Monday, November 29, 2021

The social havoc called NRC in Assam

Assam citizenship issue appears to be burning without any proper solution in the sight for decades. The fate of 19,06,657 people excluded from the updated list in National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam continues to hang in the balance.

Because of continuous influx of the ‘immigrants’ from Bangladesh, the demand for updating the NRC of 1951 was first raised in 1980. There was a huge anti-foreigners Assam Agitation spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) which led to killing of several people in police firings.

After the Assam Accord of 1985 was  signed between the Centre and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) for detection, disenfranchisement and deportation of foreigners, an exercise to prepare the registrar for citizens was undertaken only in Assam state, as the Supreme Court was issuing instructions from time to time. According to Article 6 of the Constitution, the cut-off date for migration to India from Pakistan is July 19, 1948 whereas according to the 1985 accord, in Assam, that borders Bangladesh, it is March 24, 1971.

In 2009, an  NGO called Assam Public Works (APW) filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking the updating of citizenship register. Then a notification was issued in December 2013. The complete NRC was published on August 31, 2019, after some 55,000 officials sifted the applications of 3.3 crore people across 2,500 NRC Seva Kendras on the basis of documents to establish them as residents of Assam before the midnight of March 24, 1971 — the cut-off date for determining citizenship according to the Assam Accord of 1985.

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The Final NRC launched

On 31 August 2019 the havoc in Assam social life has been launched in the name of NRC wherein, more than 19 lakh of the 3.29 crore applicants in Assam were left out. It took five years, costed Rs 1,220 crore and claimed 60 lives. It is estimated that people might have spent Rs 7,800 crore on hearings.

Some two years ago, on 30 July 2018, an NRC draft was published. The eligible were 2,89,83,677 people and 40,007,707 were excluded. Then claims poured in from 36,26,630 people against exclusions. Verification was also carried out of persons included in the draft NRC under Clause 4(3) of the Schedule of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003. There were objections against the inclusion of 1,87,633 people in the draft. Another additional draft of exclusions with 1,02,462 names was published on June 26.

The Congress Government initiated the process of NRC in Assam and BJP continued the process of NRC, as the Supreme Court was reviewing the progress of the process throughwrits of continuous mandamus. After the final register was published, more than 19 lakh people’s citizenship became doubtful and with all defects and deficiencies in assessment several native Indian genuine citizens were getting the status of ‘non-citizen’ in the beginning and if the Foreigners Tribunal officers are not convinced with the evidence of the applicants, they might end up in detention centres with the tag of foreigners.

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The government had appointed 221 members (judge-like status) for these FTs in August 2019 and their one-year term is unlikely to be extended.The AASU has also resented the delay in setting up 200 new FTs sanctioned for handling the cases of the NRC rejects.The Foreigner’s Tribunal is not a judiciary court, but a non-judicial body headed by a former bureaucrat. If they also consider somebody as foreigner, the remedy left to the victim is the writ petition before the Assam High Court, over which an appeal will lie to Supreme Court. Depending upon affordability the excluded citizen will take case to apex court if not he would end up in detention centre without any specific term prescribed.

Published in the Hindu on August 31, 2019. A woman is on her way to check her name in the final list of the National Register of Citizens at Pabhokathi village in Assam’s Morigaon district on August 31, 2019.   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar
Published in the Hindu on August 31, 2019. A woman is on her way to check her name in the final list of the National Register of Citizens at Pabhokathi village in Assam’s Morigaon district on August 31, 2019. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Serious Defects

Compilation of NRC in Assam was criticised for its defects. The BJP government in Assam also did not agree with the way the NRC exercise conducted in Assam. It demanded reverification of 30 per cent of names which are included in the NRC in the territory bordering Bangladesh and 10 per cent in other areas of the state.

Almost everyone in Kamrup district’s Goroimari block knows Jabeda Begum (50 years), who was declared a foreigner in western Assam’s Baksa district. Her name became the template of despair for those left out of the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC).

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The defects in the listing are very serious. While parents are included in the final list, their children are excluded saying they are illegal immigrants. When the issue was brought before the Supreme Court, it gave a strong direction on January 6, 2020 that children excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam but whose parents/guardians/caregivers are part of the final list, should not be sent to detention camps or separated from their loved ones at any cost.

In this petition filed by NGO Citizens for Justice and Peace, the Bench led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde, has asked the Attorney General K.K. Venugopal to record an undertaking before the court.

The NGO, submitted that they represented the case of 60 children they knew whose names have been excluded from the NRC. “All their documents were shown. Despite this, their names were not found in the final NRC list. Their parents’ names are there in the list. Will these children be sent to detention camps? asked Senior Lawyer Aparna Bhat, representing the NGO.

