On July 28, Assam government appointed Partha Pratim Mazumdar, an Indian Administrative Services officer, as the new coordinator of the National Register of Citizens.
He replaces Hitesh Dev Sarma, who retired on July 31 after a year-and-a-half as NRC coordinator. The NRC was meant to be a register of Indian citizens living in Assam, sifted from undocumented migrants in the state. But the process of updating the NRC ended on August 31, 2019, when a purportedly final list was published – over 19 lakh applicants were left out of the register.
Why then has Assam appointed two successive coordinators since the exercise was ostensibly completed?
Apart from bureaucratic factors, there seems to be one overwhelming reason: the state government does not seem to think Assam’s final NRC is really final.
“The status of the NRC is that the final NRC is not published yet,” said Hitesh Sarma, who spoke to Scroll.in on July 31, his final day in office.
He claimed there were several “anomalies” in the 2019 list and several pleas in the Supreme Court asking for another round of verification. In the past, the former coordinator has been pulled up by the Supreme Court for his controversial social media comments on migrant communities in Assam. Among other things, he had alleged that there were “lakhs and lakhs of Bangladeshis” in the NRC.
The former coordinator’s views seemed to echo those of Assam’s Bharatiya Janata Party government. Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma himself had wanted another round of verification for 20% of the names on the list from the districts that share a border with Bangladesh and 10% of the names from other districts. In March, he suggested tearing up the 2019 NRC altogether and starting a fresh exercise.
Hitesh Sarma argued an NRC coordinator was needed because there were tasks pending from the 2019 list. That includes issuing rejection slips to those who were left out, explaining why they were excluded. The slips are vital for them to appeal against their exclusion in the foreigners’ tribunals – quasi judicial bodies tasked with deciding on matters of disputed nationality.
However, that is also stuck in a bureaucratic deadlock. According to the former coordinator, the NRC was not final because it had not been notified by the Registrar General of India, the authority under whom the exercise had taken place.
“The RGI has to notify the NRC first for the issuance of the rejection slips,” he said. “Without the finalisation of the document, how can we issue rejection slips? ”
There are differing views on the matter. According to the press release issued jointly by the registrar general and the NRC coordinator on August 31, 2019, the list being published was the “final NRC”.
The registrar general himself has written several letters to Hitesh Sarma asking him to issue rejection slips and wind up the operation of updating the NRC.
Sarma, for his part, has submitted an affidavit to the Gauhati High Court, saying he had informed the registrar general about the “anomalies” and “flaws” in the NRC.
The Centre seems reluctant to proceed as well. On July 28, assistant solicitor general RK Dev Choudhury, representing the Centre, told the Gauhati High Court “there is no concrete decision as of now as regards issuance of rejection slips by the NRC authorities”.
Waiting for the Supreme Court
Hitesh Sarma blamed part of the delay on the Supreme Court, which issued directions on August 13, 2019, that a security regime like the one used to protect Aadhaar data be set up for NRC data.
“Only thereafter, the list of inclusions and exclusions shall be made available to the State Government, Central Government and Registrar General of India,” the court had said.
Such a security regime is yet to be set up – while the office of the NRC has sent a proposal for the project, the registrar general’s office is yet to approve it.
Hitesh Sarma also pointed out that the apex court had slowed down on hearing a slew of petitions on the NRC, filed by the government as well as Assamese nationalists. The Supreme Court hearing on the NRC was on January 29, 2021.
Between Centre and state
Meanwhile, the Centre and the state do not appear to see eye to eye on who should keep funding the NRC exercise.
The registrar general refused to continue financial support for NRC exercise beyond March 31, 2021, asking the state government to shift the NRC office to a government building.
“[There is] discussion on the process to shift the data centre from the NRC office to the Assam secretariat. If space is available at the secretariat, the data centre will be shifted,” Hitesh Sarma said.
The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs had allocated Rs 1,602.66 crore for the entire project. The state government had sought an additional Rs 3.22 crore per month beyond March 31 for completing the remaining NRC work. Hitesh Sarma claimed the Centre had not provided these funds.
“Altogether 400 officials are working at the NRC directorate and their payment and other funds have been provided by the state government now,” the former coordinator said. “These are supposed to be reimbursed but the Centre has not provided the funds yet.”
The last two NRC coordination committee meetings were held on June 28 and in the first week of July.
An Assam home department official, who is also a member of NRC coordination committee, said the state government had no role to play in the publication of the final NRC.
“The NRC is a central subject and the state government has nothing to do with it,” the official said. “We only provide logistical support. Only the RGI can tell when the NRC rejection slips will be provided.”