The much-hyped National Register of Citizens, more famously NRC, has come as a damp squib. Those who pushed for it the most are now crying hoarse. Those who were not interested in NRC are putting pressure on the BJP-ruled Assam government to ensure no bona fide citizen looses citizenship.
It has left the BJP with egg on its face to the extent that the top bosses of the party in Delhi have maintained a deafening silence. And now, plenty of conspiracy theories are being floated. But the two that gained currency since the publication of the final list are that the NRC software had a bug and legacy data was manipulated on a large scale.
An anxious onlooker like Asaduddin Owaisi, four-time MP of Hyderabad, is mocking Amit Shah, the Home Minister of India, claiming that the “myth of illegal migrants has been busted.” On his part, Shah, the man who said the termites (infiltrators) would be found out and deported from all over India, did not dare to come out with any sort of reaction in the immediate aftermath of the publication of final NRC on August 31.
No awards for guessing what went wrong. Way back in 1985, the NRC was conceived as a tool for identifying Bangladeshis living incognito in Assam. The draft NRC published on July 30, 2018, deleted 40.7 lakh names out of 3.3 crore applicant. Later, 1 lakh more names were deleted. Though that figure was not fully satisfactory for those who were interested to fulfil the aim of updating the old NRC of 1951, they reconciled with it. But, in the final NRC, the number has come down to less than half of it. Now, 1,906,657 names from a total 33,027,661
applicants stand deleted. In other words, 5.75 per cent of state’s total population will now go to Foreigners Tribunals to get their fate decided (after Tribunal’s verdict they can also challenge it in the High Court and Supreme Court). For any state, the figure itself would have been mindboggling. But, Assam is different.
Immediately after its publication, Abhijit Sharma of the NGO Assam Public Works, the first person to move the Supreme Court to have the NRC, expressed his disappointment, and made it clear that he would move the apex court again. The same sentiment was echoed by All Assam Students Union (AASU), the organisation that launched a turbulent anti-foreigner movement in 1979. Its General Secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi said, “The final figure of exclusion did not reach near the figures officially announced by the authorities on various occasions.” Other bodies that represent Assamese sub-nationalist aspirations dittoed it. For the records, the unconfirmed official figures came from many sources. The most reliable of this came from Indrajit Gupta, the only communist stalwart who became India’s Home Minister (1996-1998). He stated in Parliament that according to his ministry’s estimates about 1 crore illegal immigrants were in India, and half of them were in Assam. That pegged the figure at 50 lakh during the second half of the 1990s.
For the BJP, the final figure has come as a rude shock, for it planned to give citizenship to all non-Muslims from Bangladesh as refugees. That was why Citizenship Amendment Bill was brought to Parliament, though it failed to cross the hurdle of Rajya Sabha. Now, according to unofficial figure, out of 19 lakh identified illegal emigrants of Assam, only about 7 lakhs are Muslims. Even some of them may get back citizenship after due legal process, and the final figure of Muslims may stand at 5-6 lakhs. So, the cost of NRC boils down to about Rs 22,000 for detecting one foreigner who needs to be ‘deported’, as the total cost of the exercise is Rs 1,200 crore. Naturally, people of Assam are wondering whether the 10-year-long exercise that caused so much human distress was worth anything.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, the finance minister of Assam and one of the most important leaders of the entire North-East for BJP, says this NRC won’t help them “get rid of the foreigners.” He wonders how in districts bordering Bangladesh, like South Salmara and Dhubri, the rate of exclusion is the lowest while it is high in northern areas of Assam. The party’s firebrand Bengali-speaking MLA Shiladitya Dev is more blunt in his attack against the NRC “It all seems (to be) a conspiracy to keep the Hindus out and give legitimacy to Muslim infiltrators,” he said, alleging the NRC software was bugged. He claimed that in the days of signing of Assam Accord (1985) it was estimated that there were over one crore Bangladeshis. “Where have they gone now?” he asked.
But why identification of a whopping 19 lakh people as foreigners has brought disappointment in Assam? What is this psyche that feels frustrated even when so many lakhs of people are identified as non-citizens? To gauge it, we have to rewind the clock by four decades.
Those who played for East Bengal Club, or were present in the Guwahati stadium to support the club in the finals of Bordoloi Trophy of 1978, still shudder to recollect the day. The opponent was no Assamese Club, not even any Indian club. It was Port Authority of Bangkok (Thailand). So, the players of East Bengal thought the whole gallery would support them. But they were so wrong. As the match started, the gallery roared for the Port Trust team. Soon after, the East Bengal supporters were threatened and bullied to leave the ground. The match was disrupted. Though, East Bengal won the final with a decisive score of 4-2, they could not return home with the trophy. It was snatched away by some Assamese rogues.
It is not difficult to imagine that a genuine citizen will be much less careful about such documents, while an illegal immigrant will try all means to secure such papers. Moreover, the police was given the responsibility of verification. It is known to be a corrupt force
The incident was a pointer to what was brewing in Assam. It was a manifestation of the fear of the Assamese psyche of becoming a minority in Assam itself. The ugly outward expression of it, attacking the Bengalis even during a football match, was a symptom of deep frustration.
The fear was stoked by consecutive census figures. After independence, the number of residents of Assam saw an inexplicable spurt. The growth rate that stood at about 20 per cent or even less in all previous census reports, suddenly started growing at 35 per cent from 1951. From 80,28,856 in 1951, the population of the state went up to 1,46,25,152 in 1971. That was a whopping 82 per cent increase in 20 years. Over and above, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi promised citizenship to about 40 lakh refugees of the 1971 war staying in Assam. She did not propose an amendment of the Citizenship Act, but allowed Bengali Hindu refugees to have refugee certificates that would convert into citizenship after six years. Now the Assamese felt alarmed.
