Not many know that behind the petition that started the National Register of Citizens (NRC) updation is an octogenarian who lives a quiet life in the outskirts of Guwahati. Till date, Pradip Kumar Bhuyan, an 1958 IIT-Kharagpur graduate has kept away from the media, refusing interview requests and questions on the issue. Despite that, in Assam, many are of the opinion that without Bhuyan, there would not have been an NRC — a longstanding demand of the greater Assamese society. The 84-year-old speaks to The Indian Express on the exercise. Follow LIVE updates
How did you get involved with the NRC?
In the February of 2009, Aabhijeet Sharma of the NGO Assam Public Works came to me with a request. He felt that the illegal immigration had been plaguing Assam for far too long, and the NRC issue had been in limbo for years. He asked me if I could draft a petition to get the NRC implemented.
I was certain of one thing — that if we have to establish something, it needs to be based on data and statistics. We needed to show how the electorate has increased exponentially over the years. I told him to get me the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) latest documents/publications from 1971 onwards. Over the next two months, I worked on it — going through reams of documents, studying election results in very constituency, decade-wise since 1971 — sitting in my office room attached to the balcony of my house.
In July 2009, the PIL was filed and admitted by the Supreme Court. Aabhijeet was inside the Chamber, I was outside, actually praying, as 60 per cent PILs are thrown out! Thankfully, the CJI, after browsing through the Petition, said “issue notice…”
Aabhijeet and APW became the main face of the petition. Why did you choose to stay in the background?
Someone came to me with a request, and I acted on it because I felt strongly about the cause too. Like many others in my time, I took part in the Assam Agitation. Yet even decades after that, I realised that the issue was far from being resolved and the political power was going to the migrants. I was naturally worried. So what I did was just the need of the hour. I never gave an interview nor did I appear on a news panel after. That is just not in my nature. I did it because I love my state.
Today everyone’s eyes are on Assam, and not necessarily for the right reasons. The NRC has led to lakhs being harassed, thousands are in detention. Did you ever imagine the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis that will unfold?
The exercise is so massive that it is bound to affect people. It is so massive that if there is even 1% discrepancy, it means affecting the lives of three lakh people! What happened in the last few years can be traced to the faults in operation and implementation. I never want anyone to be persecuted — especially women and children. The Indian government needs to take responsibility for this. Why did successive governments ignore this issue since 1985?
Do you think Assam’s side of the story has not been highlighted or given due attention?
Assam causes has been misunderstood ever since Independence, so this is nothing new. We just have to establish our point — that is why the NRC is happening. And neither do I blame the media for writing on the issue — when so many people are affected, it is only natural for the issue to be internationalised.
So what do you hope to achieve with the NRC?
The government has already said that those left out can appeal the exclusion in the Foreigners’ Tribunals. The intention was never to throw these people out. But till they are declared foreigners/Indians, I suggest the first thing the ECI does is to strike their names off voters’ list. Eventually give work permits, but definitely disenfranchise them. This was the main threat — usurping political control, apart from language and culture and demography.
Many — including Assam Public Works — are saying that this is an incorrect NRC they will never accept? Do you also feel that the whole exercise was futile?
Well, this is a democracy and people will have their own opinions. I am no one to comment on the implementation of the exercise but there is one silver lining everyone misses: that a number of post ’71 Bangladeshis did not even apply to the NRC because of fear of being identified. A recent news report pegs this at ten lakh people but based on my calculations, taking into account census figures and electorate growth between 1981 and 2011, the figure is even more. The government must immediately track down these ghost citizens. For me, the NRC, whatever form it takes on August 31, is the first step to a resolution of a decades-old problem.