Posts Tagged ‘Citizenship’

INDIA: Minting a huge humanitarian crisis with national citizenship register in Assam

September 1, 2018

BHRPC wishes to forward this Written Submission to the 39th Regular Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council by the Asian Legal Resource Centre on the process of preparation of National Register of Citizens for Assam, India.

The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) wishes to draw the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council to the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) that India has recently launched in the North Eastern state of Assam and its far reaching consequences not only for the country but also for South Asia as a region and the world too.

The ALRC also wishes to draw the attention of the Council to the fact that the final draft list leaves a whopping 4,007,707 persons out of a total of 32,991,384 people who had applied. The exercise is accused of gross negligence despite being mandated and monitored by the Supreme Court of India.

The final draft is full of problems ranging from personal tragedies like that of a single family member left out of hundred plus members of an extended joint families to at places whole communities are being left out. Those excluded include even persons like family members of a former president of India, veterans of Indian security forces, policemen, kith and kin of legislators to the poor who have no papers to show.

Many of those excluded complain of reasons behind their exclusion being subjective biases and the inherent flaws in the NRC of 1951 and the electoral rolls of 1961 and 1971 that make up the core of the ‘legacy data’. There are many cases in which the direct descendants of those figuring in the NRC of 1951 having been left out from the final draft. The primary reasons behind this include clerical errors resulting in misspelt names right from the parents to those of the claimants now, mismatched relationships and so on. Most of the people being very poor and living in areas routinely affected by floods have also lost their documents.

There are also large-scale complaints of the sectarian biases based on linguistic identity having played against even genuine claims of many of those left out. Chief Minister of West Bengal, a state neighbouring Assam, has complained of Bengali speakers having borne the brunt of the exercise with about 3.8 million of those left out from the NRC, or almost ninety percent, consisting of them.

There have also been allegations about a systemic bias against Muslims, a religious minority community in India and Dalits, erstwhile victims of untouchability now protected by the constitution and listed as Scheduled Castes. Matua Mahasangha, a religious organisation consisting principally of Namashudra Dalits with origins in Bangladesh, gives credence to this argument and claimed most of those affected are members of the community.

The argument gets further support from the fact that India has seen a continuous influx of Hindu refugees, mostly poor Dalits, fleeing persecution in Bangladesh. Studies estimate the total numbers of those who came to India seeking refuge at around 11 million, settled mostly in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura.

Though both the government and Supreme Court of India have promised another chance to all those left out to prove their citizenship along with no coercive measures against them till then, many fear losing their citizenships as all the documents they had have already been produced. Estimates of those finally left out are as high as 2 million.

Further complicating the situation is the fact of Bangladesh’s stern refusal of having anything to do with those left out. Authorities in Bangladesh have already called this issue an ‘internal matter of India with ethnic undertones’. This effectively turns those finally left out as stateless people with nowhere to go adding almost 2 million to already huge number of 10 million people currently estimated to be stateless.

That gives rise to the fear of large internment camps for those excluded from the final NRC list, violation of their human rights and another humanitarian crisis for the world.

In light of this, the ALRC urges the Council to:

1. Ask the government of India to exercise extreme cautiousness in the registration of the citizens and ensure that not a single genuine citizen of India is left out because of clerical errors or a lack of documents missing because of reasons beyond the control of applicants.

2. Ask the government of India to mobilise all authorities in the state of Assam as well as other states like West Bengal, Bihar and others from where many of the people excluded from the draft list come from to cross check their claims and help them secure their documents.

3. Ask the government of India to take concrete measures to dispel the allegations of discrimination against people on the basis of religion and caste and that nobody is denied citizenship because of discrimination.

4. Ask the government of India to urgently engage with the government of Bangladesh to find solutions in case of people still getting left out of the NRC as it claims that most of the ‘illegal’ immigrants are from Bangladesh.

5. Ask the government of India to not take any coercive action and deny people of their fundamental human rights and work for a humanitarian solution to the impending crisis.

(The submission was first published in the website of Asian Human Rights Commission and here it is reproduced verbatim for further dissemination)

Assam: How the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has become the source of distress and even suicide for some people

April 30, 2018

NHRC notice to the Government of Assam over allegations of harassment to the people in the name of verification of their nationality (15.11.2017)

November 15, 2017

PRESS RELEASE

New Delhi, 15th November, 2017

The National Human Rights Commission, NHRC has issued a notice to the Chief Secretary, Government of Assam after taking suo motu cognizance of the allegations reported in the media about the harassment being meted out to the people by the police in the name of verification of their nationality in the State. Reportedly, due to the illegal immigration from Bangladesh to Assam, the people belonging to Bengali origin are under scanner for years together and the Assam Government has set up Foreigners’ Tribunals to deal with the doubtful cases.

The Commission has observed that it has carefully perused and examined the contents of the news report, carried on the 31st October, 2017. The steps taken to identify the suspect cases of illegal immigration and setting up of Foreigners’ Tribunals is a policy perspective of the government and it would not like to intervene into that matter but the allegations that in the name of verification, the poor people are being subjected to harassment and humiliation is a matter of concern for the Commission, as it amounts to violation of right to equality and dignity of the innocent victims.

According to the media report, there are detention centres in the State of Assam, where the people, under scanner, are lodged in two categories, Bangladeshis and D-voters. In many cases, once a person is declared an Indian citizen is again served notice by the police. It is further mentioned that at the time of hearing, the subjects are not allowed to wear their shoes and they have to enter barefoot, inside the Court, while the government officers and advocates are exempted.

A specific case of one Shri Moinal Molla has been mentioned in the media report. His parents, wife, children, brother and rest of the family are Indians and still his citizenship was rejected by the authorities. He spent more than two years at a detention centre. It was only after the intervention by the Apex Court, the justice was done in his case.

As mentioned in the report, there are 89,395 people estimated as illegal immigrants in Assam till August, 2017 and currently there are more than 2,000 people languishing in the detention centers, across the State, who are, allegedly, being subjected to discrimination.
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The Press Release was published in the NHRC website and it is reproduced here verbatim: http://nhrc.nic.in/dispArchive.asp?fno=34386

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2016, reactions in Assam and the way ahead

October 17, 2016

Burst of immigration hysteria

Prasenjit Biswas

citizenship

Courtesy The Statesman

A caucus of noted Assam intellectuals representing those concerned about the granting of citizenship to hundreds of thousands of immigrant Bangladeshi Hindus has expressed concern over the Centre’s bulldozing public opinion, through a parliamentary standing committee, to propose amendments to the Citizenship Act, 1955. 

It has noted that, if an estimated three million Bengali Hindus who entered Assam after the 1971 civil war from erstwhile East Pakistan  are granted citizenship, it will jeopardise the very existence of Axomiya as a linguistic community and will  permanently alter Assam’s land holding, employment and demography.

The groups is also concerned that indigenous peoples’ lives and identity will be endangered by further legitimising Bengali Hindu immigrants. Also that this will merely complicate the matter caused by an already alarming presence of Muslims in Assam. From the point of view of the indigenous activists, dominance of  any plainsman over hill communities is looked upon as a marginalising factor.

Writing in the late 1960s, noted social scientist Roderick A. Church pointed out that “separatism” of the tribals in Assam and North-east is a potent factor to destabilise any dominant community’s hold over the state power.

The present Citizenship Amendment Bill controversy raises the fear of the Axomiya and the tribal communities together, albeit in very different ways and thereby adding up to the concerns of land alienation and demographic marginalisation.

What turns out to be a queer outcome of the BJP’s victory in Assam is its pre-poll commitment to grant citizenship to Hindus displaced from former East Pakistan and present Bangladesh due to religious persecution. Indeed, this pre-poll promise won them most of the nearly  6.5 million Bengali Hindu votes, making them and their allies win big in this year’s assembly election.

Prior to the election, the Centre, by a circular from the Union home ministry,  regularised the entry and stay of religious minorities from Pakistan and Bangladesh if they had entered India by 31 December 2014.

Indeed, such a circular, based on relevant provisions of rules and orders made under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners’ Act, 1946, has created jubilation among Bengali Hindus and other Hindu minorities such as Koch Rajbongshis, Hajongs, Moghs, Chakmas and such other late and persecuted refugee migrants, as they see in it a humanitarian response from the government of India in treating them with compassion and fairness.

