Posts Tagged ‘National Register of Citizens’

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)

The Bengalis of Assam on bed of arrows

July 23, 2018

The most important truth is not being considered by any one that all the descendants of undivided India are logically and legally Indians. Even if their parents or grandparents might have migrated from one region to another, very much under the geographical domain of undivided India for whatever reason, no one can deprive them of their Indian identity.

– Tapodhir Bhattacharjee

Situation is daily undergoing metamorphic change. So long all the linguistic minorities including Bengalis have been waiting with suspended breath, when would arrive 30th June! At the stroke of midnight on 31st December, 2017 the publication of first draft of the national register of citizens made it obvious that the so called renewal of NRC is nothing but a well designed conspiracy. Thereafter, with the passage of time, the cacophony of Assamese hegemonism became progressively louder in various print and electronic media in Guwahati. The Govt. of Assam frequently informs the people through advertisements that NRC is justified, neutral and all works are being undertaken by the direct supervision of the honourable supreme court. In reality, this supervision is not at all direct; on the contrary the entire state machinery has become overactive in translating the predetermined decisions of the thoroughly biased Assamese hegemonism.

The state co-ordinator of NRC always refers to the supreme court while devising various rules in last few months but he himself has been wantonly changing them according to his own sweet will. This process has created severe crisis of identity for all non-Assamese linguistic minorities including Bengalis. The fundamental document for the renewal is the NRC of 1951 which actually was not found in several districts of Assam. It is worthwhile to remember that in 1951 the present day states like Meghalaya, Mizoram etc. were parts of the then Assam as districts, when these areas got separated from Assam, many non-Assamese inhabitants including Bengalis) of those areas migrated to various areas of Assam at the behest of their livelihood. During scrutiny of the relevant documents of the descendants of those inhabitants for NRC updation, it was found out that the state govts of North East are completely indifferent and unresponsive towards those people. The immense significance of this attitude is clearly evident on the NRC updation process. The same thing is being repeated with regards to the electoral roll of 1966. As per the initial instructions, the inhabitants of Assam submitted copies of that electoral roll containing the names of their parents and/or grandparents to establish their legacy data. But in many cases these are being ignored. For all practical purposes no-document is considered valid for the Bengalis in particular. The entire process in fraudulent. Besides dirty politics of communalism is an extra burden. As the pro-Hindu organizations are experts in spreading rumours, Bengali Hindus, whether educated or uneducated, are being led to believe that, in spite of pouring out poisons by the demonized publicity machines of Assamese chauvinism day in and day out, these are to be ignored. The Hindus will be saved by pulling some string in Hindusthan. Because NRC Process has to be comprehended as God sent opportunity to cleanse Assam of Muslims. But this opportunity is being seized by Islamic fundamentalists to convince the Bengali Muslims that language is not at all an important matter. In order to live in Assam without any hindrance, the Muslims are required to declare them as Assamese. In fact, in several areas of Brahmaputra valley, Muslims speaking Bengali dialects declare themselves as Assamese (that too in their own dialectical expression) during census. In spite of that, Assam witnessed ghastly genocide at Nellie and Gohpur. And, now this so-called ‘Neo-Assamese community is being subjected to humiliation during the process of NRC updation. Yet the thoroughly blind persons are unable to read what is writ large on the wall. As conviction about Bengali nationality does not have firm foundation among the Hindus and Muslims, they consider one another as scarecrows. However we find some infallible lighthouses in the midst of pitchy darkness in the presence of personalities like Moulana Sarimal Hoque, Moulana Ahmad Sayeed, Moulana Fariduddin and Moulana Alaur Rahaman Mazarbhuiyan. They don’t hesitate to declare unhesitatingly in public meetings that in the greatest possible hours of national calamities, we have to learn to live with our Bengali identity. We are to remain united as Bengalis, not as Hindus and Muslims.

