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Monday, September 28, 2020

Year later, NRC in limbo but those out of it paying the price — passports to marriage

It's been a year since 19 lakh people were excluded from the NRC in Assam. And they have not yet been issued rejection orders with which they can appeal at the state’s Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs).

Written by Abhishek Saha | Guwahati | Updated: August 31, 2020 11:52:41 am
Year later, NRC in limbo but those out of it paying the price — passports to marriageAt an NRC centre in Guwahati. (Express file photoC)

In March, Shahjahan Ali Ahmed, in his early 30s and a social activist in Assam’s Barpeta and Baksa districts, filed his nomination as a candidate of the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) elections.

Since then, however, local workers of the ruling Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) have posted a barrage of comments on social media deriding the candidate. “His name is not in NRC, how can this problematic man be the UPPL’s candidate?” read one comment.

Ahmed and 29 other members of his family did not find a place in the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) published on August 31 last year. He says the family has documents dating back to 1951, well before the cut-off date of March 24, 1971, and wants to appeal and get their names re-included.

But how, he asks.

It’s been a year since 19 lakh people were excluded from the NRC in Assam. And they have not yet been issued rejection orders with which they can appeal at the state’s Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs).

Moreover, the Supreme Court, which proactively supervised the process from 2013, has not heard the matter since January 6.

After the NRC publication, the ministries of Home and External Affairs had made clear that mere exclusion does not make a resident a “foreigner”, and that the decision can only be taken by FTs. But officials at the NRC directorate in Guwahati say the process of issuing rejections orders has been delayed due to “discrepancies” in their paperwork, and lack of enough staff on the ground for re-checks due to the Covid pandemic.

“If the NRC is not taken to its logical conclusion, it will be a curse on the 19 lakh excluded. This side or the other, but decide. You can’t keep people hanging forever, this is extremely cruel,” says Ahmed.

The BTC elections, scheduled to be held in April, were postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic. “But I am thankful to all the officials involved in my nomination because not one of them raised any query or made any nasty comment,” says Ahmed.

Not all those excluded are as fortunate.

Dalimon Nessa, a 55-year-old mother of seven and wife of a farmer in Darrang district, had saved Rs 64,000 over the years for the Hajj pilgrimage. But now, local police say they cannot issue a verification certificate since she has been excluded from the NRC.

“My husband’s name is in and he was cleared,” she says. “We are praying that this NRC process comes to a conclusion, my name is included and we can go together for the pilgrimage,” says Nessa, speaking over phone from Dholpur village.

In Darrang district, police confirm that many are awaiting “verification clearance” for their passports. Afazuddin Ahmed, a travel agent, says the Hajj plans of at least five families are on hold because one or more of the applicants are out of the NRC.

Says Amrit Bhuyan, SP Darrang: “How can you clear passport verification if the name is not in the NRC? It’s a question of citizenship. We have kept it on hold till the matter is cleared.”

Also read | Assam NRC: A timeline leading to publication of 2019 final list

In Bongaigaon district’s Abhayapuri, 20-year-old labourer Rohim Ali is in the NRC but is still “very worried” — his father and a younger brother are in while three sisters and a brother are out.

Their mother, Halima Khatun, had been declared a foreigner by an FT years ago and spent four years in a detention centre in Kokrajhar before being let out on bail in 2019. Ali and his brother are in through their father’s ancestry documents but he wonders why the other siblings are out even though they used the same papers which, he claims, are from 1951.

“We are facing problems in marriage proposals for my eldest sister, who has turned 18, because our mother was in a detention centre… and both of them are also out of the NRC,” says Ali.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Hitesh Sarma, state coordinator of NRC, says: “We have to issue a rejection order to each excluded person. The order needs to have another order attached with it, called the ‘speaking order’, which describes the exact reason for exclusion. But when I scrutinised several of these speaking orders, I noticed discrepancies — many were not written in the way they should have been. Hence, I have ordered a re-check.”

“But due to Covid, all government officials at the ground level are engaged in work related to the pandemic. So the re-checking has not been done. We intend to begin the work from September 1, and proceed with the rejection orders.”

On the plight of all those waiting, Sarma says, “It is a legal process and will take time. Once the rejection orders are issued, those who disagree with the exclusion can challenge it in higher courts.”

Ever since publication of the final NRC, the process has hit multiple hurdles. The former state coordinator Prateek Hajela, who had led the exercise since 2013, was transferred out of Assam in October 2019 by the Supreme Court. Sarma, the next coordinator, went on a month-long leave soon after joining, for personal reasons, before the Covid outbreak shut down most non-medical official activity in the field.

Besides, the Sarbananda Sonowal-led BJP government has maintained that it will not accept the NRC in its current form. The state government has alleged wrongful exclusions and inclusions, and demanded a re-verification of 20 per cent inclusions in border districts and 10 per cent elsewhere — a demand that the apex court had disregarded earlier.

Assam Public Works (APW), the NGO that is the primary petitioner in the NRC case in the Supreme Court, has also sought 100 per cent re-verification.

Meanwhile, some of the excluded families are pinning their hopes on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act that covers non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who crossed over before December 31, 2014.

Two Bengali Hindu families — one in Hojai and another in Silchar — say the CAA has given them “hope”. “My mother is out of the NRC but I don’t think there will be any issue now in getting her re-included,” says Manoj Das, 40, a businessman in Hojai. “The CAA has been passed.”

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