Above: Members of All Religious Communities of West Bengal protesting against the NRC in Kolkata. Photo: UNI
Prompted by the Supreme Court, the release of the National Register of Citizens has triggered alarm and panic as 40 lakh people find themselves tagged as nowhere people, with some members of families classified as citizens while others have been left out. It is an explosive issue with portents for the rest of India as a political battle begins and threatens to become another polarising fracture in the 2019 elections
~By Seema Guha
The updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), on instructions from the Supreme Court monitoring committee, has opened a Pandora’s Box in Assam, and could have far-reaching repercussions across the country. The genie is out in the open and putting it back is impossible. The political slugfest began as soon as it was evident that four million names have been left out of the draft list published on July 30. Despite repeated assurances by the centre and the BJP-led government in Assam that the current draft is not cast in stone and names would be approved as soon as documents are provided, there is widescale panic.
The situation in Assam has led to fears of violence and human rights violation. “Assam has long sought to preserve its ethnic identity, but rendering millions of people stateless is not the answer,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Indian authorities need to move swiftly to ensure that the rights of Muslims and other vulnerable communities in Assam are protected from statelessness,” she added.
While political leaders are hoping to use the foreigner issue for electoral gain, the Bengali-speaking Muslim immigrants are desperate. Assurances that the list can be revised if documents are provided are of little use to the majority of the poor, illiterate peasants as they have no papers to prove either their Indian or Bangladeshi citizenship. So what happens to them? Neither the Modi government nor the state or even the Supreme Court, which directed the entire exercise, has a clue as to what happens with the foreigners after they are detected. Bangladesh will only take back those who can prove they are from there. The government possibly did not think through to the end. Confusion also reigns on whether their names will remain on the state’s electoral rolls.
The entire issue, after all, was triggered by the sudden hike in the number of voters during a bypoll in the Mangaldoi parliamentary constituency in 1978. The suspicion was that illegal immigrants made up most of the new names. This led to the demand by the All Assam Students Union that the elections should take place only after the names of alleged foreigners were expunged from the voters’ list.
“I am very stressed”
Dr Kamakhya Chakraborty, 90, Tezpur
I have misplaced my ARN number (this is a registration number that is given to check whether one’s name is on the list). I am a 90-year-old man. I am not able to find my ARN number and can’t even check whether my name is there on the registry or not. There are lots of people like me. There is nobody to help me. There is a help-line which has been given in case the ARN number gets misplaced, but nobody is taking the calls. The phone just keeps ringing. I am getting pushed around. I don’t know whether my name figures in the NRC or not. There is no way to know whether the government is recognising me as a citizen or not.
I have voted from the first general election to the last Assam elections. I went to jail during the freedom struggle. I am from the first batch of Assam Medical College. And today, I am running around to prove my identity. I live in Tezpur with my wife. Both my children are out. My son is abroad and my daughter is in Delhi. Who should I turn to for help? I am very stressed. My younger brother’s name is also missing from the registry. I have asked senior officers in the Assam Police Service but they too said they cannot help me. There is fear in the mind of every Assamese. Look at the hardships the citizens are facing because of some clerical mistakes.
It is a technical matter which has to be handled. This is some goof-up at some official level. My neighbour holds a small private job. Both he and his wife are Bengalis. While their names are there in the registry, the names of their kids aren’t. He has to take leave to get their names in. He doesn’t even know whom to ask.
There are lots of grievances against the government. They have given very little time for redressal. What about people who are not in their homes during this period? I am now in Delhi with my daughter. I cannot reach Assam before the final date. This kind of deadline is causing more panic.
—As told to Lilly Paul
The next year, 1979, when national elections were on, the students organised protests to ensure that no candidate could file nominations unless names of foreigners were deleted from the rolls. The state government, taking it as a law and order problem, broke up protests with a strong hand. In Barpeta constituency of lower Assam, Abida Begum, the wife of late President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, who was a nominee, was escorted to the election office to file her nomination by KPS Gill, then an IGP of the Assam cadre. In the violence a student was killed. That led to widespread protests, with the public joining the movement led by the students.
The agitation continued till the Assam Accord was signed in 1985 by the AASU, the Rajiv Gandhi government at the centre and the Assam government. It was decided that all those who entered Assam before midnight of March 24, 1971, would be considered Indian nationals and anyone who entered after that date would be considered a foreigner. The date was chosen because on March 25, 1971, the Pakistani Army started operations in Dhaka, marking the start of the Bangladesh War. Updating the NRC was part of the agreement. Yet the accord remained on paper till the Supreme Court moved in and ordered the Assam government to begin the process of updating the NRC.
