The final National Register of Citizens, published on August 31, 2019, was the culmination of nearly five years’ legwork, an expenditure of Rs. 1220 crore from the treasury, and a 14-year-old agreement between the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the Assam government and the Indian government to resolve the issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh once and for all.
The exercise required all residents of Assam to produce documents proving that they or their families had lived in India prior to March 24, 1971.
When a “final draft” was published on July 30, 2018, it was found that 40,07,007 people had been left out of 3,30,37,661 applicants. Now, the figure of exclusions has reduced to 19,06,657.
But it does not seem to have satisfied any group of stakeholders.
There are media reports of families who were on the last “final” list having been left out of this one, thanks to objections having been received against the inclusion of 1,87,633 names in the draft.
Hundreds of families have alleged they were given short notice – in some cases, less than a day, to appear at far-off places for verification of documents they had submitted.
Others are upset that refugee certificates were not accepted as evidence that they have a legal right to remain in India.
Still others believe the exclusions are too few, and that the exercise has failed in identifying illegal immigrants.
What was supposed to end a series of legal proceedings and enumerative procedures now appears likely to start tens of thousands of new appeals at the cost of the government’s money, applicants’ time, and everyone’s further frustration.
There are 100 Foreigners Tribunals, and 200 more being set up, to hear appeals from those excluded within a 4-month window. These tribunals will have 6 months to dispose of each case from the date of filing, the verdict for each of which can be appealed against in the Guwahati High Court and eventually in the Supreme Court.
The authorities have announced that appellants will have 10 further months to prove their citizenship before being sent to detention centres.
The 6 central jails and 1 detention centre in Assam certainly don’t have the capacity to house 19 lakh people. The 10 detention centres being constructed – again, at high cost to the government – will allow the state to accommodate a total of under 35,000 people.
Meanwhile, there have been calls for sample re-verification in various parts of Assam.
The Ministry of External Affairs has said those excluded are not “stateless” and will continue to have all the rights of citizens until a decision is made. But since Bangladesh has consistently refused to acknowledge that any of its residents have crossed over into India, those who have been excluded from the enumeration of Indian citizens will find that they do not technically belong to any state.
There is little clarity on when the process of appealing at the Foreigners’ Tribunals can begin, particularly since most of these tribunals are yet to be set up. The names of those included in the NRC have been published in a list, and individual applicants have not, at least thus far, been informed of the reasons for their exclusion.
The controversy over the NRC hit the headlines again in May, when police detained retired army officer and Kargil War veteran Mohammad Sanaullah as an illegal resident. He, incidentally, has been excluded from the final list too.
The case of a man who has served the country in war being excluded from a list of bona fide citizens ought to have alerted us to the absurdity of such an exercise.
Perhaps the government ought to take a step back and evaluate what the point of such a project is.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill proposes to extend citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from neighbouring countries. Rohingya refugees have been living in camps in India for years. Large sections of India’s population remain undocumented.
Under such circumstances, was it worth the prohibitive costs and the time of thousands of government employees to carry out such an elaborate exercise in determining whether crores of people have been living in India for under 48 years?
India is not on friendly terms with most of its neighbours, and the topography of the region has ensured that a formidable length of its borders is porous.
If the government is serious about stopping illegal migration, wouldn’t it have made more sense to spend all this money on securing the borders rather than finding people who may or may not have migrated illegally decades ago?
When an exercise that was meant to solve a problem creates several new ones, it ought to be an indicator that the exercise wasn’t particularly successful.
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the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com