What is Assam’s National Register of Citizens Going to Achieve?
As many as 3.29 crore people from 68.27 lakh families have submitted over 6.5 crore documents with the government of Assam to prove their Indian citizenship. This massive exercise threatens to strip even genuine Indians of their citizenship if they are unable to produce documents that prove their ancestors resided in Assam before 1971.
Ostensibly, this bureaucratic nightmare is being justified with the aim to identify and segregate illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Politically, however, it offers a polarised religious and regional plank on which elections are fought, won and lost.
But what necessitated Assam’s second head-count since 1951? Why has it left countless Indian citizens who own even the holy grail of all identities – The Aadhaar –feeling insecure and vulnerable? How did the Supreme Court of India allow this? And what will happen to those who are unable to prove Assamese ancestry? With suggestions like “mass deportations” being proposed by those high up in the state BJP government, the hyperbole has left families facing the prospect of being torn apart.
Here’s how we got here.
What is the National Register of Citizens?
In 1951, the first census of Independent India was conducted. The original NRC was a register prepared after the 1951 Census, which recorded the particulars of those who belonged to Assam. This list was compiled with data from each village showing the houses or holdings in a serial order and indicating against each house or holding, the number and names of persons who were staying there at the time.
These registers were kept in the offices of deputy commissioners and sub-divisional officers, but in the 1960s these registers were handed to the police.
What Necessitated an NRC Exclusive to Assam?
The 1951 NRC was compiled exclusively for Assam on the basis of the fears expressed by Assamese nationalist leaders who feared a post-Partition conspiracy by Pakistan to effect a demographic change in Assam.
Historically, however, colonial Assam (1826-1947) has witnessed a steady influx of migrants. From the mid-19th century onwards, the British brought in migrant workers from the adjoining areas which include present-day Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, parts of Bihar, Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh to work in the newly-opened tea plantations.
In 1904, the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, divided Bengal into three provinces – West Bengal, East Bengal and Assam. The division was, on the face of it, for administrative efficiency. On the ground, the division prompted another wave of migration with Muslim farmers from East Bengal pouring into Muslim-dominated Assam.
At the time of Independence, the Muslim League wanted Assam to be a part of East Pakistan. But this was successfully blocked thanks to the efforts of Gopinath Bordoloi, Mahatama Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
Post independence, there were attempts by successive chief ministers of Assam to expel illegal migrants (read: mostly Muslims) who had settled in the state post 1951 and it led to considerable strife with the Centre, headed by Prime Minister Nehru. Regardless, at least two lakh illegal migrants were expelled from the state during this period.
The Liaqat-Nehru pact signed between PM Nehru and his Pakistani counterpart Liaqat Ali Khan is also credited for contributing to migration into Assam. The treaty stated that minorities in both countries would be treated equally and also granted them freedom of movement.
And then, there was 1971. The Bangladesh liberation movement sent lakhs of Muslims from East Pakistan into Assam and West Bengal. Nearly 10 million Bangladeshis –mostly Hindus – fled murder, rape and forced conversion to Islam. Subsequently, Muslim families began migrating to escape poverty.
After the 1971 India-Pakistan war and the liberation of Bangladesh, the Congress government in the state and at the Centre made several efforts, but failed to send the illegal migrants back to the newly-founded country.
What's Happening Now?
The Citizenship Act of 1951 was amended in 2009 and 2010 to empower the National Register of Citizens to ascertain the Indian citizenship of those who reside in or belong to Assam. Even those who live away from Assam, but trace their ancestry to the state have been encouraged to apply for authentication of their citizenship with the NRC.
How Exactly is One’s Citizenship Being Ascertained?
Eligibility to Indian citizenship is being ascertained on the basis of the NRC compiled in 1951 and electoral rolls up to 1971. In the absence of electoral rolls, other documents up to 24 March (midnight) 1971 can also be submitted. These other documents include land and tenancy records, citizenship certificates, permanent residential certificates and passports.
In case of an applicant born after 1971, documents pertaining to one’s ancestor, namely father, mother, and so on, can be submitted. Additionally, documents proving the relationship, such as a birth certificate or land documents, will also have to be attached.
Why has 24 March 1971 Been Set as the Cut-Off Date?
To apply for inclusion in the NRC, one’s name or one’s ancestor’s name must be in the 1951 NRC or in any voter list up to 24 March 1971 midnight. This was the cut-off agreed upon in the Assam Accord piloted by the Rajiv Gandhi government, since 25 March 1971 is when the Bangladesh Liberation War began.
The Assam Accord was signed between the Centre, the All Assam Students Union and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad on 15 August 1985 and ended the 1979-1985 agitation against illegal migrants. During these agitations, the state, according to The Hans India, witnessed “political instability, collapse of successive state governments, imposition of President’s rule, violent agitation, frequent general strikes, civil disobedience campaigns which paralysed all normal life for prolonged periods and unprecedented ethnic violence.”
But the Assam Accord laid out a rather complex three-point mechanism to determine Indian citizenship and segregate illegal migrants. It proposed the following:
1. All residents of Assam who entered the state until 1 January 1966 would be regularised.
2. Those who came between 1966 and 25 March 1971 would be disenfranchised for ten years.
3. Foreigners who came to Assam on or after 25 March 1971 would continue to be detected and deported.
Although the Assam Accord broke a deadlock with the All Assam Students Union (now also a political party known as the Asom Gana Parishad that fought and won subsequent elections), successive governments failed to implement it. However, the third point of the Accord became the basis for the latest exercise to identify illegal migrants during the May 2005 meeting which was a turning point in the movement to preserve Assam’s demography.
In May 2005, representatives of the Union government, the State government and the All Assam Students’ Union met in the presence of Dr Manmohan Singh and decided that the electoral rolls of 1971 would be used to decide who is an Indian citizen and who isn’t.
This was even ratified by the Assam Assembly that passed a resolution via a voice vote on 18 March 2010. The resolution urged the Centre to update the National Register of Citizens of 1951 by taking the 1971 electoral roll as the basis.
What Will Happen to Those Found 'Illegal'?
In the run up to the 2014 General Election, Narendra Modi had warned illegal Bangladeshi migrants to have their bags packed. “I will make such an arrangement that all the roads that are today helping Bangladeshis enter and destroy Assam are closed, he had said.
Today, even as the NRC authentication process is on, there is radio silence from the Modi government.
The BJP government in the state meanwhile, has not moved on beyond the rhetoric.
State Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who’s also in charge of the citizenship register told Reuters that mass deportations were on the cards. “All those whose names do not figure in the NRC will have to be deported. We’re taking no chances and hence all security measures have been taken,” he said.
In 2014, the Supreme Court of India has directed the Indian government to find a diplomatic solution with Bangladesh to ease the deportation of Bangla migrants; and while an extradition treaty was used to deport United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) leader Anup Chetia, the need for an SOP has not yet figured on the agendas of either countries. In any case, one can deport a person from one country to another only when the receiving country agrees that person is in fact its citizen, but Bangladesh has consistently denied migration, leaving the prospect of a diplomatic solution rather bleak.
Currently, the Indian Prime Minister enjoys a bonhomie with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina Wajid, who’s also readying for a crucial election in 2018. Considering the subject of deportation rakes up anti-India sentiment in Bangladesh, raising the need for a deportation mechanism at this point will not help India-Bangladesh relations.
The Assam Accord proposed the disenfranchisement of ‘foreigners’ for a period of 10 years. But this isn’t what one would call an end-all solution to a long-term problem.
Experts say that considering most of the migration today is prompted by economic reasons, work permits could be a way out for those who cannot produce the necessary documents to prove their Indian lineage.