Assam's NRC sets concerning precedent for the rest of India

Last Updated: Tue, Jul 31, 2018 17:10 hrs

A debate over citizenship has erupted as the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was released for Assam on Monday, with more than 40 lakh people being left out. The exercise was monitored by the Supreme Court. The opposition wasted no time in criticising the BJP for politicizing the matter of citizenship and requested them to convene an all party meeting to ensure that no Indian citizen was left out.

The first draft was released at the beginning of the year. The latest list found a little over 2.8 crore people eligible from a total applicant pool of 3.29 crore. For those who have been left out, the government says not to worry. Home Minister Rajnath Singh assured that the draft is not final and people will get time to file objections, saying in part, “No coercive action will be taken against anyone. Hence, there is no need for anyone to panic”. He also insisted that the central government played no role in the matter.

With regards to the reasons for the 40 lakh plus who have been left out, the Registrar General of India (RGI) stated that it will not make public those reasons instead they will be informed about the reason for their exclusion through a letter of information. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee hit out at the centre in a press conference saying in part, “This divide and rule policy will finish the country”.

The NRC is a list of Indians citizens of a particular state. It shows the house, holdings in a serial order and covers every person enumerated during the Census of 1951. With respect to Assam, it was prepared following the 1951 census and will include the names of all Indian citizens who have been residing in Assam before March 25, 1971. Another important point here is the signing of the Assam accord signed in 1985 between the government of India and leaders of the Assam Movement - a six-year-long agitation by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) who demanded the deportation of illegal immigrants.

In 2005, Manmohan Singh chaired a meeting to review the implementation of the Assam Accord where it was decided to update the NRC. In order to wean out illegal immigrants from neighboring countries such as Bangladesh, the Supreme Court ordered in 2013 an update of the NRC for Assam. This was taken up under the Citizenship Act of 1955.

The release of the list and with lakhs of people being left out, there is understandable fear and anxiety among many in the state. If the objective is to identify illegal immigrants, the process here seems ill equipped as the Indian Express editorial points out in terms of what a person has to do to prove he/she is of Indian descent –

To be registered in the list, people have to prove that they are descendants of Indian citizens by providing documents dating back to 1951 or 1971. That is an onerous pre-condition in a country with a none-too-good record of maintaining documents”.

Assam as a state has interesting demographics. Migration continued after independence. In the 1970’s and 80’s protestors drew lines in the sand between Assamese and non-Assamese; a clear binary. Now the BJP has moved it further as a line between Hindu and Muslim migrants.

With the release of this list and paranoia as to how would someone need to prove they are Indian, there are examples of people how the government, with an eye on 2019 is choosing a strategy to purge voters. There are thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims who have categorized as ‘doubtful voters’. Jaideep Mazumdar, associate editor at Swarajya, writes on why it’s important for the NRC process to be completed and its importance for Assam –

The task is not going to be an easy one, but that should not be an excuse to continue with the status quo and tolerate the presence of millions of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, most of who have procured citizenship documents, on our soil”.

A Reuters report quoted Abdul Suban who said he is still trying to prove he is a citizen of India saying, “If the government has decided to brand us foreigners what can we do? Our people have died here, but we will not leave this place”. This in reference to events in 1983 where people were chased and killed by mobs wielding machetes in attempt to weed out Muslim immigrants.

The main issue seems to be with respect to religion, language and demographics as a whole not just for Assam but for the country as a whole. The Supreme Court waded into the contentious debate about migration in Assam by asking “why 67 years after Independence, the Eastern border (Indo-Bangladesh) is left porous”. It goes to the heart of the question of does migration, do migrants help a country or deter its growth. Does migration take away from what many believe to be an Indian identity, or as some may frame it, a Hindu identity.

The debate over the NRC list is ongoing and will continue. It does however seem to set a dangerous precedent. Citizenship ensures a person has civil, social and economic rights.

Denying citizenship has a tendency to bring out the toxicity in politics. As migration is a contested issue now worldwide, it is important to remember that nations across the globe are products of migrations and cultural diversity; they thrive because of them.

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