2,89,83,667 people have been found eligible for citizenship in the final draft of Assam’s National Registry of Citizens (NRC) released at 10 am on July 30, 2018. The second draft decided the fate of half of the total 3,29,9,384 applicants who did not make it to the first list published in December last year. This is a second such exercise in Assam after the 1951 registry of all legal Indian citizens as per the 1951 census.
The task of drafting the registry began in September 2013 to update the NRC to detect who is a genuine Indian citizen and who is an undocumented immigrant. According to the 1985 Assam Accord signed between the All Assam Student’s Union and Rajiv Gandhi government, March 24, 1971 was fixed as the cut off date to detect the Bangladeshi nationals who may have entered the State illegally.
Around 40 lakh people have been left out in the final list declaring them stateless. This is a first legal exercise in the world that will strip such a massive population of citizenship in a single day. The present exercise is the result of a 2009 PIL filed by A Guwahati based NGO Assam Public Works which claimed that 4.1 million illegal Bangladeshi have found their way into the State. Earlier in 1979, a statistic declaring 50 percent growth in Assam’s population in less than a decade triggered 6 year-long agitation against illegal migrants which claimed 8 lives and resulted into the 1985 Assam Accord.
While the natives rejoiced the process, fear engulfed the Bengali speaking population consisting of both Hindus and Muslims who have often been viewed as illegal immigrants. They have faced discrimination over the years with hundreds of them being locked up in detention centres for being declared as the foreigners by the Foreign Tribunals set up in 1964. Since 1985, around 100 Foreign Tribunals in Assam have declared more than 92,000 individuals as foreigners.
Those declared foreigners along with their family members have been left out of the NRC creating apprehensions in their minds. The fact that there have been many lapses on the part of the tribunals while dealing with such cases cannot be ignored. In the recent past, descendants of first deputy speaker of Assam and a retired junior commissioned officer of Indian Army were served notices requiring them to prove their Indian citizenship.
Another 1,25,333 persons have been left out of the NRC who were disenfranchised after the revision of the electoral rolls. Such persons are called D-voters or doubtful voters whose name have been removed from the electoral rolls for their alleged lack of proper citizenship credentials. Many of them have been erroneously declared d-voters with their names spelt wrong in the electoral rolls or other clerical errors. Inclusion of D- voters in the NRC is subject to decision of the Foreign Tribunals. This has led to the poor selling their land and other belongings to jot out the money required to fight the legal battle. Few have been reported to have committed suicide failing to bear the financial burden of the getting the D-tag removed.
The fate of the 40 lakh now hangs in a limbo. They have been stripped of their right to vote, to property and to state benefits. Declared stateless, they belong to nowhere and face deportation, probably to Bangladesh. The only silver lining they have is that it is a draft and not a final list. They will get a chance to prove their citizenship before the Foreign Tribunal before a final list is published by the year-end.
The task ahead is daunting if anything. While on one hand, those excluded have to build up financial sources to fight the legal battle, on the other hand, there are just 100 Foreign Tribunals to deal with 40 lakh cases. This will take years to complete the process with further appeals in higher courts.
Amid all the chaos is the fear of attempts to convert the citizenship battle into a religious one. With those left out being mostly Muslims, a communal narrative is being created to stir up violence. Proposed amendments in the Citizenship Act, 1955 to provide citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan is being viewed in the State as aimed to protect the Hindu migrants from Bangladesh while deliberately leaving out the Muslims to suffer.
Till now, the people of Assam have acted sensibly avoiding any provocation to react on any religious narrative given to the issue of citizenship. But the fear still prevails in the society and without any effort on the part of the government to clarify the perception of discrimination against any community, a threat to the social fabric of our nation will prevail.