[Burning Issue] Assam NRC


Context

Migrations to Assam

  • Assam saw waves of migration, first as a colonial province and then as a border state in independent India.
  • The colonial Assam (1826–1947) witnessed migration from various provinces of British India for tea plantation.
  • The liberal attitude of the Colonial authorities further encouraged the continuous arrival of peasants from Bengal to Assam in search of fertile lands.
  • The Partition of the subcontinent and communal riots had just triggered vast population exchanges at the border.
  • And this unrelenting migration from East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh led to a perceptible change in the demographic pattern in some districts of the Province.

What exactly is the National Register of Citizens (NRC)?

  • The NRC is a register containing names of all genuine Indian citizens. The register was first prepared after the 1951 Census of India.
  • Since 2015, Assam has been in the process of updating the 1951 register.
  • The register is meant to be a list of Indian citizens living in Assam.
  • For decades, the presence of migrants, often called “bahiragat” or outsiders, has been a loaded issue here.

Why is it being updated now?

  • One of the stated aims of the exercise is to identify so-called “illegal immigrants” in the state, many of whom are believed to have poured into Assam after the Bangladesh War of 1971.
  • In 1979, about eight years after the war, the state saw an anti-foreigners’ agitation.
  • Assamese ethnic nationalists claimed illegal immigrants had entered electoral rolls and were taking away the right of communities defined as indigenous to determine their political future.

The Assam Accord

  • In 1985, the anti-foreigners’ agitation led by the All Assam Students’ Union came to an end with the signing of the Assam Accord.
  • Under this accord, those who entered the state between 1966 and 1971 would be deleted from the electoral rolls and lose their voting rights for 10 years, after which their names would be restored to the rolls.

Who is a Foreigner in Assam?

  • The National Register of Citizens now takes its definition of illegal immigrants from the Assam Accord – anyone who cannot prove that they or their ancestors entered the country before the midnight of March 24, 1971, would be declared a foreigner and face deportation.
  • Those who entered on or after March 25, 1971, the eve of the Bangladesh War, would be declared foreigners and deported.
  • This means you could be born in India in 1971 to parents who crossed the border in that year, and still be termed an illegal immigrant at the age of 48.

Why is the NRC being updated now?

  • The mechanism for detecting so-called foreigners had previously been delineated by the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act of 1983.
  • This was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005, on a petition which argued that the provisions of the law were so stringent, they made the “detection and deportation of illegal migrants almost impossible”.
  • The petitioner was Sarbananda Sonowal, now chief minister of Assam.
  • That same year, the decision to start updating the NRC was taken at a tripartite meeting attended by the Centre, the Assam government as well as the All Assam Students’ Union and chaired by then PM Manmohan Singh.

The apex court intervention

  • The court came into the picture after a non-governmental organisation called Assam Public Works filed a petition asking that so-called illegal migrants be struck off the electoral rolls.
  • In 2013, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to finalise the modalities to update the new NRC.
  • The project was launched in earnest from 2015, monitored directly by the Supreme Court.

How do the authorities establish citizenship?

  • The counting process went through several phases. First, there was data collection.
  • Most individuals applying for inclusion into the NRC had to prove not only that their ancestors had lived in Assam pre-1971 but also their relationship with the ancestor.
  • Then came the verification process. Documents were sent to the original issuing authorities while NRC officials conducted field verification.
  • Once the data was submitted, the applicant’s blood relations were plotted on a family tree.

Why is the process so contentious?

  • Bengali Muslims, the community most often branded as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, felt they were put under greater scrutiny than other groups.
  • These fears were deepened with the sudden appearance of an “original inhabitants” category in 2017.
  • The Assam state coordinator of the NRC, admitted that people internally classified as original inhabitants faced less scrutiny.
  • It was rumored that no Muslims had been included in this category.

The “doubtful” D-Voters

  • The second draft was published on July 30, 2018. It excluded 2.48 lakh “D” voters and their descendants.
  • D voters or doubtful voters are people who had their voting rights suspended by the Election Commission because their citizenship was suddenly in doubt.
  • The letter “D” was placed next to their names in the electoral rolls.
  • It was reported that even “D” voters who had fought cases and got their names cleared in Foreigners’ Tribunals have not been able to shed the tag because the Election Commission’s software is not sophisticated enough.

How many people have made it to the NRC so far?

  • Of the 3.29 crore people who applied, 2.89 crore people made it to the draft published on July 30, 2018.
  • But over 40.07 lakh were excluded, including army veterans, government employees, families of former presidents and Assam’s only woman chief minister.
  • There is no official community-wise or district-wise data. But anecdotal evidence suggests Bengali-origin communities were overwhelmingly affected.

What about those excluded?

  • All those left out of the draft were told to make fresh claims to citizenship at the Foreigners Tribunals.
  • The MHA has amended the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964, and has empowered district magistrates in all States and UTs to set up tribunals to decide whether a person staying illegally in India is a foreigner or not.
  • Over the past year, the NRC officials also accepted objection forms which allowed people to flag the inclusion of “ineligible persons” in the register.
  • The law has since been struck down by the court but the tribunals persist, tasked with determining whether individuals being tried are foreigners and should be deported.

Flaws in Foreigners Tribunals

  • Several flaws have been identified in this process, from the lack of legal aid to ex parte orders declaring people foreigners without even a trial.
  • Tribunal members are pressured to declare the maximum number of foreigners rather than clear people of the charge.
  • In anticipation of a fresh rush of cases after the final list, 1,000 more tribunals are being set up across the state.

What happens to those who lose cases at the Foreigners Tribunals?

  • Neither the state nor the Centre has clarified what happens to those who lose their cases in the Foreigners’ Tribunals, whether they will be detained, deported or allowed to stay on without the rights and privileges of citizenship.
  • In the past, those deemed to be foreigners have been transferred to detention centres in the state. Till date, there are six across Assam, carved out of local prisons.
  • So-called foreigners have languished here for years in a legal limbo. While the Indian state has declared them foreigners, there is no repatriation treaty under which they can be deported to Bangladesh.
  • Last year, Assam also got sanction from the Centre to build the first standalone detention camp in the state, capable of housing 3,000 inmates.

Bangladeshi un-acceptance

  • Over the years, Bangladeshi leaders have frequently been quoted in the media as denying the presence of its nationals in India.
  • Besides, there have been no visible recent efforts by India to push the matter with Bangladesh.
  • In fact, India is understood to have conveyed to Bangladesh, just before the final draft NRC was published, that there was no talk of deportation.
  • This was an effort directed at addressing a friendly neighbour’s concerns about the prospect, even if it was a theoretical one, of being flooded with a mass of deportees.

Conclusion

  • Updating the national register of citizens is indeed a positive step but the actual success lies in its peaceful implementation.
  • It was essential to deal with the illegal immigration in Assam.
  • But a proper framework is need to be developed to deal with the post drafting issues in the region.
  • Moreover the state government should ensure that injustice should not be done to any of its citizens.

Way Forward

  • India, as a country which follows the ideology of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, should not be hasty in taking decisions that can disenfranchise her citizens – contradicting its centuries-followed values.
  • The need of the hour is that Union Govt. should clearly chart out the course of action regarding the fate of excluded people from final NRC data.
  • The political parties should refrain from coloring the entire NRC process through electoral prospects that may snowball in to communal violence.
  • There is a need for a robust mechanism of legal support for the four million who have to prove their citizenship to India with their limited means.
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