On July 2, Prateek Hajela, state coordinator for the National Register of Citizens which is being updated in Assam for the first time since 1951, told the Supreme Court that 1.5 lakh people who had made it to the first draft may be left out of the final draft of the citizenry list. In other words, 1.5 lakh people who were confirmed as Indian citizens by the NRC authorities may now be declared foreigners.

The court, which is monitoring the updating process, agreed with Hajela’s suggestion that descendants of people who have been declared foreigners or whose citizenship is doubtful should be kept off the list until they were cleared by the foreigners’ tribunals which adjudicate on matters of nationality.

The court also extended the deadline for the publication of the final draft by 30 days, which means it is scheduled for July 30. The NRC authorities had asked for an extension claiming that rain and floods had slowed the exercise in several districts.

While the delay was expected, Hajela’s revelations to the court caused a furore in Assam, already tense over the exercise. It has rekindled fears of genuine Indian citizens being left of the updated registry, and led to opposition leaders questioning the credibility of the exercise.

Are these concerns valid? Scroll.in spoke to Hajela and several other officials involved in updating the NRC to understand what caused the supposed errors in the first draft, and if they indicate more systemic problems with the exercise.

Three errors

Assam started updating its citizens’ list, the National Register of Citizens, in 2015. The exercise is being conducted as per provisions of the Assam Accord of 1985, which lays down that only people who can prove they or their ancestors entered the state before the midnight of March 24, 1971, will be counted as citizens. The stated aim is to identify “genuine citizens” living in Assam and root out “illegal immigrants”. A truncated first draft of the register was released on January 1. It stated that 1.9 crore of the 3.29 crore individuals who had applied to be listed in the register were citizens.

According to Hajela’s submission in the apex court, three kinds of errors crept into the first draft. The first and most common – 65,694 instances – was the inclusion of names that subsequently failed the family tree verification test, conducted after the list was published, said Hajela. The family tree verification test, as the name suggests, is used to verify an applicant’s stated familial ties to a person living in the state before 1971.

Failing family tree test

Hajela said this error happened because of “an architectural problem we could not visualise earlier”. “For example, four families drew their linkages to the same legacy person [someone with proof of living in Assam before 1971] and out of the them, three listed each other as relatives in the family tree they submitted but the fourth family did not list the other three families,” he explained. “So, prima facie, I allowed the first three families and put the fourth family under pending in the first draft. But in the verification, when I called all the four families together, it turned out that, actually, the fourth family was right. This is something we could not anticipate in full measure.”

Such mistakes on the part of people were “innocent as well as organised”, Hajela claimed. An in-person family tree investigation, Hajela affirmed, was imperative because documents could not be trusted beyond a certain point. “I have several instances of people confessing that they had forged their identity, they even had documents issued by constitutional authorities,” he claimed. “People were using false legacies, so if I had just gone by documents many foreigners would have entered the NRC.”

But district officials painted a more complex picture. An official in West Assam said “family tree mismatches” were often a result of people trying to draw linkages to the sketchy NRC of 1951. “I have personally come across people who have many other pre-71 documents but for some reason feared that if they submitted anything else than the 1951 NRC, they would be accorded second-class citizenship,” the official said

‘Panchayat certificates not admissible’

The second kind of error involves married women who had submitted certificates from their panchayat to prove ties to an ancestor living in Assam before 1971. At least 48,456 married women who appeared in the first draft will not make it to the final draft, Hajela said. But the certificates, Hajela told the Supreme Court, were “not found admissible in the reverification process of hearing conducted for Gaon Panchayat Secretary Certificate verification”.

Only a specific category of women relying on the panchayat certificates as proof were included in the first draft, those the local Registrar of Citizen Registration identified as “original inhabitants”. The NRC rules allow for including in the registry people who “are originally inhabitants” of Assam through a “less strict and vigorous process”. Simply put, “original inhabitants” are subjected to fewer checks, officials said, though they insist it is an internal category to simplify bureaucratic processes and does not create a separate class of citizens. The apex court has also attested to that explanation when minority groups, anxious about the supposed arbitrary nature of the clause, had approached it.

The provision has invited criticism for being arbitrary and for arming mid-level bureaucrats with unbridled discretion. In an interview with Scroll.in in January, Hajela defended it, saying the local registrar’s decision to classify declare someone an “original inhabitant” had to be vetted by the local circle officer and the district commissioner.

