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Here is why NRC is an essential exercise for Assam

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Surprisingly, Assam remained calm, contrary to expectation, after the release of the draft NRC on 30th July. The NRC is the ‘National Register of Citizens’ that will contain the names of Indian citizens of Assam. The recent exercise (2014-16) is the updation of NRC 1951 across Assam in order to identify illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Everyone, whose names appeared in the NRC 1951, or in any of the Electoral Rolls up to 24 March 1971 or in any other admissible documents till 1971, will be included in the list. These documents are collectively called Legacy Data.

As soon as it was announced that 40 lakh names were excluded from the draft list, it attracted the attention of the nation for all wrong reasons. Most of the discussions or reporting on this topic in national media was flawed without any understanding about the genesis of the NRC.

There is a need to clear a few points before delving into the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of NRC.

  1. NRC is not a Hindu-Muslim issue or an Assamese-Bengali issue. It is about detecting illegal immigrants that have entered Assam irrespective of religion or language.
  2. This list is just a draft and not the final list. So, the question about what happens to these people after detection does not arise yet.
  3. All the 40 lakh people excluded from the list are not illegal immigrants. It seems politicians reacted too soon without knowing the details – some claiming credit and some declaring bloodbath. Many genuine Indians and even some indigenous people of Assam found their names missing because of problems in legacy data. Delay in responding to request for legacy data from other states also resulted in the exclusion of some Indians from other states. It is reported that West Bengal failed to verify the legacy data of about one lakh people not on the list.
  4. It is really foolish that some well-known journalists tried to draw similarities between illegal immigrants living in Assam to those Indian professionals living in US. The Indian professionals working in the US are there with valid documents and work permits and they are not illegal immigrants. If these professionals are found to be illegal, they will be immediately deported or put in jail. So, the people of Assam have been quite generous with these illegal Bangladeshis.
  5. A large number of illegal immigrants is reported to be in the NRC draft list. For example, about 200 suspected foreigners from Morigaon belonging to 39 families with cases pending in foreigners tribunals made it to the NRC draft. So, to brand everyone in the list as genuine citizens and those not in the list as illegal immigrants is absolutely misleading.
  6. No political party can claim credit; the NRC was initiated and supervised by the Supreme Court.

Why was such registration of citizens felt in Assam? To understand the question, we have to start at the beginning. Assam underwent major socio-political change with British annexation in 1826. The British needed native bureaucrats familiar with their administrative system to run the state. Thus, a large number of Bengali Babus came into the state to help with the administration but they were not familiar with the local language. Assamese, the local language, has a long history of its existence.

However, the Bengali Babus convinced the British that it is a mere dialect and managed to get Bengali as the official language in 1837. Interestingly, the first protest against this official language came from Christian missionaries who realized that they could not use Bengali to spread their teachings. Later with the help of elite Assamese intellectuals, the Assamese language got the rightful place in 1873. This long period of 36 years from 1837 to 1873 is known as the darkest period of Assamese language. This resulted in permanent distrust between the two communities of Assamese and Bengalis.

Despite this, Bengali continued to be the medium of instruction in middle grades until the close of the 19th century. The struggle for the language continued even after independence.

The official language movement started by All Assam Students’ Federation (student association of Gauhati) in 1960 is famously known as ‘Bhasa Andolan’. The student body submitted its demand to the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during his visit to Gauhati University in April 1960. There were widespread protests and processions. Finally, the Assamese Official Language Bill was passed in the Assembly on October 10, 1960. It is not known if any local language of the state had to undergo such struggle to get recognized as the official language.

Assam witnessed an unmanageable influx of migrants from East Pakistan right after the country’s partition 1947. The influx continued unabated due to porous border. It was considered prudent to prepare the NRC in 1950. Much later, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) took the initiative and demanded updation of NRC as they started the Anti Foreigners’ Movement in 1979 in order to weed out the illegal immigrants from the state. The six years long popular mass movement led by AASU continued till 1985. The state government came down heavily on the agitators and we lost 885 young people during the movement. It was not a Hindu-Muslim conflict. There were several Assamese Muslim AASU leaders who lost their lives at that time. Some young men got frustrated with the non-violent movement and took up arms and formed United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). The memory of various army operations and the loss of many innocent lives during cross-fires remains painful.

The movement ended in 1985 with the signing of Assam Accord between AASU leaders and PM Rajiv Gandhi. The regional party came to power. There was a celebration all around. Little did these naïve Assamese realize that their struggle was all in vain. The central government was not serious about detecting illegal immigrants. Assam was placed under the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal ) Act, 1983 – famously known as IMDT Act. It was applicable only to the state of Assam whereas, in other states, detection of foreigners was done under The Foreigners Act, 1946. Unlike the Foreigners Act, the IMDT Act mandated that the burden of proving the citizenship or otherwise rested on the accuser and the police, not the accused. So, it became impossible to detect illegal immigrants in Assam. The effectiveness of NRC stood on three pillars – detection, deletion and deportation. The IMDT Act made the first step of Detection impossible rendering Assam Accord toothless.