In continuation to this circular, the Centre has proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act of 1955, especially section 6A, that presently limits the grant of citizenship to a cut-off date of 25 March 1971. In its proposal, the Centre suggested the cut-off date up to 31 December 2014, for persecuted religious minorities that include every religious group except Muslims, who migrated to India from neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The exclusion of Muslims from the ambit of the amendment and inclusion of Hindus and others have made the proposed amendment seem painted with a religious brush that alters the secular basis of citizenship within the Constitution to the basis of religious persecution. One can understand the BJP’s political compulsions to keep its Hindu vote bank consolidated for future election that made them parry important constitutional questions.

Concerns raised in Assam about a possible fallout on land and demography is also not backed up with hard evidence and correct statistical facts. Vani Kanta Boorooah, a social scientist with the University of Ulster, UK, in a richly-documented paper entitled “The Killing Fields of Assam: Myth and Reality of Its Muslim Immigration” published in the Economic and Political Weekly, 26 January 2013, demonstrated with much statistical elan that  “between 1971 and 2011, the net migration into Assam was virtually zero: 730,000 persons entered Assam in the 20 years between 1971 and 1991 (502,000 Muslims and 228,000 non-Muslims) but there was a net outflow of 452,000 between 1991 and 2001 (209,000 Muslims and 243,000 non-Muslims) and a further net outflow of 283,000 between 2001 and 2011 (168,000 Muslims and 115,000 non-Muslims), leaving a net outflow between 1971 and 2011 of just 5,000.”

Imaginary statistics and numbers are regularly floated to build up a picture of native and indigenous population losing land to immigrants, be it Bengali, Hindu or Muslim, and an entire Muslim community is particularly dubbed  “illegal” by a motley combination of ethno-nationalists and indigenous activist groups.

To complicate matters further, there is an existing legal mechanism of identifying “suspected illegal immigrants” by tagging them “doubtful” beside their names in the voters’ list and by subjecting them to a legally tortuous process of proving their bona fides and, in the process, many have died in detention camps.

Retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of India Altamas Kabir once pointed out that suspected “D” voters’  human rights were violated in Assam as they were kept with criminals and were deprived of access to legal assistance. The Hindu legal cell of Assam has filed a petition before the National Human Rights Commission against the Assam government’s policy of keeping suspected foreigners in ordinary jails with common criminals.

The BJP is at an interesting crossroad in dealing with the situation. Its chief spokesman, Himanta Biswa Sarma, now minister in the Assam BJP cabinet, mooted the idea of 1951 as the cut-off date for deciding citizenship in Assam during his election speeches, which apparently garnered a huge chunk of caste Hindu Assamese votes to the BJP combine’s accounts.

Right now he argues that granting citizenship to Bengali Hindus of the post-1971 period will ensure a Hindu majority in Assam, which will be a combine of Assamese Hindu and Bengali Hindu that would keep Assam safe from being turned into a Muslim majority state.

Intellectuals, social activists and civil society in the Brahmaputra valley have found this argument flawed as they feel it is divisive and throws  Assam’s plural society into a vertical division between Hindus and Muslims.

In the Barak Valley, Bengali Hindus expect big bonus from the BJP by granting citizenship to all Bengali Hindus, and by particularly checking their regular harassment by the state administration to prove their citizenship and being often pushed into a detention camp or prison.

Noted civil rights activists Hafiz Rasheed Choudhury, who hails from the Barak Valley and heads the Citizens Rights Protection Committee, sees a double danger in proposing religious identity as the basis for amendment to the  Citizenship Act, 1955, as it will not grant citizenship to hundreds of thousands of refugee Hindus but endanger the status of Muslim citizens as “suspects”, or illegal trespassers into India. Citizens, in the Barak Valley, being concerned at this diabolic situation, remain clueless about the fate of the proposed amendment, but they remain divided along religious lines. Large segments of Bengali Hindus still pin their hopes on the BJP to establish the rights of Hindus in India, while they are silent about the plight of Bengali Muslims.

The situation is extremely fluid and uncertain as the parliamentary standing committee is yet to make its stand clear on whether it is ready to grant citizenship to displaced people from neighbouring countries on the basis of religion or whether the matter needs to be viewed in a larger humanitarian perspective that does not discriminate on religious lines. Concerns in the Brahmaputra valley about illegal immigration that is then politicised in the name of religious minorities prevent an easy solution to the controversy over citizenship to persecuted religious minorities.

Multiple political colours and positions attributed to this very important Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, make it extremely relevant to facilitate an end to dilemmas of a democratic and inclusive notion of citizenship that is above the dichotomies of native versus migrant, legal versus illegal, etc, that are the remnants of  the 1980s anti-immigrant agitation.

In this context, some of Assam’s intellectuals hailing the BJP’s coming to power as a victory of Assamese regionalism over Hindutva can be seen as the conceit of self-deception, as much of the Asomiya intellectuals are worried at the prospect of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda of granting only Hindus citizenship at the moment.

It is also ironical that the preservation of local and indigenous languages and culture clashes with a notion of democratic citizenship are seen as a source of crisis in land, employment and livelihood. Seemingly, there is a perception trap that has created a quagmire for all of Assam and its various segments of people, as it is not able to come to terms with the presence of others who are different. This also marks a regressive hardening of linguistic and cultural boundaries that imply greater ethnic and religious distrust and conflict over authenticity, which is not good for a democratic polity based on the principle of peaceful co-existence and communal harmony.

The writer is associate professor at the North Eastern Hill University, Shillong and vice chairperson of Barak Human Rights Protection Committe, Silchar.

Originally published in The Statesman at is availaable at http://www.thestatesman.com/news/north-east-page/burst-of-immigration-hysteria/171231.html#guTR9QqqC6d0O6hC.99

Ambivalence of Citizenship in Assam

July 3, 2016

The process of identifying “citizens” through the preparation of the National Register of Citizens for Assam, coupled with changes in the Citizenship Act, 1955 that apply specifically to Assam and allow for a “hyphenated” citizenship– “Indian” and “Assamese”–continues to be troubled issues that have not abated since the 1980s, writes Anupama Roy.

The foreigners’ question that festered in Assam in the 1980s endures today. However, its resolution is no longer sought in the violent elimination of the non-Assamese-speaking outsiders or solely through the legal mechanisms of the Foreigners Act, but through bureaucratic intervention, pushed by a political consensus on identifying those who belong. Towards this end, Assam has seen over the past two years an unprecedented bureaucratic exercise of identifying “citizens” to prepare a “National” Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam.

The history of identification of citizens and sifting out non-citizens goes back to the Assam movement and the Assam Accord. The present moment, however, is significant for its coalescence with the changes made in 2003 in the Citizenship Act, 1955, which eliminated citizenship by birth and gave precedence to descent. The absence of a “political” contestation in Assam over the NRC, and the approval it has among people across Assam, is symptomatic of the continuing appeal of an “authentic” Assamese identity, which is currently being officially debated in the state, and of trust in an “efficient” mechanism of identification of citizens, painstakingly developed by the NRC commissioner of Assam.

The Assamese Exception

“It is a register of Indian citizens,” an eminent journalist from Assam, who has reported and written extensively on the preparation of the NRC, corrects me, when I ask him about the preparation of the NRC for Assamese citizens. The register being prepared in Assam is indeed of Indian citizens. But the pedigree of Indian citizenship is traced to an Assamese legacy, which makes the NRC a register of Assamese–Indian citizens or Indian citizens who are legitimate residents of Assam. The identification of Indian citizens simultaneously as Assamese recognises a hyphenated citizenship, hitherto alien to the political vocabulary of citizenship in India. Significantly, the cohabitation of what was a conflicting relationship in the 1980s has been achieved by marking out the illegal alien (“Bengali-speaking, Muslim, Bangladeshi infiltrator”), as the constituent other. Indeed, the conceptual apparatus of citizenship summoned by the components of the hyphenated citizen— “Indian” and “Assamese”—iron out the multiple layers and corresponding contestations within each.