Why then are nearly 50,000 women included in the first draft as original inhabitants being excluded from the final draft? Hajela said that there were “instructions to the field” to keep the status of all the women who submitted panchayat certificates but did not fit the original inhabitant classification “on hold”. But his officials “made a mistake” and slipped some of them in. “When you are examining such a large number of documents it happens,” he said. “If you look at the number, it is not much at all. Some 48 lakh women submitted the document and 17.4 lakh were original inhabitants. So, out of the rest 30 lakh, 48,000 is a small number.”

Officials on the ground elaborated on how the error crept in. “Many women who the local Registrar of Citizen Registration had tagged as three-by-three were overruled later by the circle officer and the district magistrate,” said a district official. Clause 3(3) of the NRC rules governs the inclusion of people via the original inhabitant category, and is shorthand for referring to individuals who fit the description.

The officials added that the confusion happened because circle officers and district magistrates had not signed off on many names included in the first draft for lack of time. “The original inhabitant category is problematic in itself; till today there are no clear guidelines,” said a local registrar of Citizen Registration.

People stand in line to check their names on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens at Gumi village in Kamrup, Assam. Photo credit: AFP

‘Wrong data entry’

The third kind of error was revealed by a “quality control exercise” which found at least 19,783 people had been mistakenly added to the first draft, Hajela said. “Such errors have been observed due to wrong data entry or error at the field level in contravention to the prescribed guidelines,” he told the apex court.

Officials said most of these errors were simply “copy-paste mistakes” induced by a looming deadline. An official involved in the exercise in Lower Assam provided an example: “Just before the publication of the first draft, as we were supposed to feed the list of accepted people into the central system, my data entry guy copy pasted the wrong excel sheet, so people who were not supposed to be there were also shown to be part of the part draft.”

Similar mistakes had happened in other places, Hajela said. “But I am not going to blame my officials,” he added. “They were processing huge amounts of data; some mistakes are inevitable. It is good they have come to light before publication of the final draft.”

‘Meant to exclude, not include’

Such explanations by the NRC authorities have not dispelled concerns about genuine citizens being left out of the final draft, with even officials admitting to “loopholes” in the system. The situation could be particularly precarious for women who submitted the panchayat certificates as proof of ancestry. While the Gauhati High Court had declared the certificates invalid, the Supreme Court allowed them to be used but directed the NRC authorities to verify them thoroughly. The authorities have since appointed special officers for the sole purpose of verifying the authenticity of such certificates.

Yet several district officials said that women who submitted the panchayat certificates were asked for additional documentary evidence. “The very point of the panchayat certificate is that it was the last resort for women without documentary evidence,” said an official. “But we were told to exercise extra caution. It is almost as if the point of the NRC is to exclude, not include. And ultimately it is the discretion of the officer whether he wants to accept the certificate in absence of other documentary evidence.”

Asked about this, Hajela said he was merely following the apex court’s order to be careful with the panchayat certificates. “We have come across cases where village heads had given certificates to women they did not even remotely know,” he claimed. “And it is one of the easiest documents to procure.”

There have also been murmurs of the NRC rules being tweaked to make the exercise tougher for certain minorities, particularly Bengali speakers. On May 1, Hajela wrote to the NRC’s district officials listing certain “weak documents” that require “more stringent verification”. They include birth certificates issued a year after birth and refugee registration certificates. Officials, particularly in the Barak Valley, said these documents are being widely used to prove pre-1971 ancestry.

The concerns emanate from the fact that few people have been included in the original inhabitant category – which allows for a relatively easier passage to the NRC, irrespective of documents – in the Barak Valley. The area is said to be home to a large migrant population which arrived to flee alleged persecution in Bangladesh.

Hajela claimed this is not a new change in the rules; he had already told district officials about the invalidity of the “majority” of such documents. “Only two new documents in the list I told them to not accept as per the court order of December 5 wherein it said that panchayat documents can only be used for married women.”

In any case, Hajela contended, everyone was being given a chance to prove their citizenship. “It is not that people with no documents at all are being rejected outright,” he said. “Everyone, irrespective of documents, is given a hearing.”

But, as many pointed out, that could be leaving too much to the discretion of bureaucrats. “In these polarised times, can we really trust an official to be always fair?” asked a district official.