NRC’s political googly: Assam’s NRC mess of unintended consequences changes politics as usual in the north-east

Illustration: Uday Deb
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Imagine if you and your family have lived in your town for decades and you possess a legitimate Indian passport, Aadhaar card or ration card. Yet, if you can’t demonstrate that your parents or grandparents or other family members had a legitimate citizenship document that was valid before March 24, 1971, you would still be declared non-Indian.

Now imagine if you did have your father’s citizenship document, but the name spelling there was slightly different from how his name is written in your ID document. You would still be declared non-Indian. For those in the rest of India trying to make sense of the daily headlines from Assam, this, in a nutshell, is what the National Register of Citizens (NRC) conundrum is all about.

Now imagine if you are not well-to-do. Your family migrated to Assam from, say Kanpur, 40 years ago, you didn’t keep detailed family documents and you don’t have contacts or connections. You would suddenly find yourself in the same position as someone who entered illegally from Bangladesh.

This is why the NRC’s implementation has become such a political hot potato. It was meant to weed out illegal outsiders. Yet, as many as 19.07 lakh (almost 6% of the 3.29 crore who applied) were excluded from the final NRC list. Second, the rate of exclusions in the border districts with Bangladesh such as South Salmara (7.22%), Dhubri (8.26%) and Karimganj (7.57%) was much lower than districts like Karbi Anglong (14.31%) and Tinsukia (13.25%) where Assam’s bhumiputras have lived for centuries.

This is why Assam’s finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma says the NRC is a “mixed bag” and that “we are in sorrow”. It is also why both the state and central governments went to the Supreme Court earlier this year for reverification of the NRC list. That request was rejected but the state government is appealing to the court to reconsider.

The NRC is a legacy of the Assam Accord of 1985 and the Assam movement that preceded it. A key demand of that movement against ‘foreigners’ was for ‘detection, deletion and deportation’ of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. It was a demand that was specifically coded into the Assam Accord signed by the Rajiv Gandhi-led central government.

The last Assam government under Tarun Gogoi tried to start a project to update the 1951 NRC list with a pilot project in 2010 in Barpeta and Kamrup. It was put on the backburner after serious pushback. Things changed only after the Supreme Court mandated an updation exercise in 2013 after a writ petition filed by Assam Public Works. The exercise began in early 2015 and the court has been constantly monitoring the exercise since then. It has reportedly cost over Rs 1,220 crore, engaged 40,000 government employees, 8,200 contractual employees and took over five years.

What does it mean now? First, nobody is happy with the result. Law-abiding citizens have been seriously discomfited. The overall number of illegals identified is too low and the demographic spread of those who failed the NRC test is different from what political parties expected.

No one can defend exclusions like the case of Mohammad Sanaullah, who served the Indian Army for 30 years and the Assam border police before suddenly being declared an illegal. Or the case of 79-year-old Sunirmal Bagchi who was honoured in the state government’s Independence Day roll of honour before finding his name off the NRC. Or seven-year-old Somiara who has been facing “Bangladeshi” taunts because she was excluded from the NRC even though both her parents made it onto the list.

Second, though Congress could have made political capital, the state BJP has been ahead in seizing the political narrative so far. It positioned itself as an aggressive defender of locals against illegal outsiders. Now that the NRC is a mess, it is equally positioning itself as the defender of those who have been wrongly left out in the implementation. The state government made the district-wise NRC-exclusion numbers public in the state assembly on August 1, though the apex court got these earlier in a sealed cover. It is now arguing that 200 new foreigner tribunals being set up can be used to provide relief to those wrongly left out.

Centrally, home minister Amit Shah at the North Eastern Council meeting was guarded but specific in his first post NRC-publication comments: “Questions are being raised about the NRC by different sections but today I just want to say this that the BJP-led government is committed to ensure that not a single illegal immigrant enters the region.” The political messaging is unambiguous.

Third, in terms of protections for its Hindu base, BJP during the elections promised the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which envisaged citizenship to persecuted minority groups from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan after six years of residence in India. It could conceivably be revived. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during the Lok Sabha campaign, also promised scheduled tribe status to six communities: Tai Ahom, Matak, Moran, Chutia, Koch Rajbongshi and the tea tribes.

Fourth, it is difficult to oppose the principle of a citizenship register. The huge implementation problems in Assam, however, point to serious practical pitfalls. The big lesson is that India’s weak state apparatus did not prove robust enough for a strong state solution like this. BJP’s Delhi unit chief Manoj Tiwari recently demanded an NRC in the capital as well. It would be prudent to learn from the Assam example and not try it elsewhere in the country. We must fix the state’s backend first before such ambitious programmes.

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