Drawing a vital linehttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/assam-nrc-lists-state-legal-regime-reserving-land-5973823/

Drawing a vital line

Only way of protecting Assam’s indigenous population is through a legal regime reserving land, resources

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The NRC, from all indications, will exclude less than 20 per cent of all the foreigners staying in Assam.

The National Register of Citizens in the national debate and discussion has been seen only through the prism of the foreigners who have been excluded from the list. The “human rights” of those excluded has been the primary cause for concern. What has been forgotten and overlooked is that there is virtually no discussion on why the NRC was necessitated, and for whom.

Large scale and continuous migration through a porous border, primarily in quest of land and government-sponsored benefits, is the primary cause. It has seen an exponential increase since the 1980s, Assam being the easiest place to get proof of citizenship. The estimates of the number of infiltrators have shown a consistent increase over time (1992, 32 lakh, state government; 2004, 50 lakh, UPA government; 2016, 80 lakh, NDA government) and they comprise over 25 per cent of the population of the state (3.11 crore, population of Assam, 2011 census).

These are only the post March 25, 1971 migrants, as infiltrators in Assam after Independence and upto this date are granted citizenship (unlike the rest of India), which would be an additional 10 per cent of the population. Three independent studies have estimated that by 2040 to 2051, the indigenous people in Assam will become a minority under the weight of the Bangladeshi influx. The Northeast and Assam are a treasure trove of ethnic diversity — out of 525 ethnic communities in India, 240 are in the Northeast and Assam has 115. The size of such communities varies from 5,000 (Tai Phake, Tai Khamyang etc) to 60 lakh for Koch Rajbongshis (the largest ethnic group). But all of these communities, individually and collectively, face the threat of extinction at the hands of Bangladeshi immigrants.

A significant section of self-described liberals shows sympathy for infiltrators who are economic migrants, and not for the small indigenous groups who face extinction. Only a few days ago, two senior advocates, Raju Ramachandran and C Uday Singh, in these columns, made a strong case for retaining all migrants. Charity at others’ expense is convenient.

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The NRC, from all indications, will exclude less than 20 per cent of all the foreigners staying in Assam, which will legitimise Bangladeshi infiltrators becoming permanent citizens and subsequently turning into a majority. Thousands of instances, reported in the local press on a daily basis, have shown large-scale subversion of the NRC process by the immigrant population, but self-serving political leaders’, their gaze locked on their vote banks, have turned a blind eye.

Given an earlier reluctant Congress government, it is the prodding of the Supreme Court, laying down timelines and monitoring the process, that has seen completion of the NRC process. The inorganic intervention of the Supreme Court making one person the single point of responsibility, in the face of reluctance of the political executive (with the BJP also dragging its feet), has resulted in huge discrepancies in the NRC, with a large number of foreigners enabled to enter their names.

The NRC procedure looks perfect on paper, but is riddled with huge flaws evident from two glaring facts — exclusion from the NRC draft in border districts (which have seen the highest population growth) is far lower at an average of 7.5 per cent against a state average of 12.15 per cent. Those declared foreigners through an adjudication process by the Foreigner Tribunals have, however, passed the citizenship test in the administrative process under the NRC. In fact, foreigners housed in detention camps have been verified to be citizens and said to be residing in their homes by the ground personnel of the NRC. In the border districts and migrant-dominated areas, many of Bangladeshi origin were involved in the NRC and quite a few of them, including school teachers, were found to have been adjudicated to be foreigners by the tribunals and superior courts.

The NRC inclusion process had rigorous standards of furnishing a prescribed set of documents, followed up by a parallel verification process of co-relating data of those descended from a common ancestor (family tree verification). But the entire process fell flat as field verification — which was resorted to when documentation was incomplete, not found and/or appeared to be forged — did not verify documents. Rather, field personnel would record the statements of witnesses, neighbours of the applicant, vouching for the citizenship of the applicant. Surprisingly, while all the records of the applicants were digitised, the field verification reports, crucial for large-scale inclusion of doubtful applicants, were not digitised and consequently not verified or verifiable by the superiors.

The Supreme Court on August 28, 2018, being cognisant of these discrepancies, directed a 10 per cent sample re-verification of those included in the list. However, the government and the state NRC coordinator did not show any enthusiasm. And the court was proved right in as much as nearly 10 months after the final draft, the NRC authorities, after gathering the list of declared foreigners, their descendants, etc from the government, proceeded to exclude them on June 26, 2019 by an additional list of 1.2 lakh, clearly demonstrating the failure of the NRC identification process. The court, however, chose to proceed without re-verification.

The only means to protect indigenous people, to the extent possible, is to take a leaf out of other Northeastern states, which are protected from such infiltration by virtue of legal regimes reserving land, trade opportunities, jobs and other resources for the local indigenous population acting as a disincentive to economic migration from Bangladesh. As a commissioner appointed by the Supreme Court in 2015 on the State of Border and Infiltration from Bangladesh, I had strongly proposed and recommended that the only means of protecting the indigenous population in Assam is through a legal regime reserving land and resources for them.

The writer is Senior Advocate and Commissioner appointed by the Supreme Court on the Indo-Bangla border