Further it is also true that a few Bengali Hindu elites subservient to political power and a few Muslim Political players having expertise in the game of fragmentation are living no stone unturned to fish in troubled water. They are being encouraged in the recently pronounced official discourse of ‘greater Assamese Nationality’ which is nothing but a paradoxical concept. The objective of such official sermon is very obvious. This aims at obliterating the uniqueness of all minority ethnic identities like the hapless Bengalis, Bodos, Karbis, Dimasas, Mishings, Rabhas etc. Recently we are witnessing rightist revivalism around the globe. Assamese chauvinism is deriving strength from that trend. The Bengali Hindus and Muslims should not ever forget that their mother-tongue is placed sixth among the languages of the world and second in India. Unfortunately the Bengali psyche has recently been vitiated in suffocating mists of amnesia. The Bengali community achieved the citadel of honour and dignity by virtue of their exceptional talent and sensibilities throughout the 20th Century. But it is a lamentable fact that while arriving in the 21st Century, the same Bengali communities have become pale penumbra of its glorious legacy because of its self-negation by being prisoners of their religious fundamentalism. In such tough moment of crisis the epitaph is being composed for the Bengalis of Assam. The heart wrenching truth has now become evident through the process of NRC updation that we do no longer have the path finders like Rabindranath, Nazrul, Deshabandhu Chittaranjan and Netaji Subhas. Neither do we have Nihar Ranjan Roy, nor Badaruddin Umar. Likewise we donot have any more Sharat Kumar Basu and Abul Hasim. The Bengali identity is never negated in beards and braided hair; but this basic fact is now being over shadowed under the illusion of whats upp and facebook. At this very moment the Bengalis are both under internal and external seize and that is why they are allowing themselves to be the easy prey of continuous brainwashing. Thus contagious sickness is further sharpened through self-deceit to the extent of almost the point of no return. In the post-partition India, internal colonialism has initiated the process of Bengali-hunting carnival in Assam. Tomorrow and beyond the very process might be initiated in Tripura, West Bengal and many other states. But nowhere there is any awareness. Even in West Bengal itself, of late, the voices of intolerance are becoming more and more intensified. That is why Assam has been taken up as the laboratory by the state power. The most important truth is not being considered by any one that all the descendants of undivided India are logically and legally Indians. Even if their parents or grandparents might have migrated from one region to another, very much under the geographical domain of undivided India for whatever reason, no one can deprive them of their Indian identity. If the Assamese hegemonism has been over zealous in obliterating the fundamental truth by making use of racial hatred and intolerance as destructive weapons, we wonder why the Indian ruling class is encouraging them relentlessly? We are also perplexed to note that the celebrated conscience of Indian elites is under paralytic stupor! For whom then is India? If the dark forces achieve success in Assam with racial hatred, animosity and intolerance, who would then listen to the much proclaimed sermons regarding national integrity?

This discourse is being prepared on 30th June, the date of judgment as it were for the Bengalis of Assam when the predetermined outcome of Bengali- hunting was scheduled to be published. For the time being the date has been extended to 8th July (however on 2nd July, the honourable supreme court has allowed an extension till 30th July). This opportunity has been seized by the champions of hate campaign against the Bengalis in Guwhati and various other places of Brahmaputra valley in the form of mad, ugly and collective frenzy. But this xenophobia is never reported in the national newspapers not to speak of the Bengali dailies of West Bengal. But we have not yet forgotten the excellent sensitive role of the famous dalies of Kolkata during the epic struggle of upholding the honour of mother tongue in 1961. It is a pity that very few of those dailies have taken their positions beside their own linguistic community when they are on the verge of annihilation through the process of NRC updation which thereby has generated great apprehension of a holocaust more intensely destructive than the partition of mother India. This is baffling that the media is even now paralysed on the spell of icy silence. On the one hand there is over whelming impact of globalization and on the other there is the position of religious fundamentalism. It seems that the talent and sensibility of the Bengalis are suspended between scylla and charybdis. Otherwise why they are taking no note of the fact that several fundamental principles of Indian constitution and preconditions of human rights are being trampled ruthlessly in Assam ? Can one imagine that in one of the provinces of the foremost democratic country of the world, the erstwhile members of the secessionist ULFA threatening in a public meeting at Guwahati that one thousand youth would invade Barak valley from Brahmaputra Valley in order to establish Assamese hegemony there? We wonder whether we are still in the medieval age? Is it then the expression of their much-proclaimed Last battle of Sharaighat? Even after such blatant instigation in open public meeting, the administration has not taken any single step against such obstinate activity. However when the hapless linguistic minorities organize peaceful meetings, they are surrounded by plenty of para-military forces! This raises the question: Is it our independent India when, because of our Bengali identity, the self-proclaimed antinationals can also easily terrorise them?

