Thursday, November 07, 2019

How is NRC Shaping a New Identity?

Image source: The Hindu

Gazi Hassan

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a register maintained by the Government of India containing names and relevant information for identification of Indian citizens of the state of Assam. The first NRC was compiled in 1951, after the Census was completed that year. The aim is to identify the so-called “illegal immigrants” believed to have entered Assam after the Bangladesh War of 1971. In 1979, eight years after the war, the State saw an anti-foreigner agitation led by the All Assam Student Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP). In 1985, the anti-foreigner agitation led to the signing of Assam Accord. The accord was signed between the AASU, the AAGSP, the Government of India and the Assam government. Under this accord, those who entered the State between 1966 and 1971 would be deleted from the electoral rolls and lose their voting rights for 10 years, after which their names would be restored to the rolls. Those who entered on or after March 25, 1971 — the eve of the Bangladesh War — would be declared foreigners and deported.

In May 5, 2005, a tripartite meeting was held in New Delhi between the Centre, Assam government and the AASU. During the meeting, it was decided that the NRC would be updated for Assam. In June 2010, the Assam government started two pilot projects to update the NRC in two blocks in the State's Kamrup and Barpeta districts. The Supreme Court (SC) in 2013 set a deadline to update and publish a revised NRC which was to be monitored by it. In 2015, NRC application forms were distributed in Assam. The applications stopped getting accepted on August 31, 2015 and the process of verifying the applications began on September 1, 2015.

The mammoth process went through several phases, the first being data collection. Most individuals applying for inclusion in the NRC had to prove not only that their ancestors had lived in Assam pre-1971 but also their relationship with the ancestor. Then came the verification process, and the documents were sent to the original issuing authorities. In the meantime, NRC officials conducted field verification. Once the data was submitted, the applicant’s blood relations were plotted on a family tree.

There was no official community-wise or district-wise data. Of the 3.29 crore people who applied, 2.89 crore people made it to the first draft published on July 30, 2018. Over 40.07 lakh were excluded — including army veterans, government employees, families of former Presidents and Assam’s only woman chief minister. 

The publication of the final list was on August 31, 2019. As many as 19 lakh Assam residents are now staring at statelessness. The Assam government has assured people that those who find their names missing from the final NRC will not immediately be termed "foreigners" or illegal immigrants. They will be allowed to register complaints with the Foreigners Tribunals that have been set up to examine the cases. In case they are not satisfied with the response of the Tribunal, they can even approach the Assam High Court or even the SC. The government has also promised legal aid to the poor who find their names missing from the list. Whether they will be detained, deported or allowed to stay on without the rights and privileges of citizenship is still not clear.

In the past, those deemed to be foreigners were transferred to detention centres carved out of local prisons. Presently, there are six such centres across Assam and a new one, with the capacity to accommodate 3000 people, is being built in Domini (Matia) — a Muslim majority area — in Goalpara district at a cost of Rs 45 crore.

The Assam NRC is being seen as a precursor to a more general NRC for the entire country. There are concerns and fears that the NRC could end up targeting minorities in the country. It will neither stop the transnational flow of undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, nor reduce the demand of their labour in India’s growing urban construction industry.

At the very least, the NRC process is likely to cause large-scale and long-term human suffering and leave many stateless. It will alter the fabric of the society in India, fostering a sense of mutual suspicion, intolerance and the hardening of social and cultural boundaries between citizens.

Gazi Hassan is Senior Research Associate at CPPR-Centre for Strategic Studies. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

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