That 1.29 crore out of a total of 3.29 crore applicants did not find their names in the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam points to the enormity of the challenge the state is facing in identifying illegal migrants. A massive bureaucratic exercise has been on in Assam since the Supreme Court ordered that the NRC, which the state government had prepared along with the national census in 1951, be updated and set December 31, 2017 as the deadline. The NRC is meant to decide who is a bona fide Indian citizen and those who fail to enlist in the register will be deemed illegal migrants. The political consensus in the state is that the NRC is the best mechanism to separate the citizen from the illegal migrant. However, the large number of omissions in the register indicate that producing necessary papers and proving one’s citizenship in a country with an indifferent record of maintaining documents is not an easy task. The NRC draft, of course, will be revised through 2018, but it is anybody’s guess if the final document will satisfy everyone.
Issues of migration and demographic change have been central to Assam’s politics since the 1950s. The Assam agitation in the late 1970s was focussed on the citizenship question and called for the detection, deletion and deportation of illegal migrants. The Assam Accord of 1985 promised measures to address these concerns and the NRC updation is one of the outcomes. If the Assam agitation pitched the Assamese against the non-Assamese, the BJP has introduced an overt religious dimension in the debate by distinguishing between the Hindu and Muslim migrant: In this narrative, the Hindu from East Pakistan/ Bangladesh is deemed a refugee and hence, qualified for citizenship, while his Muslim compatriot will be considered an infiltrator.
Assam’s demographic changes date back to the 19th century and have economic, ethnic, cultural and religious dimensions. Partition and the hardening of national identities since have complicated the citizenship question. It may now be unrealistic to insist on hard borders and narrow identities and push for large transfers of populations. The ramifications of such a politics will not be limited to Assam. The state can, of course, use its many instruments to discriminate against “non-citizens”, but such an approach could create new faultlines and trigger social unrest. A fresh political imagination which recognises that modern nations are a product of migrations and cultural diffusion is necessary to address the citizenship issue in a mature and reasonable way. The NRC must be handled with care.