Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s announcement earlier this week that his government plans to explore the legislative route to address the complaints of those left out of the National Register of Citizens (NCR) is tacit acknowledgment that its publication on August 31 could be a chaotic affair. A political consensus on the approach to address the NRC exclusions is desirable since the issue has the potential to further deepen ethnic and communal fault lines. The government must ensure that the solution — the proposed law, for instance — does not add to the perceptions and fears of discrimination and exclusion.
As per the draft NRC published in July last year, nearly 40 lakh people stand to be deprived of Indian citizenship. Thirty-six lakh people have since contested the draft and appealed for inclusion in the register. The BJP government in Assam, a staunch backer of the NRC, belatedly realised that the register, instead of settling old disputes, may create new headaches. The Centre and the Assam governments pleaded before the Supreme Court to extend the schedule of NRC publication and the court obliged by extending the deadline by a month — from July 31 to August 31. However, the appeal for a reverification of a 20 per cent sample of the names included in the draft NRC in districts bordering Bangladesh and 10 per cent in other districts, on the ground that the draft had discrepancies, was rejected by the apex court. Thereafter, the state government, ignoring the Court’s directive, revealed the district-wise break-up of the NRC exclusions to press its case that the data needed to be re-verified. The contention that the NRC is flawed because the exclusions are more in districts that have a large presence of indigenous communities and not in border areas stems from the notion that illegal migration is likely to be more in border districts. It reveals a poor understanding of migration and rampant communal prejudice against migrants. If the Assam Movement of the 1980s was secular in its anti-migrant politics, the BJP has preferred to see the Hindus among the migrants as refugees who deserve to be absorbed as citizens. The amendment proposed to the Citizenship Act was a clear attempt to underline a communal division within the migrant population and privilege non-Muslim migrants. This move triggered mobilisations around Assamese ethnicity.
In this background, the state government needs to desist from a legislative course that may divide people on communal lines. The home ministry has clarified that people excluded from the NRC will have the option to present their case before the Foreigners’ Tribunals, which have since been expanded, and has promised that the time frame for filing appeals will be increased from 60 to 120 days. These procedural tweaks offer an opening for those left out of the NRC, but they are unlikely to address the fears of a staggering number of people who confront an uncertain future.