On July 31, Assam will release the final National Register of Citizens, a list of Indian citizens living in the state. Possibly the largest citizenship screening drive in the world, it has put millions of people on edge. In a month-long reporting project called The Final Count, Arunabh Saikia and Ipsita Chakravarty look at how the list was drawn up, who was left out, and what lies ahead.
As the floodwaters engulfed Assam this year, residents of the state reached for their valued possessions before they were destroyed. For many, these were the documents they needed for the National Register of Citizens. Without them, they could be wiped out in the eyes of the state.
The register, being updated for the first time since 1951, is meant to sift citizens from undocumented migrants who may have found their way into the state. To be included in the list, applicants must provide documentary proof that they or their ancestors entered the country before midnight on March 24, 1971, the eve of the Bangladesh War.
Since many applicants were born after the cut off date, this involved showing two sets of documents. List A, or legacy documents to prove their ancestors lived in India before 1971 and List B, or link documents to prove they were related to the legacy person.
The NRC website lists 14 different kinds of documents accepted as legacy proof, including the 1951 NRC and pre-1971 electoral rolls in Assam. These two were digitised and uploaded by the office of the NRC, which scanned 6.6 crore documents and digitised old records that covered two crore names, making it the largest database of pre-1971 documents in the country.
Applicants could run a search by typing in their legacy person’s name or hometown. Once they found the name in the database, they were issued a “legacy data code”. It acted as a kind of “PNR code” for the application, explained Prateek Hajela, state coordinator for the NRC.
For establishing a relationship with the legacy person, the website lists eight kinds of documents that may be accepted, such as birth certificates, land documents, school board of university certificates, electoral rolls, ration cards. Married women were initially told that they could submit certificates issued by gram panchayats attesting to their parentage.
Once the documents were received, they were sent off for verification to the original issuing authorities, some of which were in other states. Meanwhile, NRC officials fanned out across Assam for field level verification.
In effect, the office of the NRC had to establish the identity and about five decades of family history of over three crore applicants.
Life and files
But documents turned out to be unstable markers of identity and history.
For thousands in Assam, citizenship depended on a fading name in a frayed, yellowing document. Generations of family history could be wiped off the records if the electoral rolls had crucial pages missing.
Besides, names mutated over time in documents that were decades apart. For instance, one woman had trouble proving that “Altab Kha” in the 1951 NRC was the same person as “Altab Hussain Khan” in the 2015 voter list – her father. Spellings altered from birth certificate to matriculation certificate to voter identity card. Women married and changed their surnames, men came back from the Hajj and acquired the prefix “Haji”.
A person’s age could also be inconsistent across documents. The registration of births and deaths had only been made mandatory in Assam from 1978 and, even then, patchily enforced. For many of Assam’s rural poor, who did not have birth certificates or had never celebrated a birthday, age was a matter of surmise.
Then there were documents lost in the various dislocations of a turbulent state – lands and houses washed by floods and erosion, communal violence which forced thousands to flee overnight, taking nothing with them.
As the citizenship count progressed, the flaws in the process became evident.
Over the last four years, there were sudden, sometimes covert, changes in what documents could be admitted or where paper trails could be supplemented with oral evidence. As a result, some of Assam’s most marginalised groups risk exclusion from the NRC.
The first case in point was the back and forth over gram panchayat certificates, which left thousands of poor married women from rural Assam in the lurch. These are certificates signed by the panchayat secretary, giving details of the person’s parentage, place of birth, marriage and where they had moved after marriage. About 48 lakh women, many of whom had never been to school and so had no matriculation certificates or other documents to show, used such certificates as a link document.
Then in 2017, when the initial applications had already been submitted, the Gauhati High Court ruled that the documents invalid. Later that year, the Supreme Court overturned this judgment, saying panchayat certificates could be used, provided they were properly verified.
But for many women, these documents had been used as a last resort. Reports from Assam suggest a large number of married women were left out of the draft published in July last year because they had used panchayat certificates. NRC officials said they were to treat them as non-legally admissible documents, acceptable only if submitted with additional documentary evidence.
Indeed, an internal memo from the NRC coordinator to district registrars, dated May 1, 2018, suggested that the counting authority operated under an internal set of rules not explicitly stated in the website. Refugee registration certificates, submitted as legacy documents, immunisation certificates and ration cards, used as link documents, needed to be viewed with “extra caution”. Records of the 1951 NRC and pre-electoral rolls not available with deputy commissioners would not be recognised. Birth certificates issued more than a year after birth would also not be accepted.
As applicants made fresh claims to citizenship after July 2018, the NRC stipulated that no newly made documents would be admitted. Among the worst sufferers were the women who had relied on gram panchayat certificates, poor families who had shown refugee registration certificates and children under 14, who were the other large group of rejects from the July 2018 draft.
Most children depended on error-riddled school and birth certificates. The office of the NRC had assured parents that such children would be included in the register if their identity could be established through oral family tree verifications. In reality, reports suggest, no such allowances were made.
Tying a whole family tree’s fortunes to one legacy name in an unreliable old document also led to mass exclusions.
The 1951 NRC, mined by many for legacy data, was compiled in the chaotic days after Partition, based on the independent India’s first Census. It is an ad hoc, incomplete and sometimes bizarre document. Names were left out or spelt wrong, nicknames or monikers were entered. People’s professions could pass for first names. One bureaucrat spoke of several “Postmans”, “Hawildars” and “Patwaris” who crop up in the 1951 register.
In the 1951 register as well as in other old records, people with the same name show up several times, creating confusion. Take Isaruddin, a farmer from Lower Assam’s Goalpara district. Twenty two members of his family had applied with the legacy of his father, Muslimuddin, whose name appeared in the 1951 NRC. But they had linked it to the wrong Muslimuddin. None of them had made it to the July 2018 draft. The problem became intractable at the claims stage because families were not allowed to change their legacy person.
The gaps in legacy data has led to strange situations. In some cases, the legacy persons themselves were alive but the NRC had rejected proof of their presence in India before 1971 - Abdul Hussain, for instance, the headman of his village in Chirang district.
Then there were the relatives of India’s fifth President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed, who said they could not find any of their ancestors, in the 1951 NRC or any of the pre-1971 electoral rolls. That included the President himself and his brother, who was thought to be the first person in Assam to get a medical degree and retired as a colonel in the Indian army. The family did not apply because they could not find their legacy data.
In some cases, mistakes were introduced as the documents passed through the offices of the NRC.
In the early stages, there were language problems. Forms submitted in Assamese had been returned in English, with spelling errors creeping in through the process. Another family complained their wrongly spelt surname was a word of abuse in Assamese.
Were these mistakes deliberate, as some families have claimed from the start? Were they merely the result of callousness? Did they happen because a bureaucratic system with limited capacities tried to carry out one of the most ambitious exercises in documentary verification that the country has ever seen?
Whatever the reason, millions of people could be casualties of a process which seeks to define citizenship by blood but finds that bloodlines are hard to trace on paper.
Read all the stories in The Final Count series here.
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