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No-Man’s NRC: An Exercise That Deepened Assam’s Inherent Fault Lines

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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.

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.

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.

A Futile Endeavour

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 Flaws Of NRC

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.

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.

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.

BJP’s Move Now

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.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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