The citizenship question in Assam has a long postcolonial history fraught with conflicts, and is reflected in the manner in which the citizenship law in India has responded to the contests over citizenship in Assam. The Citizenship Act, 1955 was amended in 1986 to inscribe an exception in the law in recognition of the extraordinary conditions prevailing in Assam. The 1986 amendment came in the wake of the Assam Accord, and pertained to the identification and sifting out of foreigners and illegal migrants from Bangladesh. While migration into Assam from Bangladesh has a long history, it was in 1971, in the course of the liberation war in Bangladesh, that several lakhs of Hindu and Muslim refugees fled to Assam. On 8 February 1972, the Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh issued a joint declaration in which the Government of India assured “all possible assistance to the Government of Bangladesh in the unprecedented task of resettling the refugees and displaced persons in Bangladesh” (Baruah 1999: 119). Not all refugees returned, and Bangladeshi migrants continued to cross the border into Assam and other parts of India in search of livelihood. Within Assam, the presence of large numbers of “foreigners” instilled a sense of unease at the change in demography, language and culture, and pressure over resources. A powerful popular movement erupted in the 1980s, led and steered by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) demanding the ouster of foreigners. The movement lay claim to a distinctive Assamese identity and based on this, differentiated citizenship. Grounded in the principle of “different yet equal,” difference was articulated in the initial years of the movement in terms of the linguistic/cultural identity of Assamese people, and later with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) taking over the struggle, in terms of unequal development and discrimination. At the root of both was a powerful sentiment of crisis in citizenship in Assam.

Yet the model of citizenship that the Assam movement invoked replicated the universal form that it was seeking to roll back in its own relationship with the Indian state. These contradictions played out in the articulation of citizenship at the national and state levels and within the state between the “ethnic” Assamese and the Bodos, the Assamese and the Bengalis, the Assamese and the tribals, etc. The accord reached between the leaders of the movement and the Indian government in 1985, and the amendment in the Citizenship Act following the accord in 1986, put in place a template of graded citizenship in Assam, and shifted the chronological boundary of citizenship for the state to 25 March 1971, from 19 July 1948, which was the constitutional deadline for the rest of the country.

The Assam Accord, signed on 15 August 1985, included the promise by the central government that it would ensure “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards…to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people” and the “all round economic development of Assam.” On the question of “foreigners” in Assam, the accord evolved a graded/differentiated system, categorising them on the basis of the date of their entry into Assam. It legitimised the citizenship status of those who had entered Assam from the (then) East Pakistan before 1 January 1966. Those who had entered the state between 1 January 1966 and 24 March 1971 were to be legitimised in phases, that is, they were to be disenfranchised for a period of 10 years from the date of identification, while others who had come after 24 March 1971 were to be deported as illegal aliens.

Sixth Category of Citizenship

In November 1986, Parliament amended the Citizenship Act, 1955 by adding Section 6A which introduced a sixth category of citizenship in India along with birth, descent, registration, naturalisation, and by incorporation of foreign territory into India. This new category of citizenship was to apply exclusively to Assam. The amended act laid down that all persons of Indian origin who came to Assam before 1 January 1966 from a specified territory (meaning territories included in Bangladesh) and had been ordinarily resident in Assam will be considered citizens of India from the date unless they chose not to be. It also added that persons of Indian origin from the specified territories who came on or after 1 January 1966 but before 25 March 1971 and had been resident in Assam since and had been detected as “foreigner” in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and Foreigners (Tribunals) Orders, 1964, upon registration will be considered as citizens of India, from the date of expiry of a period of 10 years from the date of detection as a foreigner. In the interim period they will enjoy all facilities including Indian passports, but will not have the right to vote. All other persons who entered the state on or after 25 March 1971, upon identification as illegal migrants under the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act, 1983, will be deported.

With the signing of the Assam Accord, we can see the confirmation of a hierarchised model of citizenship constituted by the universal “we,” the Assamese people, whose claim to citizenship was beyond any legal dispute. The universal “we” was superimposed on residual citizens, whose citizenship was rendered ambivalent by their linguistic identity and their religion. The government sought to resolve this ambivalence through law, by conferring deferred citizenship onto some, through the determination of their legality by the Foreigners Act. The rest, that is, those who arrived in India on or after 25 March 1971, were illegal aliens, confirmed as such by the IMDT Act, and deported from India. In actual practice, however, since both the Foreigners Act and the IMDT Act applied simultaneously, and prescribed different modes of determining citizenship, in a context of continuing influx of immigrants from Bangladesh the residual citizens occupied a zone of perpetually indeterminate/liminal citizenship and suspect legality. Moreover, as far as the mode of identification of “illegal migrant” or “foreigner” was concerned, the IMDT Act was more protective of the interests of the immigrant, since it shifted the responsibility of producing evidence from the person identified as an “illegal migrant” to the “prescribed authority,” and demanded a locus standi from the applicant identifying the illegal migrant as such.

The Supreme Court scrapped the IMDT Act in 2005 removing what was largely perceived in Assam to be an anomalous and unfair exception. In its judgment, delivered on 12 August 2005, in response to a petition seeking its repeal by Sarbananda Sonowal, a former president of AASU, former member of legislative assembly and member of Parliament from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and currently the chief minister of Assam, a three judge bench declared the IMDT Act unconstitutional. While the grounds for declaring the act unconstitutional were specifically questions of legal procedure, the general principles articulated in the process had ramifications for the way in which citizenship was defined and interpreted. The Court described immigration from Bangladesh not only as illegal entry, but as an act of aggression. Arguing within a notion of bounded citizenship, the Court stated that buttressing national territorial boundaries and protection of its population from infiltrators who posed a threat to national security was an essential function of state sovereignty.

In the recent past, the contest over illegal migration and citizenship has played out yet again in the orders given by the Supreme Court in two sets of public interest litigations (PILs) questioning the constitutional validity of Section 6A of the Citizenship Act. One of these, brought before the Supreme Court by the Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha, Assam Public Works, and All Assam Ahom Association (in Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha and Others v Union of India and Another, 2014) focused on the provision in Section 6A that granted Indian citizenship to those Bangladeshis who entered Assam between 1 January 1966 and 24 March 1971. The second PIL filed by the non-governmental organisations Swajan and Bimalangshu Roy Foundation in 2012, which is still being heard, focused on that part of Section 6A, which treated all Bangladeshi migrants who entered Assam after 24 March 1971 as illegal for deportation by the state. The PIL brought by Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha and others raised anxiety over the dilution of the legal frameworks of citizenship which, they argued, promoted indiscriminate influx and put at risk the security of the state and people. The second PIL lamented the clubbing of all migrants who entered India after 24 March 1971 as illegal, and asked that illegal migrants be distinguished from displaced persons (primarily Hindu and other minority groups fleeing persecution), who must be given the legal status of citizens.

Questioning Validity of Law

The Supreme Court admitted the PIL filed by Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha and others challenging the validity of Sections 6A (3) and (4) of the Citizenship Act on the ground that it represented the interests of an entire people—the tribal and non-tribal population of Assam—and, therefore, deserved to be admitted. These interests, the judges observed, related to the protection of Assamese culture, but had larger ramifications for the sovereignty and integrity of the country as a whole. The judges left the question of the constitutional validity of Section 6A, particularly its compatibility with the citizenship provisions in the Constitution in prescribing for Assam a cut-off date for citizenship which was at variance with Article 6 of the Constitution, to be decided by a constitutional bench.

Addressing the remaining parts of the petition, they traced the historical trajectory of Section 6A to the Assam Accord, and averred that the legal modalities of conferring citizenship were only part of the Assam Accord. The other and equally substantial components of the accord consisted in securing the international border against future infiltration and the preservation of Assamese culture and identity. In October 2006, the Government of Assam constituted a committee of ministers to examine the implementation of the Assam Accord, and the complex task of defining the “Assamese people.” The committee met with political parties, literary bodies and student groups to deliberate on an appropriate definition. In July 2011, a cabinet subcommittee was constituted by the central government to examine the question.

