By Ayan Sharma:
For the past year, one issue that has continually grabbed highlight in the chaotic Assamese media landscape is that of National Register of Citizens (NRC) upgradation in the state. From lengthy op-ed pieces and a multitude of snippets in broadsheet dailies to countless TV debates, the media has been abuzz with contested shades of opinions over the issue. In a region ridden by ethnic conflicts and citizenship battles, NRC has become a common talking point among the youth and elderly alike, manifesting optimism, doubt and ambiguity.
For a quick reference, NRC is a vital record of the Government of India, containing the names of the citizens of India. The first NRC was prepared in 1951, following the Census of 1951, by recording various particulars of all the persons enumerated during that Census. Further, it was kept in the offices of the Deputy Commissioners (DC) and Sub Divisional Officers (SDO), according to instructions issued by the Government of India in 1951. This gigantic body of citizens’ information was then subsequently transferred to the police in the 1960s.
Since then, the NRC has functioned all over the country as the most legitimate and reliable bedrock for identification as well as the determination of a person’s Indian citizenship. In fact, the Citizenship Act of 1955, amended in 2004 to include section 14A, makes it compulsory for every citizen to get registered in the NRC. However, unlike most other Indian states, the issue of citizenship has been a perennially contested theme in the political and social milieu of Assam, thanks to the large-scale migration of people from Bangladesh. Driven mostly by economic needs, these people, both Muslims and Hindus, have been foraying into Assam’s plains at an unabated pace even after six decades of the country’s independence from colonial rule.
Not surprisingly, several political parties have doled out direct and indirect patronage (including voting rights and ration cards) to these migrants, over the decades, for electoral interests; thereby helping them become Indian citizens. Resistance to such practices, seen as an assault on the territorial integrity of India and the ethnic constitution of Assam, have found manifestation in mass demonstrations, journalistic writings, intellectual productions and political activism over the decades, most notably during the tumultuous Assam Agitation (1979-85).
The Assam Accord, signed between the leadership of the movement and the Government of India, in 1985, as an agreement to call off the agitation, contains a clause that mandates the updating of the NRC in the state of Assam with the cut-off date of March 25, 1971. This means anyone, irrespective of their religious and communal identity, who came to Assam till the midnight of March 24, 1971, will be regarded as Indian citizens along with their descendants. This claim, of course, needs to be corroborated by a valid government document. The objective of this clause was to identify the migrants from Bangladesh, who had come after the cut-off date, and delete their names from the electoral rolls and finally to deport them back.
Ever since the signing of the accord, some of its key clauses have remained unfulfilled even till date. Among those, the prominent ones are the sealing of the Indo-Bangladesh border and the upgradation of the NRC. Unlike the border in the west which India shares with Pakistan, the border in the east with Bangladesh has been a neglected domain, making it a porous corridor for a massive scale of migrants from Bangladesh sneaking into India. Migrants are supposedly an instant favourite of the national political parties constituting powerful vote banks. The Narendra Modi-led BJP government is known for its double standards. Before the election, Modi had promised the electorate of the state with the expulsion of all illegal migrants to Bangladesh. His government is now open to extending citizenship to all the Hindu migrants.
Lofty rhetoric aside, the upgradation of NRC has gone through a long battle of political, bureaucratic and legal intricacies over the last three decades. It saw the light of the day only a couple of years back with a Supreme Court intervention that directed the state government to finish the process by January 2016 (lately revised to March 2016). Thus, the NRC resumed being updated again in 2015 to include the names of those persons (or their descendants) who appear in the following documents – the NRC 1951, or in any of the electoral rolls till the midnight of 24 March 1971 or in any of the other permitted government documents, issued up to the midnight of 24 March 1971 – all of which would prove their presence in Assam on or before 24 March 1971.
The filling up of the application forms for the NRC, one of the first stages in the multi-layered process, during July to August last year, was a tense phase in the state. Thousands of people had failed to acquire a legacy data, showing the continuity of descent, or any of the fourteen permitted documents. In extreme circumstances, a few individuals, “paperless” as they were, committed suicide. Thousands of tea garden workers of Assam suddenly found themselves in an unexpected predicament, thanks to the tyranny of documents. They were required to prove their Indian identity in a state where they have been living as a community for more than a century now. Such misery arose because of the significant lack of access to education and land rights offered to them by their affluent masters.