Between 1971 and 1991, Assam’s Hindu population grew by 41% as against a growth of 77% of Muslim population. In 1998, Governor of Assam, Lt Gen S K Sinha, had sent a report to the centre highlighting the danger of large influx of immigrants. The governor warned, “This silent and invidious demographic invasion of Assam may result in the loss of the geo-strategically vital districts of lower Assam. ….It will then only be a matter of time when a demand for their merger with Bangladesh is made.”

The AASU tried taking up the issue with the NDA government and got an assurance from the Centre to update the NRC during the meeting in New Delhi on November 1999. However, nothing came out of it.

The IMDT Act was eventually challenged by Sarbananda Sonowal in courts in 2000. The Congress government at the state defended the Act and the case was argued by Kapil Sibal and later K K Venugupal. The Act was stuck down in 2005 by SC but the UPA government passed the ‘Foreigners (Tribunal) Amendment Order’ in 2006 that made detection impossible.

The IMDT Act led to the rapid rise of the immigrant population. According to the 2001 census, Muslims now constitute almost one-third of the population, a considerable increase from 24 per cent in 1971. The districts of Dhubri (74.9%), Barpeta (59%), Goalpara (54%), Karimganj (52%), Hailakandi(57%) already have a Muslim majority population with districts of Bongaigaon (39%), Cachar (36%), Darrang (35%) and Marigaon (47.5%) close to a Muslim majority.

In 2005, the illegal immigration issue was raised by AASU again. A tripartite meeting between the officials of Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), State government and AASU representatives took place after AASU threatened to boycott PM’s visit to the state to flag off the first Indo-ASEAN car rally. After the meeting, both the then Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh committed to updating the NRC by September 2007. However, neither the Centre nor the State, both ruled by the Congress at that time, took any steps.

It was the PIL filed by Assam Public Works (APW), an NGO, on July 20, 2009, that finally revived the NRC process. Thanks to these individual efforts, the Supreme Court started the hearings. Eventually, AASU also became a party to the case. The bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi took up the matter seriously and forced the authorities to start NRC in time bound manner.

In 2010, a pilot project of NRC was taken up in Chaygaon and Barpeta circles which were abandoned soon after protests and violence started instigated by interested groups. NRC was put in cold storage once again by the state administration.

This very changing demographics in Kokrajhar resulted in the Muslim-Bodo clashes in 2012 and in 2014 where indigenous Bodos had their land encroached by Bangladeshi immigrants. The national media though tried to give it the colour of Hindu-Muslim riot without understanding the underlying reasons.

Finally, the NRC updation started in 2015 after a directive was given by the apex court in 2013. Even though this NRC process was forced to start during the Congress regime, Congress party did not come out in support of the draft list. On the other hand, Mamata Banerjee of TMC made some ridiculous and very provocative comments trying to incite an Assamese-Bengali conflict. The comments from political parties helped reinforce a wrong perception among many in the rest of the country.

There may be many reasons to find fault with the draft list. The primary one is the absence of any strategy regarding what to do with the people once detected as illegal immigrants. But the intent cannot be questioned. It is one of the most rigorously carried out process where one has to prove his residency since 1971.

As more details about the names in the list become public, it is feared that illegal immigrants might have managed to get their names in the list as they had all fake official documents with them to prove their legacy data. This was done during the time they were settled as vote banks with the help of state machinery. While, many Indians, blue-blooded Assamese do not have their names on the list. Particularly women had difficulty in proving their legacy data. As most of the housewives misplaced their college/ school certificates, missed putting their name in voters’ list and never bothered about any official identity card, this section of women did not have requisite documents. Few national and international media carried scathing pieces on how these poor, uneducated migrant women could not manage to have their names on the list. They can rest assured that most of those migrant women have official documents while genuine Indian women are facing problem. It is already feared, in the state, that the NRC might have actually legalised these illegal immigrants.

Most probably, after verification, a few lakhs will be detected as illegal immigrants. Then, what did this NRC achieve? First, there may not be any more large-scale influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Second, securing the border may become imperative. Third, there may be demands from other states for a need of similar registry. Illegal migrants are not only a problem in Assam. There may be similar demands for protection of indigenous people from other NE states. Manipur has recently passed Manipur People’s Bill, 2018 that fixed 1951 as the base year for distinguishing the indigenous from non-indigenous which led to violent protests in Jiribam area.

The people of the state strongly oppose the Citizenship Act of 2016 that proposes to grant citizenship on the basis of religion. This will make Assam Accord of 1985 meaningless. The people of Assam will wait for the final list of NRC and pray that they do not have to bear the burden of another long anti-foreigners movement. The major political parties should come forward to support the people of the state if not for anything else, just for national security.

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