Leaving it to the government and the Assamese people to deliberate and decide on what constituted Assamese culture, the Supreme Court limited itself to issuing specific directions to the central and state governments for the fortification and surveillance of the eastern border. It also decided to monitor the progress made in this direction by the government, by preparing a road map for its completion. The Court, however, concerned itself also with securing the territory “internally” by expediting the process of sieving out the foreigners from citizens. To this end, it asked the Gauhati High Court to hasten the process of selection of chairpersons and members of the Foreigners Tribunals to ensure that they became operational. The Chief Justice of the Gauhati High Court was to monitor the tribunals by constituting a special bench to oversee their progress. The central government was asked to streamline the process of deportation of the illegal migrants after discussions with the Government of Bangladesh, and to place the outcome of these discussions before the Court. In addition, the Supreme Court laid down a time schedule to be followed for updating the NRC in Assam so that the entire register could be published by the end of January 2016.1 In its administrative guidelines the Supreme Court followed its decision in Sarbananda Sonowal (2005) in construing the “influx of illegal migrants into the state of India as external aggression.” At the same time, however, it broadened the notion of security to include “internal disturbance,” which involved being alert to and eliminating risks to the Assamese people from outsiders. To this end, it directed the attention of the larger bench of the Supreme Court which would examine the constitutional questions precipitated by the petitions, to consider whether the expression “state” occurring in Article 355 refers only to a territorial region or includes also the people living in the state, their culture and identity. For its part, by prescribing a deadline for the updation of the NRC, the Court reinforced the responsibility taken up by the central government through the Assam Accord to update the 1951 NRC in Assam.

The second set of petitions filed in 2012 by Swajan and the Bimalangshu Roy Foundation pleads that Hindus and persons of other minorities from Bangladesh migrating to Assam to escape religious persecution must not be bracketed with illegal migrants to be slotted for deportation. Pointing out that Section 2 of the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 protects from expulsion any person “who on account of civil disturbances or fear of such disturbances” in any area forming part of Pakistan (now Bangladesh) has been displaced from or has left his place of residence and has been subsequently residing in Assam, the petitioners ask that displaced persons should constitute a distinct category for legal protection, and that Hindus seeking shelter in Assam should be given citizenship on the same grounds that they have been given in Gujarat and Rajasthan between 2004 and 2007 (Telegraph 2013).

After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in 2014, its leaders, including the BJP chief Amit Shah, have spoken in rallies in Assam assuring citizenship to Hindus who had fled to India to escape religious persecution in Bangladesh. Indeed, the government has promised to enact a law for the rehabilitation of Hindu refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh, setting up a task force to expedite pending citizenship requests from refugees, and issuing long-term visas of 10–15 years, wherever citizenship requests were taking long to process. At the same time, echoing the campaign speeches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Shah had been convincing people in Assam that the BJP would get rid of “infiltrators.” Indeed the BJP declared immigration policy a major plank of its campaign in the Assam assembly elections in 2016. On 9 April 2016, speaking in a rally at Sonari, Amit Shah promised to give the Assamese people a Bangladeshi-migrants-free Assam if BJP was voted to power (Kashyap 2016). In an article in the Indian Express, Samudra Gupta Kashyap elaborates on the number of Bangladeshis in Assam, arguing that the numbers remain disputed, with the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) believing that “infiltration” is not as substantial as it is made out to be by the AASU. Yet, since 1985, Foreigners Tribunals have declared 38,000 persons in Assam as illegal migrants, of whom most have either absconded or are in detention in camps. The Foreigners Tribunal is scrutinising over a lakh cases. Nearly 1.5 lakh names in Assam’s electoral rolls are marked “D” standing for “doubtful” to convey their citizenship status. Interestingly, the “D” voters are permitted to apply for inclusion of their names in the NRC, but their registration would ultimately depend on the verdict of the Foreigners’ Tribunals (Kashyap 2015).

Bounded Citizenship

As mentioned earlier, whereas in the rest of the country, the cut-off date for citizenship inscribed in the Constitution is 19 July 1948, with the 1986 amendment in the Citizenship Act, Assam became an exception to the constitutional deadline, with 24 March 1971 becoming the new cut-off applied exclusively to Assam. The NRC in Assam works on the principle of tracing citizenship to a legacy of Assamese descent going back to the 1951 NRC and to next signpost, 1971—the “additional load,” as Prateek Hazela, commissioner and state coordinator of NRC, called it in an extensive interaction with the author.

Yet, the NRC is not only about integration and closure, or even the recognition of an Assamese identity by descent or through affirmation of legal residence in Assam. It is equally about a humongous bureaucratic exercise of identification and enumeration of citizens, of putting in place efficient and effective identification regimes and associated documentation practices, often associated with the exercise of state power, and state-formative practices. A body of scholarship has established that such practices produce the structural effect of the state, whereby the state appears to exist through palpable ruling practices. Fixing territorial boundaries, and making its inhabitants legal are important ingredients of statecraft, which seek to make the citizen a stable and enumerable category, amenable to specific governmental practices. The regimes of national identity systems enumerating entire populations of nation states, make these systems more comprehensive and consequential. In recent years, digitalised and biometric identification systems have made identification regimes more efficient but also intrusive than the older paper-based documentation regimes, for their potential for surveillance of citizens. The diverse components of surveillance such as tools and technologies of survey, measurement, census, etc, have long been used for marking what lies within the purview of the state’s powers of extraction and control, enhancing and entrenching its powers of revenue collection, garnering military service, law enforcement, and policing. Over the years these tools have become more sophisticated, specialised and differentiated, and increasingly more nebulous, not requiring the constant proximity between the law enforcers and the people (Singh 2014: 42).

It is indeed possible to see the NRC as part of the continuing legacy of governmental practices of the state, and its potential for surveillance and control. In 2003, the amendment to the Citizenship Act brought about two significant changes—the recognition in law of the category of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI), and the constraining of citizenship by birth by confining it to only those whose parents were Indian citizens already or if one of the parents was an Indian citizen and the other was not an illegal migrant. In addition, the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and the Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules of 2003 provided the procedure for the “establishment and maintenance” of the NRC. Section 14A made the registration of all citizens of India, issue of national identity cards, the maintenance of a national population register, and the establishment of the NRC by the central government compulsory.

The preparation of the NRC in the entire country is yet to take off, and the National Population Register (NPR) which is being prepared alongside the Unique Identification (UID) Aadhaar is expected to lead on to the issue of national identity cards based on citizenship (not just residence) and the NRC, after the illegal migrants who may have entered the NPR are weeded out.

The trajectory of the NRC in Assam, however, can be traced to the decisive moment in 2005, when the Supreme Court scrapped the IMDT Act. While delivering the judgment, the Court directed that all persons with suspect citizenship be brought under the purview of the Foreigners Act, 1946. The then Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi proposed that the NRC prepared in 1951 in the state be updated to resolve all contests over the foreigner issue, and also put to rest the apprehensions of the AASU and the AIUDF. A separate directorate was established by the Government of Assam to update the NRC. However, it did not make any progress beyond the computation of available data, partly because the NRC 1951 for all the districts of Assam was not readily available with the state government2 (Kashyap 2007, 2015).

In 2007, the Gogoi reiterated the desirability of having an updated NRC, but also drew attention to the intricacies of the process and the problems accruing from the fact that a large number of legitimate residents of Assam, such as the tea garden workers, may not actually have any documentary evidence to trace their residence in the state to 1971 or 1951. In addition there was no clarity as to where the legal authority of the process of updation would come from—a constitutional amendment or statute of the central government approving the modalities framed by the state government. A cabinet subcommittee was set up by the state government to draw up the modalities, to finalise the procedures and structures of establishing the link of every person to the electoral rolls of 1971, which could then be connected to the NRC of 1951. In 2015, when the Supreme Court issued directions to the state government to accelerate the process and complete it within a prescribed time frame, the central government provided the guidelines and funds for updation and the process was carried out by the state government, under the guidance of the Registrar General of India, as provided in the amended Citizenship Act. A senior IAS officer headed the NRC as its commissioner and coordinator (Kashyap 2015).

Rationality, Efficiency and Trust

Elaborating the complex modalities of updating the NRC, Prateek Hazela foregrounded aspects of the NRC, which are decidedly distinct from the political imperatives of tracing an Assamese legacy. Hazela professes a bureaucratic rationality, propelled by the logic of efficiency, and driven by the objective of developing a foolproof mechanism of identifying Indian citizens resident in Assam. At the same time, since the efficiency of the identification system depended on the active and willing participation of the people of Assam, the technical model had to be made acceptable and comprehensible to the Assamese people as a whole. To be acceptable, a system needs to be made familiar to people. This is possible only after an initial confidence is built. Indeed, in the sequence followed by the NRC commissioner, generating trust for the NRC was the first essential step before the actual process of enumeration could begin. Ajupi Baruah, project manager with the NRC, described the process as akin to invoking a sentiment—of creating a frenzy—which could then be channelled into winning people’s trust, alleviating their apprehensions, and ensuring their participation.