For the BJP, the final figure has come as a rude shock, for it planned to give citizenship to all non-Muslims from Bangladesh as refugees. That was why Citizenship Amendment Bill was brought to Parliament, though it failed to cross the hurdle of Rajya Sabha
Things took an awkward turn when Mongoldoi Lok Sabha seat saw an increase in voters list by 60,000 in six months! It came to light when a by-election was to be held after the MP Hiralal Patowari’s death in 1979. Immediately, a mass movement was launched by the AASU for deleting the names of the foreigners from the voter list. It threatened the political parties to boycott vote or face the consequence. The movement was backed by ULFA, a terrorist organisation which enjoyed good support of the common Assamese in those days. The Congress came to power in elections with very low voter turnouts, but the state turned into what Kashmir became in the 1990s. Violence became regular, and the Nelli massacre of 1983 (official death toll 2,191) shook the conscience of the nation.
After coming to power 1984, the young Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took an unusual call. He negotiated with the AASU led by Prafulla Mahanta and Bhrigu Phukan, and signed the Assam Accord in 1985. The Accord provided for detection and deportation of foreigners. The means of ‘detection’ was the updating of the National Register of Citizens of 1951. It was a means of assuaging the fears of the Assamese community. The cut off date for identifying for Assam was decided to be March 26, 1971. When the accord was signed in 1985, the date was a recent one.
If the politicians were honest, the job could have been accomplished within 10 years. But it was not destined to be so. NRC has proved to be all about politics, and not about security of the country.
The Mahanta-Phukan duo soon formed a political party named Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), fought the elections, and came to power in 1985. But they decided to play it safe, and not stir the hornet’s nest. They lost in the next election, but made a comeback 1996. Then in the new millennium the graph of the once highly popular AGP nosedived as they proved they used the Assam movement only to grab power. The terrorist organisation ULFA too was contained.
In 2001, Tarun Gogoi of Congress came to power, and gradually the NRC went into oblivion. It is alleged that Congress was not interested in detecting the foreigners because the Muslims constituted its major vote bank.
The NRC was revived by the Supreme Court when, prodded by some septuagenarians, Abhijit Sharma knocked at its door. The Congress government led by Gogoi went slow on it, for understandable political reason. The process was accelerated by the BJP after it came to power in 2016, but with political calculations. If about 50 lakh Bangladeshis were in Assam half of them would be Muslims, and de-enfranchisement of 25 lakh of Muslims would accrue huge benefit to the BJP in the state, they thought.
But now, everything has gone topsy-turvy, and the BJP has lost faith in the NRC. Whatever has been said and done, could anybody expect a different outcome of NRC? Particularly when the cut off date for identifying a bona fide citizen is March 26, 1971? It means everybody will have to prove that he or she, or his or her parents or grandparents, lived in India before that day. How many citizens of India, in any part of the country, can prove it, particularly when in those days the citizens had no identity card like Pan or Aadhar cards? Of course, there were ration cards (and many bogus ration cards too) and the voter list, in which everyone could get a name included. Those cannot be treated as flawless documents.
Again, it is not difficult to imagine that a genuine citizen will be much less careful about such documents, while an illegal immigrant will try all means to secure such papers. Moreover, the police was given the responsibility of verification. It is known to be a corrupt force, and allegations abound in Assam on bribe taken for including names. It also acted completely irresponsibly, and consequentially many like Mohammad Sanaullah, a Kargil war veteran, were arrested as foreigners.
But was NRC required? Lakhs of illegal immigrants could have been identified in last three decades after the signing of the Assam Accord, if the administration had done its duty. The Guwahati High Court slammed the Assam administration time and again for failing to do its job in this regard. In one such case, one Jahura Khatun was found to be exercising her voting rights despite being pronounced a foreigner by the courts.
Finally, even if 5-6 lakh people are to be declared non-citizens, can they be deported? Bangladesh has flatly refused to take them back. After decades, can the government prove that they came from Bangladesh? Even a 47-year old of today was born after the cut-off date of proving citizenship. All such people were born in India. Can we really take a 40-year old to Bangladesh and tell Dhaka: “Look here, this man’s parents entered illegally 45 years ago. Now please take this man back.” Is it not just a farce? Again, can we put all of them to jail, and take the blame of having scanty regard for human rights? The central government has not spelt out its plan with these people. Probably, they do not have any. But common sense tells us, these people can only be disenfranchised, and be barred from government jobs. Nothing more.
So, even after the NRC, the deep wound in Assamese psyche, the fear of becoming a minority in its homeland, remains. Every resident of Assam is going to stay in Assam, and they all will have their means of livelihood protected, at least partially. The Assamese will not get the jobs the Bangladeshis have usurped, nor will the Assamese culture be better protected than before. So what was this NRC for? The answer is simple: Just for politics. From Rajiv Gandhi to Tarun Gogoi, from Prafulla Mahanta to Sarbananda Sonowal (the present CM), everybody has used it for own political end.
Even if 5-6 lakh people are to be declared non-citizens, can they be deported? Bangladesh has flatly refused to take them back. After decades, can the government prove that they came from Bangladesh?
Probably it is time to bury the concept of NRC and give all citizens a Citizenship Card after checking doubtful claimants. That would be useful for safeguarding national security.