Assam citizenship row: Some faultlines fixed, but new ones emerge

Pratim Ranjan Bose Guwahati | Updated on September 01, 2019 Published on September 01, 2019

Activists of the Hindu Yuba-Chattra Parishad burn copies of the NRC list, in Guwahati on Saturday   -  -

The saga of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam was finally over on August 31. This, after violent agitation (1979-85) against migration since the Partition; the hastily drawn Assam Accord in 1985 that promised to limit citizenship to those who arrived before March 24, 1971; and the foot-dragging over the implementation of the accord, till the Supreme Court cracked the whip in 2013 and 2015.

After nearly five years of court-monitored effort, that involved over ₹1,200 crore administrative budget and deployment of some 52,000 officials, the NRC is updated after 70 years with 19.07 lakh names out of 3.3 crore applications failing to make it to the list.

The list of exclusions includes roughly 3.36 lakh people who didn’t participate in the “claims and objections” process during the preparation of the final list.

Who are excluded?

It is widely believed they belong to the ethnic or tribal population, who lack documents and didn’t turn up after their names were excluded in the previous draft. It is likely that a fresh attempt will be made to ensure their citizenship in the coming months.

Also excluded are 1.17 lakh people who were already declared foreigner under the Illegal Migrants (Determination by the Tribunal) Act, 1983. They are now seeking justice in various courts.

According to AS Tapadar, a local advocate who fights for the alleged immigrants, the majority of the 2.07 lakh persons defending cases before foreigners tribunals failed to clear the rope.

Facing the Damocles sword were the children of those either declared foreigner by the tribunal or are fighting cases before the tribunal. In 2017, the Guwahati High Court held that children of foreigners should be treated as foreigners. The case is now pending before the Supreme Court.

Unconfirmed reports suggest a good number of people from other States (particularly from Bihar) were excluded as their home State failed to confirm their nationality.

The NRC authority did not release any religion or ethnicity-based database of those excluded. According to unconfirmed reports, the majority of those who failed to make it to the list are Hindus.

Legally, non-inclusion of name in citizens’ database doesn’t make one a foreigner. At the first stage, all those excluded will apply before the foreigners tribunal within four months. As per rule, the Tribunal should award a verdict within six months, following which the aggrieved persons may approach the courts. According to Tapadar, the State has only 78 such tribunals operating. The Assam government promised to open 1,000 tribunals to speed up the process. But, “it will be years before the tribunal disposes of close to 19 lakh applications,” he said.

The authorities have already clarified that those who are excluded from the list will not be detained. However, there won’t be much clarity on their voting rights till the cases are decided.

Acting on a previous court verdict on voting rights of the people whose citizenship is challenged, the Election Commission has been marking doubtful voters in Assam since 1997. In 2018, there were 1.09 lakh such voters in the State. The voter list revision is scheduled to start this month as part of the preparations for the 2021 Assembly elections. Many, therefore, predict that those failing to get a positive verdict from the Tribunal during the period may lose their voting rights in the next election.

The exclusion of barely five per cent of applications from the published list of citizens and low dropouts in Bengali Muslim border districts made ethnic Assamese unhappy, fuelling widespread fear of a backlash. Both the Congress and the BJP found fault with the NRC preparations. Privately, however, all agree that the NRC authorities did an excellent job in creating the database. What apparently went wrong for the BJP is the exclusion of Hindus.

Future uncertain

This has also fuelled apprehensions that the Centre may bring back the Citizenship Amendment Bill that aimed to grant citizenship to Hindus (among others) migrating to India due to religious persecution. An effort in this direction invited widespread agitation from the ethnic population in all North-East States earlier this year.

While it looks certain that the list of excluded persons will shrink substantially in the days to come, the politics of Assam looks uncertain from here onwards. The Assamese ethnic politics always viewed the Bengali-speaking Muslims from lower Assam as outsiders. The NRC proved that the allegation was unsubstantiated. This will surely improve the morale of the Bengali Muslims, ensuring new political equations.

Assam is already witnessing sharp divisions between upper Assamand Bodoland. The removal of the migrant tag on Bengali Muslims in lower Assam adds a fresh dimension to it.

Published on September 01, 2019
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