The NRC hoardings and visual promos played in cinema halls and television channels included Bihu songs and dances around the NRC theme. Using familiar cultural tropes, promotional videos were intended to build curiosity, and subsequently anticipation, which could translate into popular acceptance, enabling collective participation in a massive and complex exercise. Indeed, the NRC anthem sung by the popular Assamese singer Zubeen Garg (Jibon Borthakur), wove together pleasing visuals of plurality and cultural diversity, promising the following:

We are the citizens of this country

NRC represents our each and every soul.

We hold each other’s hands

NRC gives courage in our hearts.

Our identity, security, rights,

Peace, progress, and unity together.

The emotive appeal of the NRC anthem lay in the promise of citizenship as a collective national political identity, juxtaposed on an inclusive Assamese identity characterised by cultural plurality. A leaflet issued by the state coordinator NRC, Assam, invoked the spirit of responsible participation, by reminding citizens of their civic role in “standing united and making the NRC a success story for us and our future generations.”

Once curiosity had been generated and anticipation built, the second, and more difficult step was to make people familiar with the complex procedures. The NRC office adopted a range of strategies to make the system comprehensible. These included educational videos and television advertisements, newspaper advertisements, leaflets, pamphlets and posters with illustrative examples of registration of a fictitious family, public meetings, community level meetings and gram sabhas, etc, to build, as the NRC commissioner expressed it, people’s “capacity” to register themselves.3

It may be recalled here, that in the Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha’s petition before the Supreme Court questioning the constitutional validity of the 1986 amendment and consequently Section 6A of the Citizenship Act for being at variance with the Article 6 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court had issued instructions to the state government to expedite the process of preparing the NRC and to the Gauhati High Court to accelerate the process of identification of foreigners and illegal migrants. The entire process of preparation of the NRC was to be monitored by the Supreme Court. The thumb rule for identification of a citizen was to trace his or her pedigree to an ancestor who had resided in Assam on or before the deadline of 24 March 1971, by referring to what the NRC called and generated as “legacy data.” The data of the 1951 NRC and the electoral rolls published in Assam up to 24 March 1971 cumulatively comprised the legacy data. Finding an ancestor in the legacy data to whom a person could trace direct descent was the most common mode of identification for inclusion in the NRC.

Before the process of tracing legacy could begin, the NRC office had to coordinate the compilation of large and dispersed data on the 1951 NRC and the electoral rolls which were available at district levels, into one consolidated computerised database. The statutory publication of the legacy data was done alongside the launch of 2,500 NRC seva kendras (NSKs) on 27 March 2015, marking the inauguration of the process of updation of the NRC. Spread across the state, in districts, and clusters of villages, the NSKs housed the published legacy data, provided access to the digital database, and also served as application receiving centres. After an ancestor had been traced in the legacy data, the computerised database assigned to the applicant an 11 digit number called Unique Legacy Data Code, which gave the applicant a numerical link with the ancestor. The applicant quoted the legacy data code at the time of submission of the application. The legacy code became the basis of the verification of the applicant’s claims and also linked him/her up to others who had the same code because of common ancestry. Apart from the data code providing legacy trace, the applicants furnished a number of “linkage documents” carrying the names of both the ancestor and the applicant, to establish connections with the ancestor appearing in the legacy data.4

Apart from those who could trace their legacy to the 1951 NRC, other categories of persons considered eligible for inclusion were those who came to Assam on or after 1 January 1966 but before 25 March 1971, and had registered themselves with the Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO) and had not been identified as illegal migrants or foreigners, and the “original inhabitants” of Assam and their children and descendants whose citizenship could be ascertained by the registering authority. Subsequent Supreme Court orders permitted Indian citizens and their children and descendants who moved to Assam after 24 March 1971 to apply for inclusion, if they could furnish evidence that they were resident in any part of the country outside Assam on 24 March 1971. As per another Supreme Court order, all the members of the tea tribes are covered under “Original inhabitants of Assam” category provided for under Clause 3(3) of the Schedule of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules 2003. The project officer with the NRC clarified that in the absence of any proof of residence, and non availability of legacy data code, original inhabitants like the Karbis could be registered through the affirmation of their status by what was called a “speaking order” whereby, the Local Registrar of Citizen Registration (LRCR) could certify that despite no documents, on the basis of their language, food, clothes, etc, it could be assumed that they were the original inhabitants of the state.

After the publication of the legacy data and the launch of the NSKs, the process of actual application began. The forms were distributed to the people at their houses but could also be downloaded from the website. The head of the family was expected to apply for the entire family, including the daughters. All members of the family, who were residing in Assam, or outside in any other part of the country, or abroad, had to be included in the application. In case of institutional homes, like orphanages, old age homes, asylums, etc, the head of the institution would apply for the inmates.5 Photocopies of all documents, showing the names of the persons in the family who figure in the legacy data, and additional linkage documents showing relationship with the ancestor in the legacy document were submitted at NSKs designated for particular localities, whose officials would be responsible for conducting the physical verification of the details by visiting the addresses mentioned in the form.

The NRC updation process is presently at the stage of verification of 68.33 lakh application forms it has received, along with five crore supporting documents.6 Verification is done as per the provisions of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of Identity Cards) Rules 2013, and consists of two parts—office verification and field verification. Office verification entails the scanned and uploaded copies of all documents being sent to the issuing authority to confirm whether the document was in fact issued by it and whether the details in the document corresponded with the records that existed with the issuing authority. If official verification was intended to weed out forged documents, field verification consisting of house to house visits by the verification team intended to check identity proof, verify submitted documents for validity and establishment of relationship, and collect details of the ”family tree” to match the detail with those submitted by various applicants across Assam. Matching the family tree submitted by applicants with the one generated by the computer software on the basis of forms received was designed to detect false claims.7

Indeed the family tree is an innovation where authenticity of claims to residence and citizenship are affirmed through the kinship network. A family tree form is filled up by the visiting team from the information given by the applicant in the form and to the visiting team. This “manual family tree” is checked against a computer software-generated family tree carrying the details of all the persons who have claimed to be children or grandchildren of the same legacy person.8 The ongoing verification process will be followed by the publication of the draft NRC, and subsequently the receipt and disposal of claims and objections and the publication of the final NRC.

Conclusions

The NRC marks continuity with a notion of citizenship that can be traced to the Assam Accord, the contestations around the amendment of the citizenship act in 1986, and subsequently the Supreme Court judgment in the Sarbananda Sonowal case 2005. The petitions by the Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha and others and Swajan and Bimalangshu Roy Foundation questioning the constitutional validity of Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, have added fresh dimensions to the debate, which became significant in the electoral competition in the state in the 2016 state assembly elections. The widespread acceptance of the NRC among the Assamese people is indicative of a consensus among the Assamese people on the resolution of the question of citizenship. There are different streams in the political consensus, with one strand seeing it as a continuing commitment to the Assam Accord and its potential to alleviate the crisis in citizenship, and another preferring to contest the accord’s capacity to resolve the problem. Thus, while Tarun Gogoi vouched for the efficiency of the tools developed by the NRC office to update the NRC, others have expressed the fear that it may only legitimise the Bangladeshi immigrants.

In the course of the election campaign, Himanta Biswa Sarma who had migrated to the BJP from the Congress, and was now its chief strategist, declared his disagreement with the continuation of 1971 as the deadline for the NRC, reiterating the dominant BJP position that the party is committed to granting citizenship status to Hindus who came to Assam after the 24 March 1971 deadline (Bhattacharjee 2016). In addition, claiming that the Assam Accord provisions pertaining to citizenship are disputed and challenged in the Supreme Court, Sarma has chosen to foreground that part of the accord, which promised that the original inhabitants of Assam and their culture be protected. In line with this, he would prefer to see the citizenship signpost pushed back to 1951, and those who came to Assam between 1951 and 1971 be given refugee status and not full citizenship (Sarma 2016). An AASU member in a political meeting in Sarbananda Sonowal’s constituency Majuli communicated this as follows:

The Tarun Gogoi government has to go. People will have to come out this time if they want the Axomiya jati (the ethnic Assamese) to survive. Or else we will become foreigners in our own land. It wasn’t for nothing that Bhupen Hazarika sang long ago, ‘Aami axomiya nohou dukhia buli santona lobhile nohobo’ [It is not enough of a succour to believe that we Assamese will never be poor in our own land].

