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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Out of my mind: No winners in the NRC exercise

The reason for saying this is not political but simple understanding of the difficulty of measuring a large population accurately. Remember the debate about unemployment rates.

Written by Meghnad Desai |
Updated: September 22, 2019 9:44:04 am
NRC, Assam NRC, National Register of Citizens, Immigrants, Bangladeshi migrants, Assam, Indian Express At an NRC centre. (Express photo: Tora Agarwala)

Be careful what you wish for. When you get it, you may not like it.

This seems to be the situation with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for the BJP in Assam. The headlines are about the 19 lakh left out. People from outside Assam, home and abroad, say that 19 lakh is too large a number. The BJP has been saying for three decades that the infiltration of Bangladeshi Muslims since 1971 has been massive. It was expecting four or five times the excluded numbers. Alas, once you start counting, guesswork stops.

Let us look at the numbers at stake. In any such statistical exercise, it is routine to say plus, minus 5 per cent. The number excluded is 5 per cent of the total. Statisticians would dismiss these numbers as random measurement errors. The easy (and statistically sound) way would be to say no one will be excluded whatever their papers.

The reason for saying this is not political but simple understanding of the difficulty of measuring a large population accurately. Remember the debate about unemployment rates.

In the NRC there are special reasons for expecting large errors. The Indian government, since the British colonial times, has always begun with distrust of the population it governs. Independence changed the colour of the Ruler, not the attitude of those in charge towards their subjects (they get treated as citizens only on polling days). One requirement of the NRC is that you produce written evidence of your residency in Assam. These papers have to predate 1971. Forty-eight-year-old pieces of (government-quality, inferior) paper would be in tatters even if you had preserved them.

Whichever way the game ends, there are no winners. Those who want no exclusion would be unhappy and internationally India’s reputation will suffer as an inhumane polity. The Assamese who began this agitation way back in the Rajiv Gandhi days will also never believe the numbers unless they discover that these are huge. For them only ‘born and bred’ in Assam will qualify, but if I am from a tribe living in Assam but not Assamese speaker, do I have to produce paper evidence? Why did Rajiv Gandhi sign the pact (Assam Accord) in the first place?

The BJP would also like a crore or more ‘infiltrators’. But in their search for Bangladeshi Muslims, they should be careful whether their dream of One Nation is not under threat.

What about people from other parts of India who have moved to Assam and have no papers before 1971 proving Assamese residence? Especially if they are Indian Muslims. Are they infiltrators? If the NRC is repeated in each state, are out of state persons infiltrators? There were agitations against South Indians in Mumbai by the Shiv Sena in the 1960s. If the NRC is done in Maharashtra, will only those born and bred in Maharashtra or only Marathi-speaking people count as genuine?

For 70 years, Indian economy has never grown fast enough to create sufficient jobs. So there are demands for local jobs for local people, defined as local-language speakers. The NRC will give support to such demands. We will have 29 citizenships for 29 states (Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh will become Union Territories on October 31) with ‘outsiders’ being hounded. Do we want to break up India in search for Bangladeshi Muslims who may have arrived 48 years ago?

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