More than 19 lakh people in Assam were left facing an uncertain future Saturday morning as the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) was released, 14 years after a decision on it was first taken and four years after the exercise to compile it began in full swing under the monitoring of the Supreme Court.
However, from the BJP government that pushed the NRC, to the civil society groups which opposed it, the 19.06 lakh number pleased few. If the BJP saw the number as small, the Congress, under whose government the NRC first started, played on BJP anxiety by saying the list included many “genuine Indians”.
The final draft NRC published in July last year had included 2.89 crore of the 3 crore-plus applicants, excluding over 40 lakh people. Over 36 lakh of these people had filed “claims” against the exclusion, while of the 2.89 crore included, around 2 lakh people had had objections filed against their names. In the draft exclusion list of June 26 this year, 1.02 lakh of these 2.89 crore were excluded, and both excluded persons and those objected to got a chance to appeal their cases.
Next stop: FTs
With the final NRC published, the 19 lakh people left out will now head to the Foreigners’ Tribunals across Assam within the next 120 days to challenge the exclusion. The government has promised all help, including legal aid.
Hajela said that the 19.06 lakh figure included those who hadn’t submitted claims. “The entire process of NRC update has been meticulously carried out in an objective and transparent manner. Adequate opportunity of being heard has been given to all persons at every stage.”
Hundreds of people began thronging NRC offices soon after the list was released. While Assam remained calm, notwithstanding apprehensions about disquiet, political parties were vociferous in their protests.
The Assam BJP said the figure of 19 lakh had left it completely “unhappy”. Addressing a press conference in Guwahati, state party president Ranjit Dass said, “In 1991, former Assam chief minister Hiteshwar Saikia had said there are 30 lakh illegal Bangladeshis in Assam. Then, Congress home Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal told the Rajya Sabha that 50 lakh illegal Bangladeshis are there in Assam. Even Indrajit Gupta in the H D Deve Gowda government had talked of around 42 lakh illegal foreigners… So how can we today accept the figure of 19 lakh?”
He added, “We have come to know that several sons of the soil are not in the NRC. According to our own estimate that number should not be less than two lakh.” Blaming Hajela for this, Dass said he had not allowed five documents mainly used by people whose ancestors were refugees pre-1971, in the claims round. “That led to exclusion of several Indian-origin people.”
Assam minister and government spokesperson Chandra Mohan Patowary told The Sunday Express that they would “thoroughly scrutinise” the NRC, “now that it is a public document”. “In the 19 lakh figure, there are genuine Indians. That is why we had demanded re-verification… the Supreme Court went by Hajela’s statement that 27 per cent re-verification was already done. Moreover, he has not told us who are the 3.8 lakh people — amongst the 40 lakh excluded in the draft — who did not file claims.”
He added, “The genuine Indians in this 19 lakh need not worry. They will get a fair chance to appeal before Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs). We will be increasing the number of FTs by 200 and more if needed. Plus, we will give legal aid to those genuine Indians appealing to FTs.”
Das claimed many Bengali-speaking Hindus “with surnames of Biswas, Sarkar and Saha” were “intentionally excluded”. The community forms a major voter base of the BJP. “Not trusting this NRC, we want a pan-India NRC,” Dass said.
The Assam Public Works (APW), the NGO that was the original petitioner in the NRC case in the Supreme Court, mocked the outcome. “We would like to give our warm-hearted congratulations to all the political and non-political institutions and organisations who have been relentlessly working and trying very hard to protect the ‘illegal foreigners’, those who have been trying to sustain the relevance of this issue of ‘illegal foreigners’ to continuously bargain to maintain their political profitability on the basis of it! Officially, you have been successful today,” Aabhijeet Sharma, president of the APW, said in a statement, while also criticising Hajela’s methods.
The APW added that it now believed that a solution to the issue was “impossible”. “Hundreds of crores of rupees shall be spent by the state government in the name of its solution, some individuals… may become immensely rich… but the coveted dream of the mass people of Assam to live in an illegal foreigner-free land is an impossibility.”
The powerful All Assam Students Union (AASU), a key stakeholder in the NRC case in the Supreme Court, threatened to move the apex court, saying they believed the number of excluded should have been higher, and also blaming the government for it. “The state and Centre have failed in contributing towards an error-free NRC,” AASU general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi told The Sunday Express. “They didn’t undertake suo motu verification, they didn’t file any objection against suspected foreigners included in the draft, they did not refer any illegal foreigners to FTs in the past one year.”
Azizur Rahman, advisor to the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU), also a stakeholder in the SC case, said, “We want all of the genuine Indians to be included. We will appeal to the Supreme Court again. We will also provide legal help to all excluded genuine Indians.”
In Bengali-majority Barak Valley region too, there was disquiet. Sadhan Purkayastha, secretary general of the Citizen’s Rights Protection Committee, said, “A vast majority of these 19 lakh people are Indian citizens, now rendered doubtful citizens. I worry if they will be allowed to cast their votes, if their rights will be curtailed. They face a very uncertain future at the hands of FTs because we know how FTs function.”
A demographic or district-wise break-up of the NRC data, including one exclusion, was not available on Saturday. But on August 1 this year, the Assam government had presented before the state Assembly district-wise data on exclusion from last year’s draft NRC, underlining that in districts bordering Bangladesh the exclusion percentage was lower while in other districts it was comparatively higher.
Saturday’s list, which was put up at 10 am, is a “Supplementary Inclusions List”, with names of those included in the NRC after they had filed “claims” against their exclusion, either from the final draft of last year or the additional draft exclusions list published on June 26, 2019, or those who were in the final draft but had “objections” filed against their names, or those who were included in the final draft but had been called for hearings from July 5, 2019, onwards.
State and Central governments have said those excluded from the NRC can approach FTs within the next 120 days. And that, as long as a person’s claim is pending at an FT, he will not be treated as “illegal foreigner”.
The NRC exercise was technically an updation of the 1951 Assam NRC, which had been prepared based on that year’s Census. It took the cut-off date to determine citizenship as 24th March (Midnight), 1971 (the start of the Bangladesh war), decided as per the Assam Accord.
Hajela said on Saturday, “The process of receipt of NRC Application Forms started during the end of May 2015 and ended on 31st August 2015. A total of 3,30,27,661 members applied through 68,37,660 applications. The particulars were taken up for scrutiny to determine eligibility of their inclusion in NRC.” He said the exercise involved around 52,000 state government officials.
The decision to update the 1951 NRC was first taken at a tripartite meeting between the Centre, Assam government and AASU in May 2005. In June 2010, a pilot project was started in two revenue circles of Barpeta and Kamrup districts but had to be abandoned following violence.