An appeal by AASU in the Supreme Court in February 2016, challenging the decision taken by the central government to give citizenship to displaced Hindus from Bangladesh, was withdrawn after the announcement of Sarbananda Sonowal’s name as the BJPs chief ministerial candidate (Pisharoty 2016). Yet, there is a strong sentiment in AASU, often also reverberating in Sonowal’s statements, which continues to support the accord, the 1971 deadline, and its affirmation in the of 2005 Supreme Court judgment (Hindu 2016). Not surprisingly, a day after he was sworn in as Chief Minister Sonowal visited the NRC office assuring complete support to the endeavour. Yet, the doublespeak in the BJP, and its emphasis on the resolution of the “foreigners question,” as evident from the assembly election results declared on 19 May 2016, have resulted in consolidating the Hindu votes in favour of the BJP. Whether it will replace a plural Assamese identity with one rallying around religion, only time can tell.

Notes

1 Judgment delivered by Justice Ranjan Gogoi and R F Nariman on 17December 2014 in the case Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha and Others v Union of India and Others (2012): Writ Petition (Civil) No 562. In May 2015, the court appointed a court commissioner to visit the border areas to study and report the progress made.

2 The decision to update the NRC was announced by the Assam government in 2005. A pilot project was launched in the assembly constituencies of Barpeta and Chhaygaon in 2010. While the Chhaygaon updating was successfully completed, the one at Barpeta had to be called off following violent protests by the All Assam Minority Students’ Union. AASU and other groups pressed for a resumption of the process. The Supreme Court intervened and fixed 31 October 2015 as the date for publishing the draft NRC, and 31 January 2016 as the deadline for the final NRC.

3 See Government of Assam, National Register of Citizens, http://nrcassam.nic.in/faq01.html, accessed on 14 May 2016.

4 The following documents are admissible: birth certificate, land documents, PAN card, board university examination certificate, bank account, LIC policy, post office documents, gram panchayat secretary certificate, electoral roll, etc. In case an ancestor’s name was not found in the legacy data, application for inclusion may be made for inclusion in the NRC by providing any of the other admissible documents issued before 24 March 1971 (midnight), namely, (i) land and tenancy records, (ii) citizenship certificate, (iii) permanent residential certificate, (iv) refugee registration certificate, (v) passport, (vi) LIC policy, (vii) government-issued license/certificate, (viii) government service/employment certificate, (ix) bank/post office accounts, (x) birth certificate, (xi) board/university educational certificate, (xii) court records/processes. See nrcassam.nic.in/faq02.html (accessed on 14 March 2016).

5 NRC, leaflet on application form receipt, filing and application, 2015 (not numbered).

6 NRC, leaflet on verification of NRC application forms and family tree detail submission for an error free NRC, Leaflet no NRC Assam/leaflet/verification-1/2015.

7 See note 6.

8 See note 6.

References

Baruah, Sanjeeb (1999): India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Bhattacharjee, Nilotpal (2016): “BJP, AGP In Migrant Divide,” Telegraph, 6 March.

Hindu (2016): “Sarbananda Unanimously Elected as BJP Legislature Party Leader in Assam,” 22 May.

Kashyap, Samudra Gupta (2007): “Assam Yet to Update National Register of Citizens,” Indian Express, 6 August.

— (2015): “In Assam, An Ongoing Effort to Detect Illegal Bangladeshi Migrants,” Indian Express, 17 June.

— (2016): “BJP Will Rid Assam of Bangladeshis: Shah,” Indian Express, 10 April.

Pisharoty, Sangeeta Barooah (2016): “We will Demand Full Implementation of the Assam Accord from Any Party That Wins,” The Wire, 22 March.

Sarma, Himanta Biswa (2016): “In This Assam Poll, Bangladesh Immigrants Want Their Own CM too,” Indian Express, 15 February.

Singh, Ujjwal Kumar (2014): “Surveillance Regimes in India,” States of Surveillance: Counter-Terrorism and Comparative Constitutionalism, Fergal Davis, Nicola McGarrity and George Williams (eds), London: Routledge.

Telegraph (2013): “SC Mulls Case of Refugees—Apex Courts Asks Centre & Dispur to Respond to PIL,” 26 July, Kolkata.

The Wire (2016): “BJP Pins Its Hopes on Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in Assam Polls,” 4 April, accessed on 16 May 2016.

————

Anupama Roy (royanupama07@gmail.com) is with the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The author would like to thank Sanjeeva Kumar, Prateek Hazela, Akhil Datta, Banasmita Bora, Santana Khanikar and Ankita Datta for their help and support.

The paper has been published in the Economic & Political Weekly and is available here: http://www.epw.in/journal/2016/26-27/perspectives/ambivalence-citizenship-assam.html . This is a reproduction in toto for wider dissemination.

How the NRC updation in Assam threatens to render a large section of Bengali settlers in the state stateless

September 13, 2015

Joydeep Biswas

A riot victim woman whose house was burnt down by the militants takes shelter at a relief camp in Narayanguri village in Baksa district of Assam. Photo: The Hindu

A riot victim woman whose house was burnt down by the militants takes shelter at a relief camp in Narayanguri village in Baksa district of Assam. Photo: The Hindu

Very few in mainland India are aware at the moment that a process of citizens’ registration on the basis of racial profiling is under way on the eastern fringe of the country. The national media — both print and electronic — has not cared even to report the ongoing preparation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), leave alone analysing the legal nuances involved in the action and the possible plight of the ‘denizens’.

This exercise, initiated through a gazette notification dated December 5, 2013 by the Registrar General of India, was initially due to be completed within a time span of three years. But the judgment delivered by a Division Bench of the honourable Supreme Court (Coram JJ, R. Gogoi, R.F. Nariman), dated 17 December 2014, advanced the due date of publication of the final NRC to January 1, 2016. The whole exercise, set off in a selective manner only for the State of Assam, is meant for detection, detention and deportation of the illegal migrants who crossed over to Assam from Bangladesh on or after March 25, 1971.

The vexed issue of infiltration and expulsion of foreigners in Assam, which has dominated the political theatre of the State for over three decades, has got close links with the very history of the subcontinent. Colonial history of the State dates back to 1826 when, under the Treaty of Yandabo, the then geography of what is now called Assam came under the British rule. And the tract was made a part of the Bengal Presidency which, of course, included the erstwhile East Bengal as well.

The first partition of Bengal

In a different turn of events, Cachar, now one of the three districts forming the Barak Valley in southern Assam, was annexed by the Britishers after the fall of the Kachari Kingdom in 1832, and was also made a part of the huge Bengal Presidency. Such arrangements were made much before the first Government of India Act, 1858 through which control over the Indian territories held by the British East India Company was vested in the British queen.

They effectively meant that people of Bengal and of Assam — transcending ethnicity, language and culture — lived within the same administrative jurisdiction and under the same political dispensation.

In 1874, by a whimsical decision of the British government, two districts of East Bengal — Sylhet (along with Cachar) and Goalpara — were separated from the Bengal Presidency, and were joined with Assam to create a new administrative unit which was placed under a Chief Commissioner. This was technically the first Partition of Bengal, a development that unfortunately escaped the attention of the mainstream scholarship.

Much has been written and read about the partition of Bengal in 1905, and its eventual rollback in 1911. However, surprisingly enough, historians of modern India have shown cruel indifference to the cultural knifing of 1874, due to which the Bengalis of Sylhet and Goalpara of the then East Bengal, for no fault of theirs, had to shift their allegiance to a completely different cultural geography.

The colonial power had its own fiscal logic. Sylhet, a revenue-rich district in British India, was tagged with a revenue-deficit Assam to address the administrative purpose of fiscal rationalisation. These two districts thereafter continued to exist inside the administrative boundary of Assam for the remaining length of the colonial rule. In 1947, Sylhet was lost to Pakistan on the basis of the outcome of an allegedly rigged referendum.

The communal carnage that took over the subcontinent resulted in the biggest displacement of people in the recorded history. The humanitarian crisis had its ramifications both on the eastern and the western boundaries of the newly liberated India. But in terms of number, intensity and continuity, impact of the exodus felt on the eastern front far exceeded that on the west. The internal political turmoil, coupled with communal riots first in East Pakistan, and then in Bangladesh, made sure movements across the boundary remained a regular feature even after 1971.

