Assam: NRC process creates racial and political categories of suspect and isolates them for penal retribution

People waiting to check their names in first draft of NRC publish on 31st December 2017

People waiting to check their names in first draft of NRC publish on 31st December 2017 (Photo: thehindiu.com)

An unintended consequence of the process of NRC updation in terms of racial othering and profiling led to severe social conditions. Suicide of Hanif Khan and Bijit Sen, two cases that point to helplessness of ordinary citizens before this procedure of NRC updation in which right to legal redress is taken away by creating a stressful victimology. Hanif Khan, as revealed by his wife believed that he would be beaten up black and blue by state forces, as he thought that his name would not figure in updated NRC. If this is the perception created among linguistic and religious minorities by a process which is supposed to uphold constitutional values, the task of a democratic state has to be much more sensitive. Bijit Sen’s helplessness and anomie combined with his lack of income to create mortal fear, which cannot be downplayed as a mere psychotic response of the victim. Indeed victim’s testimony tell us volumes about the kind of agony and anxiety created by the uncertainty involved in this scrutiny and determination of citizenship in Assam.

By Prasenjit Biswas*

Although the updation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam is based on directives of a two member bench of the Supreme Court, yet method deployed for verification by authorities are quite novel and unheard of. Does anyone in rest of the country know about “legacy data” and “family tree”? Indeed Assam specific provisions made in The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of Identity cards) Rule, 2003 under rule 4A that creates unheard of categories like ‘original inhabitant’(under clause 3.3) and ‘parental linkage’ (under clause 4.4) to verify the antecedents of an applicant for inclusion in the updation process. The entire burden of proof is shifted to the applicant in case of any doubt, while an administrative memo issued by home ministry of government of India (GoI) in 2015 asked for confiscation of various documents collected through valid means from such suspected category of individual and people. Although GoI instructions are meant for entire India, yet in case of Assam, it has negative ramifications and causes harassment for the so called suspects. Can suspicion be the basis of jurisprudence and on that basis the status of an innocent be altered as suspected guilty?

One may be curious to know the ideas behind ‘legacy data’ and ‘family tree’. Legacy data was published by NRC authority of Assam giving a code number to all the names available in 1951 census document as well as in electoral rolls upto 1971. The applicant has to refer to such names to establish their antecedent. The matter is more complex than what it reads here. Much of electoral rolls since 1952 are not available, as Assam prior to 1971 included United Khasi and Jaintia Hills (now Meghalaya), Naga Hills, Mizo hills and those electoral rolls are never found. Indeed 1951 census was so incomplete that many districts and many of the places do not have any mention therein. Many places mentioned in 1951 census do not exist anymore because of unstable geology and natural calamities. As far as ‘family tree’ is concerned, the NRC authorities have deployed such a concept to weed out fake legacy claims in cases where familywise unrelated people referred to legacy of the same ancestors. The procedure assumes that the validity of an individual’s claim to citizenship lies in genuineness of his/her belonging to a same line of descent from a common ancestor. But the problem is that families get dispersed, members of same family get separated and live separately in different contexts and hence all of them shall have to be forced to accept each other as members of the same family. Separated, estranged, divorced and distantiated in time and space members of once upon a time family are now sent legal notices to testify each other’s claim of common belonging, all because of shared legacy data of common ancestors. If Citizenship Act, 1955 would have stated such a procedure, it could have been deployed in the whole country and then probably Assam specific application of such an invented procedure could have had a reasonable legitimacy.

