As the Supreme Court prepares to hear the contentious matter of who could be defined as an “original inhabitant” of Assam in its new National Register of Citizens, a media campaign to allay fears is underway in the state. The authorities responsible for updating the register for the first time since 1951 have started placing advertisements in newspapers and on social media stating that the updated citizenry list will have “no categorisation as original inhabitant” or otherwise.
The campaign is titled “Our NRC, Fair NRC”. It says that “all genuine citizens as per date of March 24th, 1971 [midnight]” will find a place in the updated list. According to the terms of the Assam Accord of 1985, on which the process of updating is based, anyone who can provide proof that they or their ancestors entered the state before then would be considered eligible for the list.
Officials have also reportedly printed leaflets in Assamese, Bengali and English and are distributing them to clear doubts about the process, while some are traveling to “vulnerable areas” to speak to worried residents.
Assam started the process of updating its National Register of Citizens in 2015, ostensibly to detect and deport illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The new list is expected to be ready in the next few months. The exercise has become controversial with various citizen groups and Opposition parties alleging that a large number of legitimate Indian citizens could end up being denied their voting and other rights.
A bureaucratic classification?
As the state nears the end of this gargantuan task, the subject of original inhabitants has become a lightning rod for communal tension.
Although there is no official definition of who qualifies as an original inhabitant of Assam, Prateek Hajela, state coordinator for the National Register of Citizens, had submitted to the Supreme Court in October that about 17 lakh people had been identified as “original inhabitants”. It sparked speculation and fear among the state’s minority groups that only non-Muslim Assamese people were being marked as such. Assam has a history of tension between indigenous people and settlers.
While the coordinator as well as Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal later clarified that the draft or final citizens’ list would not discriminate on the basis of religion or language and would not have a separate original inhabitant category, anxieties remain.
Scroll.in had reported last week that an original inhabitant category did exist in the National Register of Citizens’ records. Officials associated with the exercise claimed the classification’s innate purpose may have been to ease bureaucratic pressures – an internal marker meant to shorten tedious administrative processes.
The latest set of advertisements also announced the beginning of a “house to house verification by the deputy commissioner” from December 1. “To ensure inclusion of genuine Indian citizens, certain applications may require further enquiry/investigation, reverification,” the advertisements read. Incidentally, government officials had told Scroll.in that people who were not marked as original inhabitants in the internal records of the authorities are more likely to go through additional checks.
The anxiety among certain groups in Assam has been further compounded by the Gauhati High Court’s ruling in February that panchayat-issued residency certificates cannot serve as proof of identity. This has reportedly left 48 lakh applicants who submitted such documents in the lurch, most of them women. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a batch of petitions challenging this High Court order and the original inhabitants category.
‘Ploy to mislead public’
Syed Burhanur Rahman, a lawyer representing seven Congress lawmakers who have petitioned the Supreme Court asking it to lay down the “laws and parameters” of who is an original inhabitant, called the advertisements “a ploy to mislead the public”.
He said, “The state coordinator has already said on record that there is a distinction. Now that they realise there is an upheaval in the state, they have put out this ad to pacify people.”
Rahman said it was immaterial whether there was a classification in the draft or final list as people had already been arbitrarily segregated on the basis of who is an original inhabitant.
Hajela was not available for comment.