Similar was the fate of several other thousands of people of Bengali Muslim origins, residing in the vast ‘char-sapori’ areas (river islands and floodplains) of central and western Assam. The shifting ecology of the riverine landscape forces these people to keep migrating from one char to another, every few years, which disallows them from possessing any valid land documents. Also, people who had migrated from other parts of India to Assam post the cut-off date of March 25, 1971, similarly, appeared clueless as having to show their identity again to find a place in the upgraded NRC.
The ST, SC and OBC communities demanded their names to be automatically included in the new NRC, based on their already issued caste certificates. Many civil society bodies took to filing petitions and affidavits in their support in the Supreme Court, that has been directly monitoring the entire upgradation work. An NGO ‘Assam Public Works‘ filed a case advocating for the same, back in 2009. Subsequent Supreme Court verdicts have addressed many of the concerns.
While all these groups were fighting for their right to be inducted into the upgraded NRC with ease and reason, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi suddenly dropped a bombshell. He made a bizarre suggestion to upgrade the NRC on the basis of the electoral rolls of no earlier than the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This implied everyone inhabiting the state till that point of time deserved to be Indian citizens. This would naturally include several thousands of settlers from Bangladesh, which his party Indian National Congress has been allegedly utilising as a ‘vote bank’ in successive elections over the decades. His government went on to file an affidavit for the same in the apex court which was subsequently dismissed by the Court. On the contrary, the position of other key political parties in the state over the issue has been one of more or less acceptance of the Supreme Court directives.
As this long exercise of upgrading the NRC in Assam nears conclusion, some pertinent questions arise which will continue to challenge the ever-elusive solution to the illegal immigration problem in Assam. Such a solution is a primary requisite, as the Indian Census of 2011 revealed that in 30 odd constituencies of Assam, out of a total of 126, disputed voters hailing from Bangladesh have gained a position to manipulate the electoral outcome effectively. A question that pops up at this juncture is how much help will the final NRC be in a state that still lacks adequate judicial and bureaucratic infrastructure for identifying illegal foreigners, deleting them from the electoral rolls, and finally deporting them.
Only recently did the state government decide to set up 64 new Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam in addition to the existing 36 tribunals, but the process is still not complete. Such Tribunals are created to hear cases on suspected foreign nationals and accordingly to order their deportation, if found faulty. Though the menace of the much controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, (IMDT Act), was struck down more than a decade back, the tribunals are even today burdened with thousands of pending cases waiting to be resolved.
The second question that arises is whether the upgraded NRC will be a sufficient tool to address the long-standing foreigner issue, until the international border with Bangladesh is entirely sealed. Even if an upgraded register of Indian citizens is assumed to help identify the non-citizens residing in Assam, a porous international border at the same time will continue to feed as a safe passage for thousands of more such “fortune hunters” to immigrate to Assam from Bangladesh.
However, a different and relatively more pragmatic shade of opinion on the issue questions the very necessity of deporting people identified as illegal immigrants from Assam to Bangladesh. It argues that while the prevention of further influx is essential, the people who have already stayed in Assam, but have been identified as illegal foreigners should be allowed to stay back on humanitarian grounds. Such persons, it is argued, may be barred from exercising political rights, but should be entitled to work-permit. In fact, many of the illegal immigrants come and go as seasonal labourers. As political scientist Sanjib Baruah noted in a recent article titled “Partition and the Politics of Citizenship in Assam”, an agreement may be chalked out between India and Bangladesh to maintain a soft border rather than a hard and strictly policed one. This can be done by having a protocol on labour movement “to facilitate and document the cross-border movement of people, and [for] the decoupling of citizenship rights from rights of personhood. A labour protocol could take some of the pressure away from the circular migrant who under current conditions has no other option but to look for security by procuring proxy citizenship papers and finding a political patron. A labour protocol and other bilateral arrangements that try to manage the movement of people across this soft border could significantly reduce the strains on Assam’s legal and political institutions.”
Assam goes to polls this April. Our three-time incumbent Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has kept his stakes high for this “last battle of Saraighat”, invoking the memory of medieval Assam’s final and victorious war with the Mughals. The state’s political landscape increasingly gets divided among the right-wing BJP and its allies, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), which is often alleged to have mobilized the immigrant Bengali Muslim votes. At such a juncture, the politics over citizenship becomes more volatile and could arguably determine the future of Assam’s political order. While an upgraded NRC promises to resolve some of its dimensions, many other key questions remain to be pondered over and addressed.