The fraught exercise of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam ended a year ago, excluding 19 lakh of the 3.3 crore applicants. The state and its people had placed their bets on the NRC as a mechanism to resolve the old and complex tangle over indigenous claims and immigrant history, which has its roots in Assam’s unique experience of colonialism. But the hope of a closure is receding as the process, riddled with flaws, has ground to a halt.
The 19 lakh left out of the NRC are in a limbo. They have one more legal recourse before being declared non-citizens — that of moving the foreigners’ tribunals — but they cannot do so as the NRC directorate has not issued them rejection orders. Though the pandemic is being blamed for the lack of administrative urgency, the political discourse preceding the outbreak had set the stage for this disavowal. For the Assamese nationalists, who have maintained since the 1980s that the influx of illegal immigrants into Assam was an existential threat, 19 lakh is an “underestimate”. For the BJP, which sought to introduce a religious cleavage in the already seething ethnic and linguistic divides in the state, the large number of Bengali Hindus believed to have been left out of the NRC is unpalatable, even if it has the amnesty of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in its pocket. It has declared it would not accept the NRC in its current form and insists on “re-verification”. For the Bengal-origin Muslims, with ethnic roots in the region that is now Bangladesh, the NRC was an opportunity to find legitimacy in a state where they have been seen as unwelcome outsiders. The scepticism over the published NRC sends them the message that even a SC-mandated process cannot transcend a deep social divide.
As this newspaper’s ground reports have shown, the NRC threw up Kafkaesque results. Children were left out even as their families got in; women became more vulnerable to exclusion; and the most underprivileged were forced to spend their earnings on an often traumatic legal process. The apprehension of being expelled from the nation was not limited to Assam, as the ruling BJP government promised a double-barrelled rollout of the NRC and CAA across India. But Assam’s experience of the NRC has left deeper and more entrenched social divides. For the excluded, a fair hearing at the tribunals remains an urgent necessity, one which the NRC directorate and the SC must expedite. But the mishandling of this exercise is a grim warning for the proponents of its extension across the country.