Updating the NRC was a stupendous task. The process is filled with flaws. For one, documentation in India has always been tardy. To prove citizenship, people need to trace their ancestry. How many people have documents showing the family tree? Land pattas of grandfathers and great grandfathers? Names on the 1951 NRC which itself is a basic document? Proof that families entered before 1971 is hard to come by when many of those people may have died. In many cases, even educated middle-class families are finding it hard to collect all documents. The plight of the poor and illiterate is much worse.
Many prominent people of the state find their names missing from the July 30 draft list. Topping the list is the family members of former president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Several prominent and ordinary Assamese and Bengali Hindus are not in the list. Several people serving in the Army and paramilitary forces have been left out. There are clearly serious discrepancies.
The Assam government has clarified that Aadhaar and ration cards as well as land deeds approved by panchayats and stamped by gazetted officers will be taken into account, according to Prateek Hajela, the man heading the NRC revision exercise. With the eyes of the nation focused on the NRC there will be less room for manipulation.
According to Hyder Hussain, a top political analyst of Assam, who has followed the NRC process closely, the corrected list will drastically reduce the numbers of alleged foreigners. “Of the 40,07,707 out of the draft list, most will get accommodated. On final count, the figure of actual foreign nationals will be around 10 lakhs. Of course, these are ballpoint calculations, there could be thousands more or less but I am certain the figure will not exceed 10 lakh.”
His reasoning is that many of the names forwarded to various state governments for verification did not get any response from the officials in West Bengal and Rajasthan. One lakh and 50,000 names were sent for verification to West Bengal, a lesser number to Rajasthan (the trading community of Assam is mainly from there). Both Kolkata and Jaipur will now pay much more attention to the verification , considering the serious consequences.
Some of the tragic stories reported in the national and international media from all over Assam
The Assam registry has left out Azmal Haque, a retired army officer who served the Army for three decades from 1986. He is a resident of Chaygaon area in Assam’s Kamrup district. He retired as a junior commissioned officer in 2016. Azmal, his younger brother, his daughter and his son did not appear on the list. This exclusion is after Azmal submitted all the documents to the NRC, apart from the prior verifications which were done before taking him into the Army.
“I’m hurt. This is what I had to see after serving the nation for three de-cades. I have no words to say. This is very unfortunate if the system runs like this. If it can happen to a retired Army officer what will be the fate of common people,” said Haque.
Tayeba Ummi Nazrin, 28, is a resident of Chaygaon and a research scholar in Gauhati University. The NRC draft has left her out along with her brothers and father. “I am worried because I might be required to attend programmes and conferences abroad as part of my research. I hope this confusion over NRC does not cause any problem in procuring a visa. We have all required documents—voters’ lists, land records. We hope our whole family will get through in the next round,” said Nazrin.
Monowara Begum, Cancer patient
“I am extremely upset. My health is getting worse. If I don’t get justice my children will not be considered citizens of India, if my name doesn’t appear in the NRC list then their names will not appear either.”
—Compiled by Lilly Paul
Again within Assam, many of the indigenous tribal population have not been able to provide the documents. The Assamese Hindus, who are now fighting for their identity, had come to the state from northern parts of India, with most of the Brahmins and upper castes claiming their origin from the ancient state of Kannauj. Tribals from Karbi Anglong and North Cachar areas, Hajongs, and adivasis as well as Bodos spread across the state would finally all be accommodated. Many tribals from the Udalgiri area, having converted to Christianity, have moved out and settled elsewhere in the state. The Christian converts have changed their names, so the legacy data of their forefathers don’t match. They are also out of the draft NRC.
Many Bengali Hindus who came into Assam because of persecution in former East Pakistan are again not on the list. In the Cachar area of the Barak valley, there was largescale migration of Hindus in 1965. Many of their names were missing from subsequent voters’ lists, and many did not possess the legacy papers needed for verification. A large number of Bengali Hindus living in the bustling Silchar city have been left out, while most Bengali Muslims in neighbouring Hailakandi have the required documents. “For all these reasons, I am confident that the numbers would be much more reasonable once all these anomalies are corrected,’’ says Hussain.