This repeated redrawing of political map of Assam, along with that of the twin valleys of Surma and Barak by the colonial rulers, showing utter disregard to the sentiments of the Assamese and the Bengalis, is causally connected to the emergence of the parochial political patriarchs who assumed power in the Assam in the post-Independence India. Assamese middle-class saw in the British actions of administering Bengali settlement on their own land an evil design of linguistic hegemony. Hence, in the post-colonial Assam, they tried to correct history.

In a bid to retaliate, the Assamese elites, who by then had got a fair share of political power, began to treat Bengali settlers on Assam’s soil as ‘cultural foreigners’. The genesis of the anti-foreigner movement, spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) during 1979-85, thus, dates back to the series of above happenings where politics played mayhem with culture.

The bogey of ‘infiltration’

There was no evidence provided by either the government or the academia about the scale of cross-border movement of people. Despite that, the xenophobic movement launched by the AASU during the early 1980s was successful in convincing the Indian establishment that a ‘marauding infiltration’ by Bangladeshi nationals from across the border was putting the Assamese language and culture in great danger.

The six-year-long violent agitation, which left hundreds dead and thousands traumatised, culminated in the inking of the Assam Accord on August 14-15, 1985. This tripartite memorandum of settlement between the Centre, the Assam government and the AASU leadership was considered ‘historic’ in the Brahmaputra Valley. The Citizenship Act, 1955 was suitably amended by the Parliament to incorporate Section 6(a), bringing in a special provision of citizenship for Assam.

The legislative passage engineered by the Rajiv Gandhi government, which had a brute majority in both the Houses, did not care for the history, geography and anthropology of colonial Assam. The Nellie pogrom of February 18, 1983, in which more than 2,000 Bengali-speaking people, including women and children, were butchered, was conveniently forgotten by the Indian state. That gory incident has never been given enough attention in the media.

Legitimisation of racial violence

Successive governments have not been able to bring the killers to justice. To the contrary, the metamorphosis of AASU into Asom Gana Parishad and its eventual victory in Assembly elections has practically legitimised the racial killings.

The Bengali speaking citizens in Assam now face a new kind of terror, this time, from the Indian government. On the strength of an agreement, the State government is now active in the preparation of the National Register of Citizens. This is aimed at labelling lakhs of Bengali-speaking citizens as ‘illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators’.

The relevant rules and provisions in the statute book, including the Citizenship Act, 1955; the Foreigners Expulsion Act, 1946; the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950; the Foreigners Tribunals Order, 1964; and the Citizenship Rules, 2003 (as amended in 2009 and 2010), have all been very carefully crafted over the years to evict from Assam the Partition victims of erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

The Indian government has decided to upgrade the NRC only for the State of Assam even though, ideally, the exercise should have covered the entire country. The purpose of this official action is not difficult to decipher. The stringent set of conditions attached to the process requires the Bengalis of Assam to prove their Indian citizenship solely on the basis of their or their ancestors’ names appearing on the electoral rolls published up to 25 March 1971 and the NRC of 1951, failing which they would be thrown out of the updated NRC.

To make things complicated for these people, such electoral rolls are found to be both incorrect and incomplete. On the other hand, their Assamese and tribal counterparts would find easy inclusion, by virtue of being the ‘original inhabitants of Assam beyond reasonable doubt’.

The key question that confronts us now is: what would happen to these hapless Bengali settlers? In the absence of any bilateral arrangement between India and Bangladesh, the latter is not ready to take them back. This implies that lakhs of such Indian citizens, who have had their names on the Indian electoral rolls for the past four decades, and who are in possession of Electoral Photo Identity Card, would be rendered stateless. Going by the existing deportation norms and practices, they will just be evicted to the no man’s land on the Indo-Bangla border, that too in the dead of night. It will be a shameful moment for India, a proud signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

(Joydeep Biswas is an associate professor of economics in Cachar College, Assam (Central) University.E-mail: joydbiswas@gmail.com)

The piece was first published in the Hindu and can be accessed here http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-starkness-of-being-nowhere/article7633845.ece

NRC fiasco: things you must know about the national register of citizens

July 3, 2015

By Aman Wadud

These days NRC is dominating debate and discussion in Assam. NRC (National Register of Citizens) was first prepared in 1951 based on census of that year. The Supreme Court in a judgment has asked the Centre and the state government to update NRC for Assam in a time bound manner. The NRC will now be updated to include names of those persons or their descendants whose name appear in the NRC, 1951 or in any of the Electoral Rolls up to the midnight of 24thMarch,1971 or in any other admissible documents issued up to mid-night of 24th March 1971. These documents together are called legacy Data and included in List A. Another set of document will be required to prove linage with the person whose name appears in pre 24th March 1971 documents/ Legacy Data, these are included in List B.

NRC

Challenges before citizens: NRC is huge process touching the lives of entire population of Assam, even new born will also be included in updated NRC. Updation of NRC is more than thirty years old demand. One of the demands of Assam agitation leaders was to update NRC free of any illegal immigrants. Government after government kept deferring it. Even the Assam agitation leaders who formed a political party and was in power for ten years did not update NRC. Finally after Supreme Court’s order the process of updation of NRC has started in Assam.  The Centre, the State government and its institutions should have taken all necessary steps to make the entire process convenient for masses. To the contrary, the NRC updation process has been made inconvenient, cumbersome and utterly confusing. The NRC application form  is a clumsy and complex piece of paper for general citizens.   Till date two people have committed  suicide and more has attempted to end their lives failing to find name of their ancestors in Legacy Data.

Everyone except whose names appears in Legacy data should prove their linkage with the person whose name appears in Legacy Data. There are seven  documents in List B to prove linkage, which are- birth certificate, land documents, board/university certificate,Bank/LIC/PO documents, Circle Officer/GP Secretary Certificate, Electoral roll, ration card and at number eight it is mentioned that any legally acceptable documents  can be submitted to prove linkage. But it is not mentioned anywhere what exactly are these documents which has been termed as legally acceptable document. Although one might argue that documents mentioned in List B are extensive , they forgets that there are lakhs of children from poor families  who doesn’t have birth certificates, and they are too young to get themselves enlisted in voter list. It is not possible for these poor parents to get issued a birth certificate for their grown up children.

A new born gets birth certificate free of cost if issued within 21 days of birth, parents has to pay huge bribe if they want birth certificate for their issues after this period. These children will be left with no documents to prove their relationship with their parents and ancestors. To make things worse even School certificates are not been accepted as valid document to prove linkage. NRC updating authorities definitely did not spare a thought for these children or they would have included Gaon Burah certificate or  certificate provided by schools in List B to prove linkage. There is no explanation why Gaon Burah certificate is not accepted as legally acceptable document. A Gaon Burah or a village headman is a civil post , the office of the deputy commissioner of the district is the appointing authority of a Gaon Burah. Certificate issued by Gaon Burah is also accepted in judicial proceedings, wonder what stopped NRC updating authorities to include Gaon Burah certificate in List B. Lakhs of parents all over the state are having sleepless nights failing to obtain any certificate to prove that their own children are actually their own. Some parents have fallen prey to frauds who are selling fake birth certificates for few hundred rupees. If at all non inclusion of certificate issued by Gaon Burah and school certificates in List B is helping anyone, it is helping these frauds who are selling fake birth certificate to innocent and impoverished parents. If these parents are caught submitting fake birth certificate they might be prosecuted and put behind bar for cheating, thus causing more misery to their existing impoverishment.

Certainly NRC updating authorities could have done away with these hardships that many parents are enduring. Apparently NRC updating authorities has taken a decision to include Gaon Burah certificate in List B , but that decision has not been implemented till this piece is written. With just one month left for the last date for submission of NRC application form , NRC updating authorities is still undecided whether to include Gaon Burah certificate in List B. There could two be reason for this – either NRC updating authorities has mala fide intention or they are supremely incompetent. Either of these is uncalled for and unacceptable. One of the worse affected people of this entire fiasco is Nur Islam. Nur Islam hails from a backward area of Barpeta district, where I met him during one of many NRC awareness meetings. He is father of four children, and no one has birth certificate. When I asked him to get issued birth certificate for his children, his reply made me speechless. Nur Islam says “I somehow makes two ends meet by working as a daily wage laborer, how can I spend thousands of rupees for birth certificates?.” Assam has many such Nur Islam, they are suffering only because of reprehensible attitude of NRC updating authorities. Inclusion of Gaon Burah Certificate and School certificate in List B would have solved problems for lakhs of Nur Islam.

