Shedding its nuanced position on the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Congress Saturday said that the NRC was its “baby” and was set in motion by its governments to identify “foreigners” who had entered Assam “illegally”. Under attack by the BJP on the issue, the party also argued that “80 per cent” of the process was completed by the Congress government under former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi, and released data to argue that more foreigners were deported from Assam under the UPA government.
The NRC was among the issues discussed at the Congress Working Committee (CWC), which met for the second time in two weeks. Gogoi and other party members from Assam forcefully argued that the party should not disown the NRC and should aggressively counter the BJP, which, they argued, was using it for setting a divisive agenda.
A section of party leaders has argued that the party should shed its cautious approach and not follow the belligerent anti-NRC Trinamool Congress line. After over three hours of debate, the CWC set the party’s view.
Since the announcement of the draft NRC, in which the names of more than 40 lakh people in Assam were excluded, earlier this week, the Congress has preferred to remain cautious. While its leaders, including president Rahul Gandhi, did say that the process was initiated under former PM Manmohan Singh to fulfil commitments made in the Assam Accord, the party focussed on the plight of the 40 lakh people who were excluded.
After the CWC, however, the Congress has changed its stance and released data to claim that the UPA government had deported 82,728 “illegal Bangladeshi migrants” between 2005 to 2013 while the BJP government has deported 1,822 between 2014 and 2017.
“We would like to put this question to the fake nationalists who talk about deportation of foreigners. What were you doing in four years? If you see the record, the Modi government will be exposed,” Congress communication department head Randeep Surjewala said after the CWC meeting.
Surjewala asserted that the “NRC process is the baby of the Assam Accord” authored and signed by then PM Rajiv Gandhi.
He also said the Atal Behari Vajpayee government had allocated a mere Rs 5 lakh for the enumeration process. “After preparing an elaborate framework, putting in place the modalities, identifying and affixing processes and building a consensus among stakeholders, Congress governments, in Assam and at the Centre, had initiated the NRC process in 2005 to identify foreigners, who had illegally entered India,” he said.
Apart from Gogoi and Lok Sabha MPs Gaurav Gogoi and Sushmita Dev who are members of the CWC, the party had specially invited Assam PCC president Ripun Bora, Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader Debabrata Saikia and other Congress MPs from the state like Bhubaneswar Kalita to brief the CWC.
Surjewala also said the Congress was aware of the fact that around 40 lakh people had been excluded which include “indigenous Assamese, Hindu Bengalis, Nepalese, Gorkhas, those of tea tribes, serving and retired armed forces personnel and religious minorities and people from other parts of India who had settled in Assam”. The Congress argued that every Indian citizen must be given the full opportunity to establish their credentials and prove their citizenship in a just, equitable and humane manner, without any fear or favour.
“The Congress will help all Indian citizens who could not prove their citizenship because of some technical reasons,” he said and launched a counter-attack against the BJP. He said the “BJP is trying to use the NRC process to destroy the social fabric and as a divisive and emotional tool for misleading the people…to divert the attention of the nation from the colossal failure of the Modi government, scams like Rafale, bank frauds and rising unemployment”.
“In 2009, the Manmohan Singh-headed Congress government allocated Rs 489 crore and appointed 25,000 enumerators for the NRC process. By May 2016, the Congress government in Assam under Tarun Gogoi had completed 80 per cent of the process… The Congress reiterates and reaffirms its commitment to the ‘Assam Accord’ as a principal framework and supports the NRC process,” he said.
In the wake of TMC chief Mamata Banerjee’s sharp criticism of the NRC process, the Congress has had to articulate a nuanced position on the NRC and has been reluctant to own up that the NRC was set in motion by its government. The BJP has been aggressive with president Amit Shah linking it to national security and security at borders and alleging that the Congress did not have the courage to implement it. “We have the courage and we are doing it,” Shah said in Parliament last week.
Incidentally, the UPA government too was cautious. In 2005, when the Lok Sabha debated the issue on an adjournment motion by BJP veteran L K Advani on “massive illegal immigration from Bangladesh”, then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee had asked if it was possible to throw out 1.5 crore people at the point of a bayonet.
That discussion was held two weeks after the Supreme Court, ruling on the Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union Of India & Another, struck down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 and directed that “sufficient number of tribunals” be constituted “under the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964 to effectively deal with cases of foreigners, who have illegally come from Bangladesh or are illegally residing in Assam. “May I know, what is there to be so jubilant? So many acts have been declared ultra vires. After 22 years, an Act has been declared illegal, ultra vires,” Mukherjee had said and went on to add the humane aspect would have to be taken into consideration.
“…Even if we find out ten million, fifteen million or twelve million illegal migrants, is it possible to throw them out? With a long and vast experience as the Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of this country, do you recommend that fifteen million people should be thrown at the point of a bayonet? Is it possible? Is there no provision for international refugees? Is there no provision for certain humanitarian considerations?” he had said.