This reminds me of a well known Urdu couplet: ‘our thousand words and your only one response of not listening even once!’ That is why in the manner of Hitlars’ Germany, detention camps are prepared for the Bengalis. This administration is so inhuman that not even an old lady of 103 years, Unmati Bala, and old person of 102 years named Chandradhar and many other sickly senior persons, women and children are not spared from their cruelty. Even after such wanton disregard of human rights, the so-called champions of democracy prefer to remain silent. But this is the undeniable basic truth that in a civilized human society, all the inhabitants are sons and daughters of the soil. It is a great pity that this fundamental truth is being disregarded in Assam most nonchalantly. Now it is an open secret that many names will be omitted from the first draft NRC published on 31.12.2017 when the final draft will be published. Yes indeed. The draft NRC being prepared on the basis of partially existent documents (like the scarcely available 1951 NRC and imperfect 1966 electoral  roll) is not expected to  include the names of the non-Assamese linguistic minorities (especially the Bengalis)

Otherwise how can the cardinal truth pronounced in 194, that is, Assam is only for the Assamese, would become true?


The writer is former vice chancellor of Assam University, Silchar.


The essay was originally published in Bengali in 3 July 2018 issue of the Ajkaal daily newspaper published from Kolkata. The original version is available here.

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

March 27, 2018
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.

Insiders, Outsiders and Improper Legalese: Test of Citizenship and ‘Foreigners’ in Assam

January 18, 2018

Prasenjit Biswas

A large number of Indian citizens who voted and elected governments in Assam as well as the central legislature are subjected to a process of verification of their citizenship documents. Now after verification, if a large number is rendered disenfranchised and stateless, the legal implication is that peoples’ representatives who are elected are elected by illegal electorate. So natural justice demands that these elected representatives cannot hold offices legitimately in case the electorate is found to be ‘foreigners’ and not citizens of India! 

nrc

NRC Logo

The first draft of National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) published in the midnight of 1st January, 2018 created more confusions than it resolved. It generated a discourse of Othering and exposed the exceptionalist and exemptional nature of the law-making in the context of Assam. The Citizenship Amendment Rules, 2003 concerning registration of citizens and issuance of identity cards under section 18 of the Citizenship Act, 1955 created an exception in case of Assam by adding a Schedule 4A under which updation of 1951 National Register of Citizens is presently carried out. No other state of the country follows rules laid out in Schedule 4A except Assam. The first draft of updation is now published that called for serious reflection on this whole legal process conducted under the supervision of two-judges bench led by Justice Ranjan Gogoi of the Supreme Court of India.

These special provisions inserted at various stages to the mother Act of 1955 on the ground leads to ‘profiling’ of people in terms of their religious and linguistic identities. Such profiling has a political angle. People who came to Assam until March 24th, 1971 due to referendum and partition of Assam as also due to separation of certain territories such as Khasi and Jaintia hills, Mizo hills etc. from Assam are somehow either accommodated or they have to prove their citizenship once again. Overall, the special provisions Schedule 4A are based on assumptions like ‘original inhabitants’ of Assam, which smacks of an unfounded category within the very idea of citizenship. The nondiscriminatory and equality based notions of citizenship enshrined in the Constitution of India of citizenship of “persons” as enshrined under fundamental rights and the rules framed in 2003 do not quite gel with each other. Special proviso 4A further undermines persons belonging to linguistic and religious minorities, as they are subjected to suspicion and arbitrary process of proving their citizenship by twisting basic presuppositions and principles of “equality before law” that have guided framing of the Indian Constitution.

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)

Especially the procedure for verification of documents under the overall execution of the NRC coordinator seems to be a difficult procedure. The documents are sent to issuing authority for verification. There are interesting legal issues here- for how many years an issuing authority is supposed to preserve a copy of the original document issued by them to a client  and whether the issuing authority is legally obligated to re-verify a document at the call of another office such as NRC department. Without taking into account these issues, documents are sent to the issuing authorities. The outcome is that large amount of documents remained unverified and the reason given is that records are not available and manpower for verification exercise too is not readily available with various State and Central governments. Now those whose records remain unverified, they will be subjected to arbitrary administrative hassles, especially when various ethnic bodies are suspect and target those who minority groups as “Bangaladeshis” and who are going to be excluded from updated list.

