Monday, September 16, 2019

NRC and the Citizenship Conundrum in Assam


Parvin Sultana

On 31st August the much awaited final list of National Register of Citizens was published. In this final list, out of the total applicants of 3.3 crores, the names of almost 3 crores and 11 lakhs have been included while a whopping number of 19 lakh people have been left out. On 30th July, 2018, the final draft of NRC was published and it had left out 40 lakh people. While political leaders like Amit Shah jumped to call these 40 lakh people ‘ghuspethiya’, they were given time to claim their inclusion. Based on this, the final list has been prepared.

National Register of Citizens was prepared for the first time in 1951 and exclusively for the state of Assam owing to large scale movement of people. However even in 1951, NRC was not prepared for certain areas in the state. It was also anything but inclusive. It left out the names of a large number of people who fled the post independence violence. These people were allowed to return to the country by virtue of Nehru Liaquat pact. The National Register of Citizens has not been updated since then. It was however a demand of the All Assam Students Union who spearheaded the six years long Assam Movement demanding deportation of illegal immigrants who entered the country after 24th March, 1971 and a condition incorporated in the Assam Accord.

The process was finally taken up in 2010. However the pilot project in Barpeta led to violence and the death of four protestors. The updation was again started in 2015 and since then more than 50,000 state employees have worked to finish it. The entire process was excessively technocratic and obsessively dependant on documents. This was a problem in a place where literacy rate continues to be low and yearly floods, large-scale displacement is a yearly affair. Even amidst such difficulty people showed submitted documents to put an end to the politics of illegal immigrants once and for all.

People were asked to submit documents either to prove their presence in the state prior to 1971 or their relationship to a person who was a resident of the state before the said cut off. Also families were asked to submit family trees which were later verified and cross examined. To find legacy data, people from rural parts of the Assam depended largely on computer cafes. This also led to many cases of mistaken identity and wrong legacy data being used. 

The government counted publication of final list of NRC as one of its achievements of the first 100 days of being in power. But is everything fine with the final list? Who are these 19 lakhs who have been left out? Are they illegal immigrants who have been the fodder of Assam politics for all these years? While government is busy thumping itself for this ‘achievement’, the state has spiralled into another chaotic situation. A closer look at the list and the people who have been left out throws very random results.

It seems that of the 19 lakh people, a large number are Bengali Hindus followed by Assamese Muslims of East Bengal origin. Along with them there are people from indigenous communities of Assam like the Koch Rajbongshis, Deshi Muslims, Bodos, Reyangs, Hajongs etc along with a substantial number of Nepalis who failed to make it to the final list. As stated by Suhas Chakma, Director of Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RAAG), Reyangs who are traditionally into shifting cultivation failed to provide land documents and their women were largely left out for not being able to provide proper identity documents. There are many such cases which show how women and children have doubly suffered for being unable to provide adequate documents.

The family members of Declared Foreigners and Doubtful Voters who are undergoing trial in Foreigners’ Tribunals have been left out. However there are many examples which saw the exclusion of one or two members of a family for some minor discrepancy. Young children whose parents’ names have been included have been left out. Women from neighbouring states like Meghalaya, West Bengal were left out. Bengali Hindus who fled Bangladesh during their war of independence were not included because their sole document – the Migration certificate, or certificates issued from Refugee camps were not accepted. 

Also a large number of people made mistakes like inputing the wrong legacy number. However when they stake claim to ensure that their names are included, they were not allowed to change the legacy person. Interestingly the state co-ordinator of NRC Prateek Hajela stated that this was to ensure that there is no duplicacy of legacy persons. But in cases where the legacy person was wrong, the families claims were not taken into consideration and they were left out in the final list.   

These people will be given time to challenge their exclusion from NRC. But they will have to appeal at Foreigners’ Tribunals which are quasi judicial bodies. The government recently set up 200 more FTs across the state and the final decision on a person’s citizenship will be given by the FTs. However, this has left people more concerned than assured. There have been many accusations of unfair, ex parte judgement declaring Indians as foreigners. Many such declared foreigners found respite only in higher courts. When most of the people left out are from poorer sections, expecting that they will go to higher courts is being dismissive of their financial conditions.

Another reason for concern is that Foreigners Tribunals have been given discretionary powers to decide whether an appeal will be accepted or dismissed. This is problematic as the FTs may dismiss cases even before they are heard in courts. We are still awaiting for modalities on which such appeals can be dismissed. There is also the need to ensure that the FT courts deliver justice and work in an impartial and transparent way. 

NRC as a procedure is inherently exclusionary as it aims to differentiate between ‘us’ and the ‘others’. It is a manifestation of narrow nationalism and exclusivist sub-nationalism, it is also biased against the poor and the illiterate. Despite this, it was hoped especially by people from border districts that it will spare them persistent humiliation. There have been cases where poor migrant labourers from Dhubri, Goalpara in lower Assam have been harassed and beaten up when they moved to work in other parts of Assam. For these people NRC was a boon which promised to put an end to such humiliation. But their ordeal is anything but over. The response to NRC has been from mild suspicion to outright rejection. The focus has been more on alleged inclusion of foreigners rather than genuine exclusion of Indians for lack of documents. There is already demand of complete re-verification of the list from groups like Assam Public Works which is a party to the case. 

While such an exclusionary process cannot be exalted for any reason, the list did succeed in busting some myths. Before this, there was no such exercise to actually find out the number of foreigners. Political leaders quoted fantastic data from 20 to 80 lakhs of foreigners in Assam based on no documentary evidence. This list should put such absurd claims to an end. Political leaders who build up their careers on the ‘invading Bangladeshis’ are finding it difficult to accept the final list of NRC. 

Another issue that should concern one and all is what will be done to people who cannot prove their citizenship beyond doubt even after exhausting all legal options? They cannot be repatriated as India has no bilateral treaty with Bangladesh. Will they be detained for their entire lives in the newly set up detention centres? How will that reflect on the world’s largest democracy? Or will they be stripped of voting rights and given only the right to work – paving the way for the creation of second class citizens? Such step might push a substantial number of people in a political limbo and create a law and order situation and human rights crisis.

NRC though initially thought to bring an end to the long term problem of illegal foreigners issues, have in fact given rise to newer ones – pushing the state’s politics again into murkier waters. If FT courts are given a free hand in disposing cases of foreigners, it will take years and the problem of illegal immigrants will continue to simmer. Instead authority should have taken steps to sort problems at the level of NRC Seva Kendras. Should a family whose one or two members have been left out go to FT? Such exclusions have been a result of minor discrepancies in documents which are often the fault of enumerators and not the people concerned. In such a case making families go through arduous lengthy legal procedure which will incur huge financial burdens is a bad idea. It is time systemic harassment in the name of finding foreigners end once and for all. If not, then 5 years and 1600 crores later we have not had achieved much.

The Author is working as an Assistant Professor at P B College, Gauripur in Assam. She can be reached at parvin.jnu@gmail.com

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