Many have blamed much of the problems on judicial overreach. But the fact remains that the Assamese have for decades agitated against what they believe are demographic changes which would make Assam a Muslim-majority state like Kashmir. All kinds of figures were ban-died about. None of the political parties including the Asom Gana Parishad, made up of student leaders who led the agitation in the late 1970s, did much to allay these fears. The Congress did not want to rock the boat as it helped them to win elections. The updating of the NRC has at least begun the process with Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton Fali Nariman overseeing the work. “Thanks to the Supreme Court, at least a start has been made, however faulty the process, it can be rectified,” said SP Barooah, a retired manager of a tea garden.
The centre is mulling getting the biometric details of the over 40 lakh people left out in the draft NRC. This is to allay fears that those declared foreigners in Assam will escape to another state under false identities. Attorney General KK Venugopal told a two-member bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices Gogoi and Nariman, soon after the publication of the July 30 NRC list: “You do whatever you like. At this moment, we would not like to comment. You do it, then we will examine it. Our silence is not a symbol of agreement nor assurance.” The bench asked the centre to lay down the standard operating procedure for the NRC and submit it for approval. The next hearing is scheduled for August 11.
The tensions are, however, palpable. One grouse is that the BJP government has already declared that Hindus from Bangladesh will not be regarded as foreigners. This has led to tension between Bengali Hindus and the majority Assamese. There is some anger against the Modi government over this issue. In the past, there have been instances of attacks on Bengali speakers. The Assamese-Bengali tension had been forgotten since concerns about Bangladeshi influx had subsumed all other issues. But it has begun to simmer ever since the Modi government decided to treat all Hindu refugees as citizens. How this pans out in the coming days will have to be watched. Unless handled with care, it may affect the BJP’s chances in the national election.
Hope And Pray
The 1951 National Register of Citizens was being updated in the state since 2015 following a Supreme Court order and presented on July 30, 2018. The apex court has held that the NRC prepared for the state of Assam was a draft and hence cannot be basis for any action. “In this regard, the Court would like to observe that what has been published is only the Complete Draft. The NRC being a draft cannot be the basis of any action by any authority,” observed the bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and RF Nariman.
This order was passed by the Supreme Court because of exclusion of approximately 40 lakh people from the draft list. The Court heard Prateek Hajela, the coordinator for NRS Assam, who submitted that the total number of persons included is 289,83,677, leaving out 40,07,707 as ineligible for inclusion. The state coordinator also said that the list would be available for inspection till August 7, and from August 8 onwards the process of filing of claims and objections would be started and the receipt of claims and objections would start from August 30 and would end on September 28. The attorney general submitted that the concerned ministry was in the process of finalising the modalities for dealing with claims and objections and once the modalities were finalised, it would be placed before the Court in mid-August.
The Court asked for a report regarding the standard operating procedure to deal with the claims and objections to be placed before it and has ordered that Hajela be associated with the exercise at all times. “We permit the concerned ministry of the Union government to frame modalities and place it before the Court for dealing with claims and objections so as to enable publication of final NRC.” The Court said that further orders regarding steps to be taken will be issued on August 16.
In fact, the NRC has become a political hot potato as national parties hurl abuse at each other over the presence of alleged Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants in not just Assam but spread over West Bengal and other states. It will be a major issue in the national election slated for next year. A Trinamool Congress team that landed in Silchar, the main town in the Barak valley, to meet people whose names are not in the NRC draft was confined to the airport and sent back by a flight the next morning by the BJP-led government of Sarbananda Sonowal.
The foreigners issue has become a fierce battle between the BJP, which has set its eyes on West Bengal, and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. The issue, and the presence of a large number of alleged Muslim immigrants is now going to be used as a political tool. With emotions running high, Banerjee has warned of “civil war” over the unfair deletion of names of genuine Indian citizens from the NRC. A mid-level BJP leader called for shooting dead of Muslim immigrants and Rohingyas from Myanmar.
BJP national president Amit Shah is planning to hold a public rally in Kolkata on August 11. He will certainly play to the gallery and talk about the presence of large numbers of alleged Bangladeshi immigrants in the state. The BJP is already talking of beginning the process of updating the West Bengal NRC. Banerjee is working at getting together all anti-BJP opposition on a platform of harassment and unfair treatment of Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam. While the political battle escalates, nobody knows what will be the fate of the hapless people who have been declared foreigners.