On October 21, the All Assam Students’ Union went on protest in Jorhat, burning an effigy of Bharatiya Janata Party president JP Nadda. Gathered outside the district commissioner’s office, they shouted slogans against the BJP chief, the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Nadda’s offence: he had promised that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act would be implemented soon – it had only been stalled because of the pandemic.
The CAA, passed by Parliament in December last year, makes undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Aghanistan and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship. Protests against the legislation, which swept across the country, started first in Assam, killing at least five.
Assam has its own specific concerns about the CAA, tied to the state’s National Register of Citizens, published in August 2019. Meant to be a list of Indians living in Assam, one of the stated aims of the NRC was to sift undocumented migrants from “genuine” citizens. Assamese nationalist groups like the All Assam Students Union, which see migration from Bangladesh as a threat to their community, have long demanded this citizen count. The terms of the exercise were drawn from the 1985 Assam Accord, the cornerstone of Assamese nationalist politics over the last three decades.
When the final list was published, it left out over 19 lakh applicants. Although demographic data about the NRC has not been published, anecdotal accounts suggest a large number of those excluded were Bengali Hindus. The BJP, which also heads the Assam government, promised that the CAA would regularise them. This angered Assamese nationalist groups who want all undocumented migrants – whether Hindu or Muslim – expelled from the state.
Assam’s NRC, which many groups pitched as the answer to social and economic anxieties that have riven the state for decades, has left more questions than it resolved. And as state elections approach, the citizenship tangle takes centre stage once again.
How final is the final NRC?
The list published on August 31 last year was meant to be an updated version of the 1951 NRC compiled in Assam soon after the great population exchanges of Partition. It was meant to be the “final” list, compiled after several rounds of checking and the publication of two draft versions. The bureaucratic process of determining citizenship was believed to have ended with the August 2019 list. The 19 lakh rejects were supposed to appeal against their exclusion in the foreigners’ tribunals, quasi-judicial bodies tasked with determining matters of disputed nationality.
A year later, however, the process of appeals remains in stasis. Those who were left out are yet to be handed “rejection slips” stating reasons for their exclusion. Officials in Assam claimed the delay was caused by the pandemic, which had absorbed all bureaucratic resources. Without rejection slips, those excluded cannot move the tribunals. But the 200 new tribunals that were to handle the NRC cases are yet to be set up anyway. The new members – as tribunal judges are called – and 1,600 support staff recruited to man the new tribunals are without work.
But the pandemic may not be the only reason the NRC appeals are held up.
Hitesh Dev Sarma, the state NRC coordinator appointed after the final list was published last year, has cast doubts on the exercise. Rejection slips might have to be rechecked, he said, claiming faulty orders had been issued. Sarma’s own appointment had been clouded with controversy, with many alleging it was an attempt by the state government to pull the brakes on a project that no longer suited its political agenda.
Indeed, many of those who had rooted for the NRC were unhappy with the final list. The BJP-led Assam government has filed a plea in the Supreme Court, asking for 20% of the NRC entries from border districts and 10% from other districts to be rechecked. The Centre had recently said it would back such a plea. The districts along the border with Bangladesh have a high population of Muslims and low exclusion rates, which has been inconvenient for the BJP’s rhetoric about Muslim “infiltrators” flooding Assam.
Groups such as the All Assam Students’ Union and the Assam Public Works, which had taken the NRC to court in the first place, had expected a much higher number of exclusions. Assam Public Works, which described the NRC as “waste paper”, filed a petition for the re-examination of the final list. The All Assam Students’ Union filed a separate petition asking for a “rectification” of the list. The Assamese nationalist groups pointed fingers at both the Congress and the BJP: the NRC had been derailed by a “conspiracy of vested interests” and the rules were not followed correctly, leading to a flawed document.
In recent affidavits submitted to the Gauhati High Court, the Centre itself has tried to equivocate. The assistant solicitor general of India, SC Keyal, appearing for the Centre as well as the NRC state coordinator’s office, called the August 2019 register a “Draft NRC” that was yet to be accepted by the Registrar General of India. He claimed that rejection slips could not be handed out because of the pleas “seeking re-verification of the NRC records and for preparation of a fresh NRC”.
Why are thousands of names to be deleted from the final NRC?
The so-called clean up of the NRC began this month, with the move to delete thousands of names. In a letter addressed to deputy commissioners in Assam, Sarma pointed out that the names of “ineligible persons” had found their way into the citizens’ register. These were persons declared foreigners by the tribunals, those marked as “D voters” or doubtful voters by the Election Commission and those whose cases are pending in the tribunals, as well as their descendants.
While the NRC is a citizen count, Assam’s tribunals run a parallel foreigner detection process, determining nationality according to the Foreigners Act of 1946. They take up cases referred to them by Assam’s border police. They also adjudicate cases involving D voters – people who lost voting rights because the Election Commission believed there were questions about their citizenship.
The rules governing the NRC had always mandated the exclusion of categories mentioned by Sarma. When the second draft of the NRC was published in July 2018, then NRC coordinator Pratik Hajela had claimed people falling under these categories – about 2.48 lakh in number – had been left out. This despite the fact that many who had won their citizenship battles in the tribunals could not shed the “D voter” tag because the Election Commission’s software was not sophisticated enough.
It is not clear how “ineligible” applicants still remain in the register. But the tribunals are famously opaque. There are numerous instances of people being declared foreigners without even being served notices that they were being investigated. Scroll.in found at least one case where a woman learnt she had been declared a foreigner only after her name was left out of the draft NRC. The tribunals do not maintain an updated database either, so NRC officials verifying citizenship may find it hard to confirm whether a particular applicant is a declared or suspected foreigner. It is also speculated that some applicants managed to get their names into the register by circumventing the rules.
How does the NRC fit into the BJP’s electoral calculations?
It remains to be seen whether a so-called technical error becomes the start of a larger unravelling. Many, including the Congress, question the timing of the move – six months before elections and just as the political battle lines are being drawn. They allege this is the BJP’s way of discrediting the NRC without waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision on appeals.
Going into the polls, the BJP will have to strike a delicate balance. As it pushes the CAA to appeal to Bengali Hindu voters, its core support base, the party risks alienating large sections of the population, especially in the districts of Upper Assam. Take Jorhat, where the protests took place last week. It had voted BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The Jorhat assembly constituency had also gone to the BJP in 2016 state elections.
Since then, the region has been swept by the fury of the citizenship protests. Several new political parties were forged in the crucible of the protests, all claiming to represent the interests of people defined as indigenous to the state. They will be vying for votes in the angry districts of Upper Assam.
The BJP at the Centre tried to address these discontents by announcing a “high-level committee” to look into Clause 6, a provision in the 1985 Assam Accord that was meant to introduce special rights and protections for the “Assamese people”. But Delhi was accused of dragging its feet on the committee’s recommendations. When the committee report was leaked by the All Assam Students’ Union in August, it caused consternation among minority groups in Assam, including those claiming to represent Bengali Hindus.
While it might suit the BJP to cast doubts on the 2019 Assam NRC, the results of a recount might not yield the desired results for the party. So is the final NRC published in 2019 a definitive list of Indian citizens in Assam? Should it be junked in favour of a recount? If it is accepted, what happens to the nearly two million people who would face statelessness? The BJP might want to leave such questions unanswered for now.