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The NGO submitted that the NRC had identified “specific categories of already marginalised persons” who had been excluded. These included children excluded from the NRC final list even as their parents and relatives were included; orphaned children excluded from the NRC who did not reside in State orphanages or homes; children excluded from the NRC who were from disconnected families and stayed with close or distant relatives; and parents excluded from the NRC when children were included.

Human Sufferings          

Ali and his three brothers were listed among rejected persons. They have been trying to salvage any document they might have missed while applying for inclusion in the NRC. One Ms Begum has been absconding as her petition was dismissed. That’s what she can do, and she has to hide herself for a life time to live in India.  Mr. Ali and thousands like him lose hope if the NRC authorities prepare to issue rejection and they have nothing to show that they are citizens.

During the updating exercise, the NRC authority had listed 14 documents as admissible. These included the NRC of 1951, which Ms. Begum had submitted (of her parents), electoral rolls up to the midnight of March 24, 1971, land and revenue records, citizenship certificate and refugee registration certificate. An additional list of admissible documents includes ration card and certificate from circle officer of Gram Panchayat secretary in case of married women. “What can we show beyond those we have already shown? What will stop them from finding fault with the fresh documents we submit?” said petty trader Jamaluddin. All 26 members of his family were excluded because his father’s name had minor alphabetical changes in different “admissible” documents possibly due to clerical errors.

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How to prove?

It is difficult to prove when they came to India.  Kamal Chakraborty, the leader of the Unconditional Citizenship Demand Committee based in southern Assam’s Silchar, a Bengali-dominated town says: “Many NRC-rejected Bengali Hindus have been living in Assam before 1971. The CAA is no guarantee for their inclusion, as they will first have to declare themselves as refugees who entered Assam between 1971 and 2014, which they are not”.He further said: “It will be a long legal battle for them, perhaps never-ending, that will kill them and their descendants financially and psychologically.”

The problem may not be resolved at Foreigner’s tribunal. All Assam Minority Students’ Union president Rejaul Karim Sarkar told the media that “excluded will have to go the FTs, which will be like jumping from the frying pan to the fire,”

The Amnesty International had cited in September 2019, an Assam government’s assessment report that said members are retained or fired depending upon how many people they mark as foreigners.

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Using the name of Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has directed the process to continue, which does not mean SC has done the actual ground processing. But the BJP has put the onus on the Supreme Court. While the Ministry always tags their letter with “NRC prepared as per directions of NRC”. Can they say that the defects in listing have the approval of Supreme Court?

“No organisation in Assam is happy with the NRC list and a petition is pending in the apex court for re-verification of at least 10% of the names in districts where demographic changes have been drastic. We are waiting for the Supreme Court’s guidance,” the party’s spokesperson Rupam Goswami said.

“How can you accept this NRC that has included the names of illegal Bangladeshis? We have petitioned for 100% re-verification of names, but with the involvement of corrupt officials and the government’s negligence, it seems no one wants a solution,” said APW president Aabhijeet Sharma.

The political analysts doubted that there is a political design in keeping the issue of “illegal migrants” burning for “yet another election”. The Congress party criticised the BJP for delaying the process after the complete list left out many non-Muslims.

“The government has hushed up NRC that was once their main issue. The BJP’s hidden agenda has been exposed after the exclusion of many Bengali Hindus who were flattered to deceive. The list did not go their way and they want the issue to linger for political mileage,” State Congress president Ripun Bora said.

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An official said laws existed to “detect, detain and deport illegal immigrants”, and the power to identify and deport the foreign nationals staying illegally had been delegated to the States. In November 2019, the State’s Finance Minister, HimantaBiswa Sarma, said Assam had asked the Centre to reject the updated final NRC in the State. According to human rights activist Harsh Mander, the NRC exercise, if conducted across the country, would be catastrophic for the social fabric and future of India as a secular, democratic republic.

Ineligible inclusions

On February 19, 2020, the National Register of Citizens (NRC)Coordinator Hitesh Dev Sarma wrote to the Deputy Commissioner (DC) and District Registrar of Citizen Registration of all the districts on the issue of an erroneous updating exercise and asked them to provide details of “ineligible persons” in the final list of citizens published on August 31, 2019 within 24 hours. The Hindu claimed that it has the copy of the letter and reported that the indigenous groups believe many illegal immigrants have made it to the NRC in the three Bengali-dominated southern Assam districts – Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj.

The ineligible persons were specified as DV (doubtful voters), DF (declared foreigners), PFT (cases pending in Foreigners’ Tribunal), DVD (descendants of DV), DFD and PFTD.

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NGO Assam Public Works (APW) petitioned the Supreme Court for a total reverification of the NRC. After hearing the 2009 petition of APW the Supreme Court monitored the exercise of updating the NRC of 1951. The same NGO is now claiming that 80 lakh illegal immigrants were included in the updated list.

