The final National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam was released on Saturday, but a closure to the citizenship issue in the state remains distant. In fact, the initial response of political parties and civil society groups in Guwahati indicates that the NRC may have opened up new fault-lines. The government has done well to promise legal help to the over 19 lakh people who have been excluded. They have a window of 120 days to appeal before the Foreigners Tribunals, which have been provided additional staff and facilities. The government has also indicated that deportation of the people rendered “stateless” is not on the cards — Minister of Foreign Affairs S Jaishankar recently said in Dhaka that the NRC was India’s internal matter. However, political parties, including and especially the BJP, have alleged that the NRC is flawed and threatened to challenge it in court. For the large number of people who have been living on the edge since the process began in 2015, there is no end in sight to the uncertainty, it seems.
Citizenship and identity have been fraught issues in Assam for decades. The NRC was introduced in 1951 in response to a political demand that arose from the fear of migration, in the backdrop of Partition, causing demographic and cultural upheaval. The subnationalist politics that privileged Assamese identity over other categories, including class, caste and religion, has since shaped the social imaginary in the region, with devastating consequences. It has produced a narrative that plays on the fear of the “outsider” and a politics that borders on xenophobia. It is telling, however, that no party seems to be happy with the outcome of the current exercise. For the All Assam Students Union and the BJP, the exclusions are fewer than expected — the projected number of illegal immigrants in Assam, which has formed the basis of contrived political spectres, has varied from one million to two crore. The BJP also suspects that a substantial number of the affected are Bengali-speaking Hindus, whom it wants recognised as refugees and accorded citizenship. With its proposal to amend the Citizenship Act pending, the party has demanded re-verification of the list in districts bordering Bangladesh, suggesting a communal reading of the NRC.
Instead of blaming the process, political parties need to recognise, perhaps, the flaw that lies in the imagination that produced the NRC. Modern societies are shaped by migration and it may be futile to engage in costly exercises to identify “outsiders”. Despite the fiasco in Assam, BJP leaders are demanding NRCs elsewhere too — for instance, Manoj Tiwari wants one in Delhi. During the 2019 election campaign, BJP President Amit Shah spoke about “ghuspaithiye” and compared illegal migrants to termites. The time has come to steer the conversation away from excluding people, and towards accepting the reality of migration and exploring ways to make it work better for the economy. The idea of citizenship can’t be imprisoned within the framework of blood and soil or religion; it needs a broader, more inclusive definition rooted in the liberal spirit of the Constitution. For now, however, at the end of an elaborate NRC process monitored by the Supreme Court, which has shown unusual alacrity in doing so, the onus is on the court to ensure that human rights are not undermined by short-term political interests.