Indian citizens who came to Assam from other state after 24th March,1971: Legacy data has been uploaded for those who were resident of Assam before 24th March, 1971. Those who came from other state of India after 1971 will naturally face problems in applying for NRC. They will have to fill up column 12 of the application form by mentioning the complete address from where they or their ancestors came and provide documents proving the same. There are many impoverished people who came to Assam post 1971 or even after that and settled permanently here. Many never returned to their place of birth and don’t have any connection to the place from where they migrated. One of them is Ismail Siddique, I met him at a NRC awareness meeting. Siddique is 60 years old, he is settled in Baksa district of Assam. Siddique was born in Uttar Pradesh , he eloped with a girl from other religion and came to Assam as a teenager. Ismail Siddique has never returned to his place of birth, he says he don’t even remember the name of his village now. He will fail to provide any documents to prove that he migrated from Uttar Pradesh. Ismail Siddique is certainly not an exception. Will failure to mention name of place from where he migrated and submitting documents to  back the claim  result non inclusion of his name in updated NRC ? Will citizens right be curtailed for people like Ismail Siddique. These apprehensions have turned in to nightmare for people like IsmailSiddique.

There are many who came to Assam from Bihar, they came to Assam for a livelihood and settled here. Many know the place of origin but do not have any documents to prove. Even for a certificate from District administration or Gaon Panchayat they will have travel all the way to Bihar. Some people will be succeed to provide documents but many will fail to get necessary documents from their state of origin.

To add to worries and apprehension NRC authorities doesn’t have any comforting reply for these people. NRC Seva Kendra official are clueless , so are NRC call centre employees. At NRC call centre the standard answer is : people who came to Assam from other state post 24th march 1971 will face problem. This is nothing short of  making mockery of  Fundamental Right to reside and settle in any part of the territory of  India.

Moreover there are large numbers of Assamese who lived in areas which are not parts of Assam now. Like those who lived in the then capital, Shillong and voted there. The names of those people are not found in Legacy Data. Although they have option to submit other admissible documents, but how many have preserved such documents? It goes without saying that they are in fear of getting their name dropped from updated NRC.

Married Women who migrated to other place: A married woman has to submit legacy data of her ancestors and prove linkage with them. She can prove linkage with any legally acceptable documents including certificate of Secretary, Gaon Panchayat countersigned by Circle officer/BDO/Executive magistrate. On the face of it this doesn’t seem to be a problem. But this is huge problem for women who doesn’t have birth certificate or any educational certificate issued by board/ university. As they are married off early their name also doesn’t feature with father’s name in the voter list at parental home. In absence of any other legal documents a married women can get a certificate from Secretary Gaon Panchayat countersigned by Circle Officer/BDO/Executive magistrate. Initially in many areas Circle Officers refused to sign such certificate; it was only after pressure from various organizations that Circle Officers are  putting sign on such certificate. Moreover there was no format of certificate with Secretary, Gaon Panchayat, it was provided after lots of hue and cry.

In the three 6th Schedule Areas of Assam – Karbi Anglong, Dima Hasao and Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) , there is no Panchayat. NRC updating authorities should have made alternative arrangements in lieu of Certificate issued by Secretary, Gaon Panchayat, but no arrangements were made. Here too only after several organizations approached NRC authorities and appraised about this serious lapse it authorized Lot Mandal to issue certificate. The way  NRC updating authorities acted it raises several doubts about their intention and left no doubt about its incompetency to handle a process which includes entire population of the state.

Violation of Supreme Court Order: The Supreme Court vide its order dated 16.07.2013 in WP( C) 274/2009 (The case by which Supreme Court ordered to update NRC in a time bound manner) has directed to publish the copies of NRC 1951 and electoral rolls up to midnight of 24th March 1971 and make it available in all areas of the state up to the village level. The Supreme Court said ,  “If these modalities are to be worked  out,  the  extracts  of  National Register of Citizens of 1951 as well as the  Electoral  Rolls up to the midnight of 24th March, 1971 will have to be  published  and made available in all the areas of the State, up to the Village level.”   But surprisingly only copies of NRC 1951 and electoral rolls of 1965,1966,1970 and 1971 has been published, it is to be noted that in many areas  copies of NRC 1951 has not been made available even though people of those areas have certified copies of NRC 1951. The entire electoral rolls since Independence to 1965 is completely missing. People of villages like  Salakati, 1 No. Bhumki, 2 No. Bhumki, Chautaki Part 1, Chautaki Part 2, Baddapara, Pollapara, Kauniabhasha, Uzanpara, Kauniabhasha Maspara, Kauniabhasha Munshipara, Kauniabhasha Milmilipara, Joraigaon, Kurshakati, Khakrabari, Chitla, Fakiragram, Bhotgaon, Kashipara  etc of  Kokrajhar district  have certified copies of NRC 1951 but it has not been uploaded with Legacy Data code. These are only few villages of one district whose Legacy data of  NRC 1951 has not been uploaded, in 27 districts of Assam there are thousands such villages.

According 6A of the Citizenship Act, amended after Assam Accord,  those who came to Assam on or after 1st day January  1966 but before 25th day of March 1971, should get themselves registered and  will be barred from voting for ten years. There is fear  among people that if they submit electoral rolls of 1966 to 1971 they will be denied voting rights for ten years. Although NRC updating authorities  has published advertisement not to believe in rumours but the fact that NRC application form has different column for  NRC 1951 and different column for  Electoral Roll(s) up to 24th March 1971, the advertisements has not helped in mitigating apprehension of people that their voting rights could be curtailed after updation of NRC.

People has legitimate reason to fear and apprehend that their voting rights could be curtailed. NRC is been updated to solve the problem of  illegal immigration in Assam, this issue has been bread and butter for many chauvinist organizations. They surely will not let this issue die. People apprehend that after updation is completed there could be another round of agitation to deny voting rights for ten years for those who submits electoral rolls  issued between 1stday January  1966 and 25th day of March 1971. Several articles by self styled intellectuals has  appeared in major News paper stating how names of illegal immigrants has made its way in to Legacy Data. Although it is virtually impossible but such irrational views are gaining popularity among those who don’t want to believe in reality.

Sheer lack of uniformity among NRC Seva Kendra’s and authorities: No two Seva Kendra employees or call centre employees speak in same language. Even higher officials like Deputy Commissioner and Circle officers very often has different answer for similar queries. It would be unfair to blame these officials who are not decision making body. The blame solely lies on the NRC updating authorities and Register General of India.

Apparently a year ago a Handbook for Updation of NRC, Assam on the line of Manual of Instructions issued by the Election Commission has  been prepared by the State Government and sent to the Registrar General of India (RGI) for approval. This Handbook gives detailed practical steps to be taken by various officials involved in NRC Updating work and elaborates on the detailed workflow and operating procedure, provisions for training and monitoring and supervision, media and publicity activities etc.

This handbook is yet to see light of the day. Last date for submission of NRC application forms is just a month away and public has no idea about NRC handbook. In the name  of NRC awareness, advertisement with very limited information is published in news papers. Very lately audio visuals promos has been launched. NRC Seva Kendra also provide couple of pages of printed materials which bore instructions on how to fill the complex application form. No one knows why information are so limited, one wonders why NRC updating authorities are working in such secrecy that even basic information on technicalities are difficult to find.

In spite of such lackluster preparedness, myopic style of working and innumerable loopholes in the process of updating NRC , the general masses specially those Indian citizens who are often abused as illegal immigrants are leaving no stone unturned to make the process of updating NRC a successful one. Their only hope is that after NRC is updated politics around the issue of illegal immigration might come to an end. But will the vested interested groups, from whom the issue of illegal immigration is bread and butter allow the issue to die?

The author is a Lawyer based in Guwahati. He tweets @AmanWadud

(First published in India Resists and available at http://www.indiaresists.com/nrc-fiasco-things-you-must-know-about-the-national-register-of-citizens/)