites” during the election campaign.  The Modi government is committed to extending the NRC process to West Bengal and the states bordering Bangladesh.  The fear is that citizens of Muslim origin will be targeted.

At the same time, the BJP has been assuring that Hindu migrants from Bangladesh would be given citizenship by amending to the Citizenship Act. The home minister, Amit Shah, went further and stated in the Rajya Sabha on July 1 that the government would bring a Bill to provide citizenship to “Hindu refugees” left out of the NRC.

The NRC process, which was designed to enroll all Indian citizens, excluding foreigners, is now in danger of being hijacked for the communal and sectarian purpose of the BJP.

There are a number of issues thrown up by the NRC process in Assam which need to be solved.  After the publication of the final list of NRC, there has to be a speedy legal process to render justice to those unjustly or wrongly excluded – either due to bureaucratic lapses, or, because of communal bias.  What is going to happen to the millions who have been excluded from the Citizens’ Register?  As “non-citizens”, what will be their status and rights?  Since it is already clear that those declared foreigners by the Foreigners Tribunals cannot be deported to Bangladesh, which refuses to accept them, will they languish in detention centres indefinitely?

The Supreme Court which initiated and supervised the NRC process cannot evade the responsibility to respond to these issues.  At stake are basic issues concerning Indian citizenship and the rights of citizens. 

Any failure to redress the grievances arising out of the flawed implementation of the NRC will result in a blatant violation of citizenship rights and human rights.  India’s reputation internationally as democracy and law governing society will be seriously tarnished. 

While this has been the state of affairs prevailing on the eve of the July 31 deadline for publication of the final list, suddenly the union government and the Assam state government have approached the Supreme Court with a new demand.  They want an extension of the deadline for the final publication from July 31 to a future date.  In the meantime, they want a sample re-verification of the names included in the draft NRC published on July 30, 2018.  There should be a 20 per cent sample re-verification of the names included in districts bordering Bangladesh and a 10 per cent sample re-verification in the rest of the state. This motivated request will only lead to more harassment and continuation of the ordeal for lakhs of citizens who have already gone through repeated hearings and submission of records.

This move must be resolutely opposed. There are grounds to believe that the Modi government wants to delay the process of finalisation of the NRC till it can bring about an amendment to the Citizenship Act or a suitable legislation to provide citizenship to the Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. This tinkering with citizenship on communal lines is unconstitutional and divisive. 

(July 17, 2019)