The updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), monitored by the Supreme Court over the last six years, has been a politically fraught exercise. The final list, published on August 31, turned out to be contentious and several political groups, especially the BJP, which heads the government in Assam, criticised it as erroneous.
The bureaucrat who spearheaded the exercise, Prateek Hajela, has ended up as the main target of all those who have found the NRC unacceptable. With BJP leaders in Assam targeting him, Hajela sought a transfer out of Assam and the Supreme Court, which appointed him as NRC coordinator, has agreed to his plea. This turn of events only reconfirms the view that the NRC has been a flawed exercise from the beginning. But the flaw lies not in its execution, but in the absurd idea that the state could walk back in time and identify “foreigners” from a population of nearly 3.5 crore.
Evidently, Hajela’s “crime” is that he didn’t deliver the NRC the BJP as well as various Assamese groups had imagined. The final NRC excluded 19 lakh people, whereas political groups had expected a much higher figure. The list also busted the many beliefs political and social groups held about migration into Assam — the distribution of the “excluded people”, their religious identity, seem to be at variance with popular assumptions and spectres.
Many have also been left out of the list for want of documents, which is not surprising since the culture of maintaining documents connected to citizenship is relatively new to many Indians. The BJP has promised to amend the Citizenship Act and make Hindus excluded from the NRC eligible for citizenship, a promise unacceptable to many Assamese groups that have refused to read religion into the migration debate.
Given the complexity of the problem, no bureaucracy could have delivered a fool-proof or a universally acceptable NRC. The vision behind the NRC rejects the reality that societies are a product of migrations, triggered by political, geographical and economic reasons. Politicians who fan fears around the spectre of migrant populations subsuming indigenous cultures, and claim that there are bureaucratic solutions to reverse migration, are being blind to historical processes.
The onus is now on the SC to keep the NRC insulated from political pressures. The action will soon shift to the Foreigners’ Tribunals, which are expected to rule on the claims of the 19 lakh people left out of the NRC. The apex court needs to look at the constitution and functioning of these tribunals and ensure that they are free and fair. The state must also start to think about the future of the large number of people who are likely to be rendered stateless once the appeal process is completed.