On Saturday, the final National Register of Citizens was published for the state of Assam. It left out 1.9 million people – a number that amounts to 6% of the entire population of Assam. This vast population will now have to file appeals in Assam’s foreigner tribunals, widely known for their abysmal standards of justice, where they could be eventually branded foreigners.
While the NRC process was driven by the Supreme Court, the exercise has seen vigorous politics around it.
The process itself is the culmination of the nativist politics of Assam that has ranged itself against people it sees as “outsiders” to the state. This category mostly consists of Bengalis – both Hindu as well as Muslim – but also includes Nepali and Hindi speakers. In addition to this, once the exercise began in 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party attached its own Hindu nationalist narrative to it, using “Bangladeshi migrants” as a dog whistle to mean Muslims.
In the run-up to the final NRC, however, the BJP in Assam underwent a course correction, going from enthusiastically backing the registry to criticising it as a flawed exercise that needs to go back to the drawing board. In July, the BJP-controlled Union government and Assam government even asked for the final list to be delayed and a re-verification of names – a demand that the Supreme Court rejected.
The BJP in Assam continued its opposition when the list was released on Saturday. “We have lost hope in the present form of the NRC right after the draft,” said senior BJP minister and Assam strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma on Saturday morning, before the final list was released. Sarma asked the Supreme Court again for re-verification and threatened that the process to identify foreigners will continue.
Why did the BJP suddenly change its stand?
Given the migration of Hindus from Bangladesh, the final NRC list is thought to exclude a large number of Bengali Hindus. This goes against both the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology as well as its electoral calculations – Bengali Hindus are its oldest vote bank in Assam.
One way the BJP supporters hopes to circumvent this situation is to amend India’s citizenship rules be amended to put in an explicitly religious rider that allows Hindu, Buddhist Sikh, Christian and Parsi migrants from South Asia to settle in India but not Muslims. In its first term, the Modi government tried to pass a Bill to this effect but failed. Whether it will try again remains to be seen.
West Bengal situation
The politics of migration from Bangladesh, however, is not restricted to Assam – it also extends to West Bengal. The BJP in West Bengal used the NRC as a campaign plank in the 2019 Lok Sabha Election, which was countered by the Trinamool by pointing to the fact that Assam’s NRC has excluded a large number of Hindu migrants.
On Saturday, however, both the Trinamool and the BJP in West Bengal had muted reactions. The Trinamool did react, opposing an NRC in the state, but uncharacteristically the party head, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee remained quiet through the day. She finally commented late evening, calling the exercise “botched-up” and expressing concern for those excluded, “especially the large number of Bengali speaking brothers and sisters”.
While the Assam BJP is questioning the final NRC, the West Bengal BJP continued its demand for an NRC in the state. In fact, so did the BJP in Delhi and Telangana – two other states ruled by Opposition parties.
Even as the BJP speaks in multiple voices on the NRC, Assamese nationalists – the original progenitors of the scheme – are unhappy with the exercise. The All Assam Student’s Union, a signatory to the 1985 Assam Accord that first embodied the principle of the NRC, expressed unhappiness with the process, claiming that it would move the Supreme Court.
Much of Assamese nationalist politics has been driven by what many see as inflated estimates of Bangladeshi migrants. In 2004, for example, the Union home minister claimed that there were 50 lakh illegal migrants in Assam – a number that was used by the Supreme Court itself as it started the NRC process.
However, the final NRC seems to belie these claims. The number excluded is just 19 lakh. This number will come down once the people excluded challenge their status in the tribunals. Moreover, this also includes native tribal people. As a result, claims of Bangladeshi migrants swamping Assam – claims that were at the heart of Assamese nationalist politics – appear to stand disproven with the publishing of the final NRC.
Even the Congress
To complete the circle – marking how every player in Assam is unhappy with the NRC – the Assam Congress on Saturday criticised the final list. “Many genuine Indians – especially Bengali Hindus – have been excluded from the NRC while several foreigners have been included,” former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi said. “The Bharatiya Janata Party has to explain what went wrong with the NRC.”
While the Congress has used the current flawed NRC process to attack the BJP, it has made it clear that it is not against the idea of the NRC per se. In fact, it also claims credit for the NRC, given that it was a Congress government in the Centre that had signed the Assam Accord in 1985.
As parties fight it out, however, millions of Indian residents face a gruelling future in Assam having to prove that they are indeed the citizens of a country they live in.
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