Possibly the largest citizenship screening drive in the world, the National Register of Citizens has put millions of people on edge in Assam. 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.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday extended the deadline for the release of the final National Register of Citizens from July 31 to August 31. But it turned down the Union and the Assam governments’ request for another round of verification of the people included in the draft list of National Register of Citizens published last year.
Of the 3.29 crore people who had staked claim to Indian citizenship in Assam, 2.89 crore people made it to the draft published on July 31, 2018. More than 40 lakh people had been left out.
Since then, the NRC authorities have excluded another 1.02 lakh applicants, claiming they had been included in the draft erroneously.
Both the governments argued in court last week that there could be more erroneous inclusions and exclusions. To sort these out, they claimed another round of verification covering 20% of the names included in the draft NRC in the districts bordering Bangladesh and 10% in the remaining districts.
But the court expressed scepticism, citing a sealed report by the state coordinator for the NRC, Prateek Hajela. The report apparently said that 27% of the names included in the July 2018 draft – about 80 lakh people – had already been reverified.
A closer look at the NRC process, however, suggests that the actual number of people who have had to face an extra round of scrutiny over the last year is even larger. Publicly available data examined by Scroll.in suggests this could be close to 50% of the total applicants – more than 1.6 crore people. Not only did the NRC authorities scrutinise people who did not make it to the July 2018 draft, they re-examined a large number of those who did.
This higher level of scrutiny has not been applied evenly to all communities in the state. Data suggests nearly 80% of the applicants from communities not considered indigenous to Assam have had their citizenship re-examined afresh over the last year.
The NRC lists made available to the public do not differentiate between communities. But the NRC rules contain a separate category called “original inhabitants”, which loosely refers to people defined as indigenous to Assam. As the Supreme Court said, the NRC rules allow for such people to go through a “less strict and vigorous process” – that is, they are subjected to significantly fewer checks.
Assam has seen several waves of migration since the 19th century. Many families from communities not considered indigenous have lived in the state well before India became independent. Despite that, they have faced greater scrutiny.
To be included in the NRC, applicants must prove that they or their ancestors lived in the country before midnight on March 24, 1971. To do this, they had to provide a pre-1971 ancestor’s proof of residence, called legacy. They also had to prove they were related to this ancestor. An individual could apply in the same form as members of their immediate family. This family was then given an application receipt number.
But since the NRC exercise involves drawing bloodlines to a person who was in India prior to 1971, it is quite common for more than one family to draw their legacy to the same pre-1971 ancestor. In other words: multiple application receipt numbers could have the same legacy person. These connections could be established during family tree verifications, where all the people with a common pre-1971 ancestor were assembled together and made to identify each other at an oral hearing.
An examination of the NRC modalities indicates few from the “original inhabitant” category were summoned for a family tree hearing in the run-up to the July 2018 draft. But a large chunk of people who fell outside this were. Official memos seen by Scroll.in indicate that many of them also had to face two additional investigations carried out by a team of the district magistrate.
Finally, when a consolidated draft was released in July 2018, 40.07 lakh people were excluded. Although a demographic break-up has not been made public, reports suggest that they were overwhelmingly Bengali speakers, with some exclusions among people referred to as indigenous to Assam.
What the numbers say
According to an affidavit filed by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in August 2018, these 40.07 lakh people belonged to approximately 16.2 lakh families, or 16.2 lakh application receipt numbers. This means there were approximately 2.47 rejections per family.
Out of these 40.07 lakh people, around 36 lakh people filed fresh claims for inclusion in the NRC, and attended hearings to make their case. Assuming 2.47 rejections per family, approximately 15 lakh families filed fresh claims.
Another two lakh families who faced objections to their inclusion in the draft NRC – the process allowed anyone to object to another person’s inclusion – also attended such hearings.
Thus, a total of around 17 lakh families were directly involved in these hearings, proving or defending their citizenship one more time.
During the hearings, the people on trial also had to present witnesses to vouch for their claims. The NRC authorities summoned immediate family members, that is, people with the same application receipt numbers. More often than not, they also reverified the family tree. Which meant adults from all families who had drawn their legacy to a common ancestor were summoned for hearings as witnesses.
By virtue of their appearance, they were reverified as well. If one makes a conservative estimate of two families per legacy person, at least 34 lakh families appeared for these hearings.
In fact, many attended multiple hearings across the state testifying for different family members. In each of these hearings, they furnished identity documents and opened themselves up to scrutiny.
The NRC rules also give field officials discretionary powers to reverify any applicant at any point in the process. But this number is not believed to be very large.
Even without accounting for the latter, 34 lakh families is 50% of the total 68 lakh families who had applied in the first place.
Out of the 68 lakh families or 3.29 crore people who applied to be included in the NRC, the authorities pegged the number of original inhabitants at around 1.3 crore, which translates to at least 27 lakh families.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that there were few exclusions of people slotted under this category. It is, therefore, unlikely that any of these families were summoned for the hearings that took place after the release of the draft list last July.
Thus, out of the 41 lakh remaining families, about 34 lakh families were freshly scrutinised in some form or the other after the publication of the draft list. That amounts to about 83% of the families from communities not considered original inhabitants of the state. Most of them would be Bengali speakers, given the state’s social demographics.
Relieved minority groups
The Supreme Court’s refusal to acquiesce to the government’s request for another round of scrutiny has come as a relief to Assam’s minority groups.
“People have already attended several hearings,” said Kamal Choudhury, president of the All Assam Bengali Youth Students’ Federation. “There are people who have had to go from Dhubri to Lakhimpur (more than 280 km) for their hearings. Imagine them having to go through that again.”
Ainuddin Ahmed of the All Assam Minority Students Union said there was no real room for any further reverification. “Most people have already been through multiple rounds of checks before and after the publication of the draft,” he said. “Those who want another reverification do not seem to want the NRC to come out and this issue to end.”
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the number of people excluded from the draft NRC was 40.7 lakh. The number is 40.07 lakh.