NRC: When you cease to exist

Last Updated: Sat, Aug 04, 2018 13:33 hrs
Assam NRC

What happens when a country that is the only home you know, the country into which you were born, the country in which generations of your forefathers have died and been cremated or buried, says you do not and never did belong here?

To which country do you go back when you have never been anywhere else?

Four million people who have been left out of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) are set to find out.

The idea of the NRC was mooted in 1951, and was meant to document the residents of every village, noting their names, ages, parents’ and spouses’ names, and details of their landholdings. The reason Assam began maintaining this register was paranoia about immigration into a country which had not existed half a decade earlier.

The demand for the updation of Assam’s NRC has been made consistently for over 45 years. The Illegal Migrants Act has been in force in the state for 35 years. The protests and demand for legislation have become such a part of the fabric of the state and the workings of the country that they would have been easiest to ignore, as so much else is ignored.

Yet, with the price of fuel skyrocketing, the value of the rupee falling, scams being uncovered everyday, and little to recommend it to the people for its next term, the central government appears to have decided it is time to distract, yet again.

And so, now, after decades of protests, the register is being updated. For one to find one’s name in the register, one will have to provide proof of residence in other parts of the country prior to 1971, for those who have been resident in Assam on or after March 25 that year. Those who cannot provide such proof and those who migrated from “foreign soil” after that date will be, in all likelihood, deported, despite the Supreme Court’s delicate suggestion that no “harsh measures” should be resorted to.

When the July 30 version of the NRC list was found to have rendered 40 lakh residents stateless, politicians have rushed to state that it is only a draft list, and that people whose names are missing can file their claims from August 30 to September 28.

It is not clear what will happen once they do.

Will they be allowed to stay on in the country until the decision regarding their claim is made?

Can they be deported? And if they don’t know where they came from, to where will they be deported?

What about those who have Aadhaar cards, touted as the ID that will end the need for all other IDs?

And under such circumstances, what relevance does the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, which makes certain illegal migrants from minority communities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship, have?

The first draft of the NRC list was released on December 31, 2017, and missed more than 1.39 crore applicants’ names. At the time, ministers and Members of Parliament said their own names were not on the list and it would all be sorted out in due course. But no deadline was set then, and none has been now.

The deadline specified for eligibility to the NRC, 1971, is arbitrary. The war for the liberation of Bangladesh did see an enormous wave of immigrants – who were essentially refugees fleeing persecution and death – but the border has always been porous.

Why are those who ran for their lives after 1971 less deserving of shelter than those who did before?

And why are Bangladeshi Hindus more deserving of shelter than Bangladeshi Muslims, in a country whose constitution marks it as a socialist, secular, democratic republic?

With the general elections coming up next year, every political party is anxious to appease the majority of voters.

The number of people who have been left out of the NRC of a single state in this country is larger than the population of several other countries.

Are we going to deport an entire population? Do they not matter, for as long as they cannot swing the results of the elections?

How ironical it is that we continue to nurse a paranoia against refugees on the one hand, while raging against the tightening of visa rules for Indian immigrants to the West on the other hand.

Even as we scream ourselves hoarse about European countries that will not give refuge to Syrians fleeing the war, about children being separated from their mothers by American border control authorities, we are doing exactly the same thing to Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshi Hindus.

In the fervour of jingoism that passes for patriotism in a country that is not even a century old, we have just caused four million people to cease to exist, made them ghosts in their own land.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.