Rejection letters: Another havoc

In entire country, the Assam is the only State where an National Register of Citizens was compiled, wherein more than 19 lakhs that were left out of the final register should get rejection letters. This process has taken five years at the cost of ₹1,220 crore.  In consequence of this, rejection slips must be issued, which did not begin. The reasons cited are Covid19, floods and the officers being very busy with elections. 

Issuance of Rejection slip is a problem and not a solution. A person who received rejection slip has to fight against such rejection claiming that they continue to be the citizen of India but wrongfully rejected. According to the Centre’s standard operating procedures, a rejected person would have 120 days from the date of receiving the rejection slip to approach a Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) for judging their citizenship status.

Begin issuance of rejection letters

A letter came from the office of the Registrar General of India (RGI) under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA to Assam Home Secretary S.R. Bhuyan on March 23 stating that the supplementary list of exclusions and inclusions were published on August 31, 2019 on the directions of the Supreme Court.  In spite of the objections of the State Government and stiff opposition the Union decided to issue rejection slips. In this letter, the joint director asked the Assam government to assess the software used for managing the register and discontinue the ones not required. The letter said the State government’s requirement of ₹3.22 crore per month for the upkeep of records appeared to be “too high” and also asked to discontinue the additional staff.Even as the Assembly elections are undergoing the Union Government is insisting on issuance of rejection letters to those people who are excluded from the citizens.

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Is there any remedy for rejected?

The Centre says rejected people have legal remedies. “The Centre has clarified that the rejected people remain Indian citizens until their cases are settled. They cannot be deprived of their voting and other rights although there are reports of a few people being denied passports,” said Aman Wadud, an advocate who has fought for people declared foreigners by the FTs.

Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Choudhury, chairman of the Bar Council of Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, said the NRC had no legal validity until the Registrar General of India issued a gazette notification confirming the list.

“Because the NRC has not taken any legal shape, they cannot issue rejection order and no person can file an appeal. In its present form, the NRC is basically a ₹1,600 crore waste paper that drove many to suicide, made thousands of poor people poorer and be in perpetual fear of being ejected from their homes,” he said.

Thus, there are serious defects on either side, in exclusion from citizenship register and also in the inclusion. When Assam Government led by BJP is asking for 100 per cent verification and NGOs and others are questioning the defects, issuing the rejection letters and asking the rejected people to prove their case before FTs is absolutely unreasonable.

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One can imagine the havoc that NRC can cause if implemented all over the nation.

Timeline of the NRC Havoc in Assam

The following is the timeline of the immigration issue in Assam since Independence to the publication of the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) on Saturday, August 31,2019 as compiled by the Hindu on August 31, 2019.

  • 1950: Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act comes into force following influx of refugees from then East Pakistan to Assam after partition.
  • 1951: First Census of Independent India conducted.
  • Based on Census, first NRC compiled.
  • 1957: Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act repealed.
  • 1964-1965: Influx of refugees from East Pakistan due to disturbances in that country.
  • 1971: Fresh influx due to riot and war in East Pakistan. Independence Bangladesh comes into existence.
  • 1979-1985: Six-year-long Assam agitation, spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) for detection, disenfranchisement and deportation of foreigners.
  • 1983: Massacre at Nellie in Central Assam which claimed the lives of over 3,000 people. Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act passed.
  • 1985: Assam Accord signed by the Centre, the state, AASU and AAGSP in the presence of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. It stated, among other clauses, that foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 shall be expelled.
  • 1997: Election Commission decides to add ‘D’ (doubtful) against names of voters whose claim to Indian citizenship is doubtful.
  • 2005: Supreme Court strikes down IMDT Act as unconstitutional. Tripartite meeting among Centre, state government and AASU decides to update 1951 NRC. But no major development takes place.
  • 2009: Assam Public Works (APW), an NGO, files case in Supreme Court praying for deletion of foreigners’s name in electoral rolls and updation of NRC.
  • 2010: Pilot project starts in Chaygaon, Barpeta to update NRC. Project successful in Chaygaon. Four killed in violence in Barpeta. Project shelved.
  • 2013: Supreme Court takes up APW petition, directs Centre, state to begin the process for updating NRC. NRC State Coordinator’s office set up.
  • 2015: Updation of NRC process begins.
  • 2017: On December 31 midnight, Draft NRC published with names of 1.9 crore of total 3.29 crore applicants.
  • July 30, 2018: Another Draft NRC published, 40 lakh of 2.9 crore people excluded.
  • June 26, 2019: Publication of Additional Draft Exclusion List of 1,02,462 released.
  • August 31, 2019: Final NRC released.

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Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu
Author is Dean, Professor of law at Mahindra University at Hyderabad and former Central Information Commissioner. He published a number books in English and Telugu.

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