The updated National Register of Citizens has propelled Assam into a ground of serious turmoil. The situation may seem quite calm on the surface, but it is stocked with contradictions and dangerous overtones.
The final NRC, released on 31st August, excluded about 1.9 million people—which is less than half of the 4 million excluded in the earlier draft list. Considering about 3.29 crore people applied in the first place, less than 6% have been declassified as “genuine” Indian citizens.
Despite a conscientiously planned exercise—exhaustive and exhausting in equal measure—this has turned out to be a no-man’s NRC. It has also exposed its own inherent flaws, deepened the fault lines inherent in the state, caused immeasurable chaos, and found absolutely no solution to Assam’s decades-long ethnic conflict. The only objective NRC has achieved is to further play to the gallery of religion as far as the Assamese people’s fear of the “foreigner” is concerned.
Essentially, the NRC exercise has achieved little of its objectives—it has instead created a mass panic in the state, caused unnecessary confusion and huge discomfort to Assam residents, gave India a bad name internationally, ate into the Supreme Court’s precious time, and costed over ₹1,100 crore, and wasted human resources to the tune of more than 62,000 workers, and also most dangerously, gave the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party a potent tool to further spread its Hindutva politics, thus causing a mass-polarisation in the state.
The whole idea behind updating the NRC was to identify those who immigrated “illegally” from Bangladesh, keeping March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date. This was a long-standing demand of the Assamese people, who harboured gross resentment against “outsiders” for dividing their share of resources and benefits. Never mind that the anger was against all “outsiders”, which BJP has skilfully manoeuvred towards its religious agenda.
The widespread resentment and anger were also because the ethnic Assamese believed illegal immigrants had invaded their land and infringed on their rights in swelling numbers.
The exercise to update the NRC was detailed and long-drawn and required massive manpower, back-end support and crucial logistical planning. The outcome, however, was not impressive and revealed back the problems that have caused the process.
One of the most astonishing aspects of this updated NRC is how it has caused many families to split—into those who are genuinely “verified” Indian citizens and those “suspected” as foreigners.
Such cases are more a norm than an anomaly and can be found throughout the state—mainly among the huge religious and linguistic minorities like Muslims and Bengali Hindus. Despite submitting all the same legacy data, fathers have made it to the list, but the children and grandchildren haven’t; some siblings are in, but some aren’t.
This is unfathomable. The concerned NRC authorities argue that such cases are because of technical errors in the documents or when family members were unable to prove their hereditary linkages adequately. An explanation that is hardly enough, considering this is precisely an aberration that the claims and objections process under NRC should have resolved—a process that was supposed to be crystal clear, transparent and fool-proof.
Second, the exercise has revealed how even a degree of subjectivity can be dangerous for something of this type and nature. In the NRC’s case, a lot rested with the appointed bureaucratic officer and her/his judgement, or in some cases, their biases and “whim” affected the people at the receiving end.
Third, the entire legacy document issue is in itself utterly problematic, making women, transgender people and the homeless seriously vulnerable in the process. For women, who change their names after marriage, proving linkages with their ancestors has been particularly challenging, given that they couldn’t claim their citizenship based on their husband’s family tree.
Fourth, the inability to verify documents at the back-end from where they were originally issued in time has meant many who had come from other states or domiciles of other states were excluded.
Fifth, there is a large number of cases of declared “foreigners”, who were sent to detention centres, making it into the final NRC. This shows how scrupulously flawed the system of determining citizenship can be, especially when the exercise should have been conducted decades ago when the immigrants had just arrived following the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
Sixth, because this was not an exercise of enumeration and put the obligation of proving the citizenship on the people, many never submitted their applications under the NRC and are thus out of this huge net.
The most notable thing that has happened in the entire process, unwittingly, is that the BJP got a dangerous instrument to blow the state with majoritarian politics. The party, however, is evidently out of its depth for now. This list isn’t “completely” full of Muslims, as it was hoped, and has Bengali Hindus, many Nepalis and even some from the indigenous Assamese tribes who perhaps did not have the required paperwork to prove their “indigenousness”. The BJP’s panic knocks at the apex court’s door asking for re-verification, particularly in the areas which are in the vicinity of the international border with Bangladesh, fearing the wrongful inclusions and exclusions of the “real” domiciles.
The disheartening part going forward would be to see how the BJP tries to get out of the crucial situation and send a political message by ensuring that the Hindus who are excluded can wriggle back in. The proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is the first antidote to its agenda, but it’s a future disaster in its embryonic stage.
In the end, the behemoth of this NRC exercise—one who is unseen to the world—has turned out to be a case of somewhere in-between “vindication” and “contraband”. The UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet elicited that exclusion of more than 1.9 million people is a cause of “great uncertainty and anxiety”. She has also further stated that“I appeal to the government to ensure due process during the appeals process, prevent deportation or detention, and ensure people are protected from statelessness”.
Now, since both the Centre and the State of Assam are being governed by the people of same ideological consciousness, the government must decide whether they should adhere to their “own” Hindutva ethos or follow India’s constitutional values and the values that great personalities like Gandhi, Nehru, Tilak, Vivekananda and Ambedkar once endorsed.
The world is watching us.