This is a slippery slope situation that makes the circumstances very grave and punishing for no fault of the victims of this systemic exclusion. It is assumed that those names that are not included are not genuine Indian citizens and god forbid, any genuine Indian citizens excluded due to this cumbersome verification process will have to struggle a long way to get back the status of being a citizen. Such cases will be referred to Foreigners’ Tribunal and after a cumbersome legal process one may be able to get a legal redress. Now politicians take hold of the slippery situation. They have started asserting that no genuine Indian citizen will be excluded without addressing the issue of procedure. That the applicant remains as the possible sufferer at the other end of this process of verification is no one’s concern. Instead, Assam’s former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said indigenous people won’t have to bother about such a situation, meaning non-indigenous religious and linguistic minorities only will have to be concerned if they face any such exclusion from updation. Another much celebrated democratic voice from Assam Akhil Gogoi has asserted in Delhi that two crores of Bangladeshis have to be deported from Assam. Noted intellectual Homen Borgohain asserted that certain parts of Assam such a Barak valley, Dhubri and lower Assam have only been parts of Assam’s geography but never a part of History. This is how linguistic and cultural and religious minorities are purged from imagination of Assam in which NRC process adds to the existential fear and agony of being reduced to rightless noncitizen. Recent assertion by Assam Chief Minister that those whose names will not figure in updated NRC, their fundamental rights will be taken away and they will be given only the right to food, shelter and life magnified this existential fear among those who are Indian citizens and whose names may not figure due to an inefficient procedure.

What Homen Borgohain has argued opens up a Pandora’s box. His concern is that it is because of the Bengali speakers of Barak valley and certain other lower Assam areas that Assamese is rendered as the language of minority in Assam. So he argued that Barak valley should be separated from Assam to regain “only the Brahmaputra valley as the land of Axomiya speakers”. It is widely believed in this context that the targets for disenfranchisement and de-citizenization are linguistic and religious minorities whose fears are compounded by a long drawn process of verification without stating any reason why certain documents are found incorrect or kept pending. Much needed transparency and statement of proper reasons for pendency to applicants who assume themselves to be genuine Indian citizens is not shown much respect. Rather the process resorted to arbitrarily drawn procedures by the Executive which are unfriendly and not supported by existing legal framework.

The larger point is that large number of Indian citizens who voted and elected governments in Assam as well as to the central legislature are subjected to this process of verification. Now after verification, a large number is rendered disenfranchised and stateless, the legal implication is that peoples’ representative who are elected are elected by illegal electorate. So natural justice demands that these elected representatives cannot hold offices legitimately in case the electorate is found to be ‘foreigners’ and not citizen of India! While the State NRC coordinator stated before the Supreme Court that in the first draft, the office has verified 2.38 crores cases of roughly 3.40 crores applicants, the draft incorporated only 1. 9 crores of people, keeping out 1.4 crores. This indicates as if a large section within this left over people may prove to be ‘foreigners’ and later they are to be rendered stateless. Before the second draft of the NRC, the coordinator stated that children who are born after 2003, their names will be included provided both their parents’ names and not one of them find a place in the NRC. The basic principle that those who are born in India will be Indian citizens is in the way of getting amended in an extra-legal manner by the Executive. This is legally implausible as the bottomline condition for children to be an Indian citizen is that one of the parents is Indian and the other is not an illegal migrant. A large number of post-2003 children now face this new conundrum. In the first draft, those whose names are part of “legacy data”, available right in the NRC database are excluded, citing that their verification is pending. No one is able to understand how the verification is conducted. Updates in the forms of press statements are yet to be substantiated by disclosure of full information to the applicant in the website.

The situation created its ripple effect in Bengal with Mamata Banerjee pronouncing that Bengal will give shelter to people who would suffer due to such a cumbersome process. She created storm in the tea cup by her repeated pronouncements to this effect. Political opinion in Assam got sharply divided on her protestation.

Overall, the situation needs able handling and skillful mediation to complete the NRC process in a just and fair manner.


Prasenjit Biswas chairs Barak Human Rights’ Protection Committee and is a political analyst.

A version of article was published in The Statesman under the title of “Insiders, Outsiders and Improper Legalese on 15 January 2018.

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

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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.

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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.

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/)