There will never be a final National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC is only a tool of citizenship. It can be replaced. New tools will be manufactured with different faces and names. The method of NRC is used both by the state and the Assamese nationalists alike. It is also a reference for the future. Ranjan Gogoi once said that NRC will be a ‘base document’ for the future. This future is now unfolding towards a new NRC.
There is a general consensus in Assam that NRC should be reverified. This demand to re-verify has taken different forms and has been in the picture for a while now. Now, the ball has moved into a new court, that of a fresh or new NRC. The current BJP government and the All Assam Students' Union (AASU), both desire a fresh NRC.
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma recently , “We had said earlier also that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) should be reviewed and done afresh. We are in talks with AASU.”
What Even Is an 'Error-Free' NRC?
The reason is simple. The individuals, various organisations and the Assam government are not satisfied with the number of people excluded from the citizenship register. The official term cited is ‘error-free’ NRC. Can there ever be an ‘error-free’ NRC or a free and fair NRC? Does the state really want an error-free NRC? Didn’t error help the state and society harass the minorities and the poor in Assam? Isn’t it built into the system itself?
We ought not to read this claim of error as a useless thing. It allowed the state, authorities and vigilante groups in Assam to constantly use this to harass the blanketed and alleged “Bangladeshi”. Error is part of the larger discourse of doubt and the doubtful that the Indian state and society exercise to verify, identify, and exclude the minorities in Assam.
The original demand for NRC, of course, came from AASU in the 1980s. The Assam Public Works (APW) filed a petition in the Supreme Court (SC) back in 2009, on the basis of which the NRC process began in Assam. This notorious Guwahati-based NGO, who were the original petitioners of NRC, had suggested a lot of things, including the inclusion of DNA details in the citizenship process. This DNA demand, in their mind, was also meant for a particular group of people, which they categorised as the “Bangladeshi Parent Group”.
This same NGO now seeks re-verification in in Assam. These districts include Dhubri, Kokrajhar, Chirang, South Salmara, Mankachar, Goalpara, Bongaigaon, Barpeta, Nalbari, Kamrup, Kamrup (Metro), Darrang, Udalguri, Sontipur, Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, Morigaon, Nagaon, Hojai, Golaghat, Cachar, Karimganj, and Hailakandi.
In August 2018, after the second draft NRC was published, the APW moved the Supeme Court for a total re-verification of 22 districts. In the same year, the Assam government also filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court for re-verification. On the eve of the 73rd Independence Day celebration, the-Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said, “For the sake of a correct and error-free NRC, our government had appealed to the honourable Supreme Court for re-verification of the NRC update process.”
Prateek Hajela's Idea of 'Re-Verification'
That was just the beginning, and since then, they have filed many petitions in the Supreme Court to address their grievances about NRC. Recently, in a press conference, its president Abhijeet Sharma notes that it will again move the SC for re-verification of the 23 districts listed above.
The language of re-verification changed in the following year. The aspect of the border district was brought to focus. It was noted that there has been less percentage of people who are excluded in the districts of Assam bordering Bangladesh. In lieu of this, both the Centre and the state suggested a re-verification of 20 per cent of included names in the NRC in those districts and 10 per cent for the rest of the areas. The data for this demand included a district-wise list of people in and out of the NRC. This list was presented by the Assam government before the Supreme Court in August 2019.
This should have raised serious ethical questions. This district-wise data was supposed to be confidential, as was directed by the Supreme Court. But miraculously, the Assam government had those data, and this is also when Prateek Hajela, the then-NRC Assam Co-ordinator, denied sharing the same with the state government. This is not surprising. After all, innocence and impunity are enjoyed only by the majority in New India.
Hajela, on the other hand, had a very different conception of re-verification. He noted that the Assam NRC had already verified 27 per cent of the included population (which amounted to about 80 lakh people) as part of the claim and objection process and hence, to him, the targeted re-verification was not necessary. This logic was not entertained by other parties.
'India Can't Be Refugee Capital': Solicitor-General
The Solicitor-General of India, Tushar Mehta, supported the need for re-verification and was also noted , “Illegal migrants have no place in the country. India cannot be the refugee capital of the world.” Upamanyu Hazarika, an SC advocate, who also contested Lok Sabha elections in Assam in 2019, made a fresh NRC one of the primary goals of his election manifesto.
An Assam-based NGO, Sachetan Nagarik Mancha, also demanded an ‘error-free’ NRC. Sarbananda Sonowal, too, in 2021 that the “CAA is a central act and it has to be implemented”. He said, “The NRC will be corrected. Presently, it is full of errors and cannot be accepted. We will bring an error-free NRC and make sure that no illegal immigrant is staying in the state.”
How the Ever-Present Horror of NRC Has Wrecked Families
A new NRC will be a disaster and an evil act. It is another move in a long line of strategies that constantly keep the minorities and the destitute in anxiety, fear and uncertainty. This constant slow-dragging of the NRC process has taken hundreds of lives. It has torn apart families, impoverished, excluded and humiliated people. I present two vignettes to show the horror of this process.
The first is from Abhishek Saha, who, writing in his book , talks about his encounter with Monirul Islam, a 25-year-old who runs a grocery store and whose uncle died in a road accident while en route to a Foreigners Tribunal hearing.
Islam told Abhishek, “How many times do we have to prove our Indian citizenship? Isn’t it better you kill us all rather than this non-stop harassment?”
Only when you are pushed to the darkest of corners can you think of something like this. NRC did that to Islam. The Muslims of Assam live in a highly regulated state where they are totally removed from public life and disintegrated from society. Any suicide related to NRC fits the Durkheimian model, where there is too much regulation and no or extremely low integration with the society. This alienation can disturb any mind.
The second vignette is about how lonely and hapless this process can make one feel. I was part of a group of students who travelled to Assam to speak to NRC victims. Ajiz (name changed), after a long conversation with the group, broke down at the end of the conversation. Teary-eyed, he asked one of my friends to speak in private. In Bangla, he tried to tell him that he may not have the strength to continue fighting the case of his wife, who now, at the sight of anyone wearing long trousers, would run to the jungle thinking the Border police were there to take her away for detention or worse. My friend tried to comfort him, gave his phone number, and asked him to call him when he feels this way the next time. Even such a minor gesture gave him comfort.
'There Is Death Without Weeping in Assam'
But his tears froze me. That is how the state and society are absent for a large section of people. And the story of Ajiz undergoing anxiety and perhaps the thought of taking his own life out of humiliation is not a singular experience. Those numbers weigh in hundreds.
To borrow anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s words, there is ‘death without weeping’ in Assam while its citizens and civil society watch on silently and call for a new machine of NRC to unleash the horror again.
Ask yourself, what will a new NRC do? Who will benefit from the NRC and at what cost? What will be the material, human and societal cost of another NRC? Assam is already a graveyard of Indian citizenship, another NRC will turn it into gallows for the stateless.
(Suraj Gogoi is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the National University of Singapore. He tweets @char_chapori. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)