This takes us back to a little bit of history of independent India’s extremely ingenuous story of adult franchise and preparation of electoral rolls. Ornit Sahni’s (Faculty at University of Haifa, Israel) fascinating book entitled, “how india became democratic: citizenship and making of the universal franchise”(2018) recorded with due diligence that transition to adult franchise had an Assam specific obstacle in registration of partition refugees leading to historic declaration by BN Rau, advisor to Constituent Assembly of India that all refugees have to be registered on mere intent of staying at a place and their names be included in the electoral roll of the place. Against this, many civil society bodies of Assam wrote to Constituent Assembly asking for exclusion of those people who are not born in Assam causing concern among victims of partition from being excluded from citizenship of India. Needless to say that such contestation did not arise in case of refugees from West Pakistan in due process of registration and enfranchisement! This bit of history tells us that the newly independent state of India was sensitive enough to recognize humanitarian concerns post partition of India and the same continued through Indira-Mujib agreement, Assam Accord and the latest GoI order granting residency to displaced refugees in India who came from neighbouring countries due to religious persecution and other forms of civil and political disturbances. Only little difficulty was that the latest GoI ordinance excluded persecuted Muslims, by going against the spirit of secularism and nondiscrimination on the basis of religion or any other such social categories. What happened to many Non-Muslim detainees who are languishing in various detention camps, post-2015 is a matter of grave concern as the GoI ordinance is violated with contempt in many fresh cases of those who are pushed to the detention camps. The size and number of detainees in such detention camps are on the rise, while many are able to prove themselves to be genuine Indian citizens despite initial arbitrary proceedings against them.

In such a context of uncertainty, certain organizations led by ex-insurgents demanded that land rights be limited to indigenous communities excluding tea tribes, who have been there in Assam prior to 1826 Yandabu pact with the Governor of Burma. Certain other organizations are asking for dividing Assam and creation of Union Territory. The atmosphere is dominated by legal procedures of an uncertain kind and suspicion between communities asserting their homeland claims. In Bodoland autonomous areas, there is already a ban imposed on owning land on non-Bodos and the picture is getting murkier as large number of people are waiting to be stateless, disenfranchised and deprived of their fundamental rights guaranteed under Indian Constitution.

The constitutional right to citizenship, which is subject to fulfillment of specific conditions allows an escape route for those who are noncitizens. They are guaranteed right to life, which includes right to livelihood with only a restriction on participation in electoral process but gives an expansive definition of personhood based on human dignity and freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment are given a go by in such a situation. Recent circulars from ministry of home to states of the union asking for restrictions on movement of those who are declared foreigners and those who are suspected makes for a police controlled regime of rights.

Added to this, a process of deportation by force across the border in no man’s zone or restriction of fundamental rights of freedom of movement to residents of an enclave by security forces is a larger ramification of a ‘state of exception’ in the making. As if along with checkpoints, there are racial and political categories of suspect and a process of isolating them for penal retribution by wielding new forms of administrative powers. Does this gel with a vision of equality before law and equal citizenship, as the matter is not just a matter of a particular state but for the whole of India?

The unintended consequence of this process of NRC updation in terms of racial othering and profiling led to severe social conditions. Suicide of Hanif Khan and Bijit Sen, two cases that point to helplessness of ordinary citizens before this procedure of NRC updation in which right to legal redress is taken away by creating a stressful victimology. Hanif Khan, as revealed by his wife believed that he would be beaten up black and blue by state forces, as he thought that his name will not figure in updated NRC. If this is the perception created among linguistic and religious minorities by a process which is supposed to uphold constitutional values, the task of a democratic state has to be much more sensitive. Bijit Sen’s helplessness and anomie combined with his lack of income to create mortal fear, which cannot be downplayed as a mere psychotic response of the victim. Indeed victim’s testimony tell us volumes about the kind of agony and anxiety created by the uncertainty involved in this scrutiny and determination of citizenship in Assam.

Hanif Khan

Hanif Khan (Photo: The Guardian)

The diversity of India’s citizens in terms of multicultural and multireligious background of peoples, which still creates confusing identities cannot be legally reduced to legacy data and family tree, as the basic spirit of inclusion accepted by constituent assembly in terms of those who are born in undivided India and their descendents has to be upheld in all cases.

*Prasenjit Biswas is a human rights defender and a professional philosopher based in Shillong.

An edited version of the article was first published in the Statesman on 26 March 2018.

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