India File

‘The sentiments of the Assamese people must be respected’

Poornima Joshi | Updated on September 24, 2018

HIMANTA BISWA SARMA, Assam Finance Minister and NEDA Convenor   -  THE HINDU

BJP President Amit Shah’s blue-eyed boy in the North-East, Assam Finance Minister and NEDA Convenor, Himanta Biswa Sarma, supports a far more nuanced stand on the contentious issue of citizenship in Assam than his central leadership. In an interview to Poornima Joshi, Sarma explains why he thinks the National Register of Citizens (NRC) should be updated in every Indian State, especially West Bengal. At the same time, he also believes that despite the NRC, it would be a long while before the final word on who is an Indian citizen in Assam is said. Excerpts from the interview:

A day after the BJP passed a resolution staunchly supporting NRC while simultaneously promising the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in its national executive, the Assam state unit held a press conference attacking the NRC. It seems the BJP will use the NRC politically while people in Assam clearly seem to believe it is yet another stunt.

The BJP and the Assam government stand with the NRC. It is the only way to detect foreigners and illegal infiltrators. We in Assam endorse the views taken by our central leadership on NRC. What our state president is a little bit critical about is the stand taken by the coordinator (NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela) on claims and objections. The coordinator has filed an affidavit saying that the refugee certificate issued prior to 1971 should not be considered a criterion for inclusion in the NRC. If that happens, it will prejudice the claims of many Bengali Hindus who have come prior to 1971, who, under the Assam accord, have been assured of citizenship. The BJP’s disagreement with Hajela is on this micro issue. The Assam government is going to file an affidavit in the court asking for allowance of pre-1971 refugee certificate as one of the valid documents for inclusion in the NRC. It is regarding the process, not the substance.

But the NRC is about processes. It is supposed to be the final word on who is an Indian in Assam. Your party unit in Assam is clearly echoing the generally held view in the State that there are big loopholes in the process of identification of citizenship under the NRC. How is your party, the ruling party at the Centre, then claiming it as a yardstick to brand people ghuspaithiyas (infiltrators)?

You have to accept that NRC is being updated in the spirit of the Assam accord. Anyone who entered after 1971 is illegal. This is a complex process. The NRC has embarked upon a very complicated issue. This process has left out some genuine Indians. Fairness and equity demand that everyone should be given an opportunity. We believe that no genuine Indian should be left out.

What you’re saying is different from what the BJP President has said on the issue.

I am officially saying before you, and my President would have no disagreement that no genuine Indian should be left out in the NRC. He is only saying that we will throw out ghuspaithiyas, not genuine Indians.

Your party is promising the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill with a view to assure the Hindu Bangladeshi infiltrators that their interests are secure. Are you not worried about it provoking the sub-nationalist elements in the Assamese society, which has seen violent movements for Assamese identity? Your ally, the Asom Gana Parishad, has publicly protested against it.

The Citizenship Bill is an issue on which Assamese society is divided. One section strongly feels that it should be passed and there is another section that feels it shouldn’t be passed. But you have to concede that the Government of India has a solemn duty towards the Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and other such minorities who have come here fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. This was a commitment given from the time of Nehru and Gandhi.

We have to also see how we can balance the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill with the aspirations of the people of Assam. The feeling among a majority of the Assamese is that our culture and identity is under threat and we are becoming a minority in our own State. That feeling needs to be addressed and we have a way out in Clause VI of the Assam Accord which says that the Assamese are entitled to political, legal and Constitutional safeguards. If we are taking the burden of 5-6 lakh Bengali Hindus, it can be counter-balanced by Clause VI. I don’t think it will be such a big issue. We will be able to take everyone along.

Has your party been taken by surprise by the sheer number of Hindus left out of the NRC?

Primarily, this has happened because we have not got any responses from the governments of other Indian States from where these people have migrated to Assam. There are 54,000 papers pending with the Bihar government, about 1 lakh with West Bengal government to verify the citizenship claims of the people of these States in Assam. Once these verifications come back, the number of Indians — and I am not saying Hindus —the number of Indians will drastically come down. But please do keep in mind that these are notional numbers, the NRC has not disclosed any religion-specific or language-specific data. You have to ascertain these figures by conducting personal interviews.

But it is true that there is a substantial number of people whose names do not figure in the NRC and they are not foreigners. They belong to Rajasthan, Bihar and other Indian States. Their number is quite high. They run into lakhs. But this number will come down drastically because other State governments have now been activated and they are responding to calls for verification. The number you are seeing right now is from a draft. Once the final NRC comes down, you will see that this 40 lakh will come down drastically. It will not be a static number.

Do you not believe that re-verification of claims of people who have already been counted in the NRC will further de-legitimise the process?

Our State coordinator has said that some people have taken undue advantage of the process of counting and got counted in. The legacy data has been misused. Many have submitted fraudulent documents. The Supreme Court has said re-verification should be done. But so far, this is just an observation, not an order. We will comment once the formal order comes.

Despite the anomalies and chaos being caused, the BJP is whipping up the NRC bogey in all other States especially, it seems, in West Bengal…

After 1951, citizenship data has not been updated. The data should be updated. It is very important in West Bengal because it is a State bordering Bangladesh and citizenship should be ascertained. There should be NRC in Bengal. Sooner or later you will see a revalidated NRC. It should go beyond Assam starting from Bengal and expand to the rest of India.

Simultaneously, there is another demand to make male 1951 and not 1971 the cut-off date for Assam. Clearly, the NRC will not settle matters regarding citizenship in Assam.

You see, the cut-off date for counting citizens in Assam is 1971 and for the rest of the country it is 1951. If we in Assam have to accommodate more people than the rest of India, we also seek some assurance that the sentiment with regard to Assamese identity will be respected. This is a complex issue and it has dominated the politics since 1935. It will continue to dominate the politics of Assam for the next 50 years.

Where will you send these people once they have been excluded from the NRC? I also have to think in humanitarian terms. If Bangladesh is not accepting them, would you still put them in a train and push them out? We will have to balance the concerns of Assam vis-à-vis the humanitarian concerns. Right now, we are only detecting citizenship.

We don’t want to put anyone in detention camps. The Government of Assam does not believe in putting people in concentration camps. We need a balanced and mature approach. The people of Assam will be generous but first let us ascertain the quantum of foreigners. We are not saying you put them all in trains and send them on a journey to nowhere.

Published on September 24, 2018

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