By Pushpita Das*
The publication of the first draft of the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) of Assam by the Office of the State Coordinator of NRC on December 31, 2017 is an important milestone in dealing with the influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh into that state. The objective behind updating and publishing the 1951 NRC is to compile a list of the names of genuine Indian citizens residing in Assam and, in the process, detect foreigners (read Bangladeshis) who may have illegally entered the state after March 24, 1971. Of the 3.29 crore residents of Assam1 who applied for the inclusion of their names in the NRC by submitting legacy documents,2 1.9 crore names have been included as citizens in the initial list. A second list containing the names of more numbers of citizens is slated to be published in February-March 2018. The final list containing the names of all Indian citizens in Assam is expected to be published by December 2018 after the disposal of all claims and objections in final registers at various levels.
The publication of the initial NRC list is the outcome of a long standing demand of the Assamese people to detect and deport illegal Bangladeshi migrants from their state. Early demands for the detection of foreigners based on the NRC of 1951 can be found in the memorandum submitted by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to the then Prime Minister on February 2, 1980 as well as in the signed petition submitted by 17 members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) of Assam to the Rajya Sabha in June 1980. Yet, the Assam Accord of 1985 did not contain any specific mention of updating the NRC. With regard to the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, clause 5.8 of the Accord merely stipulated that “Foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 shall continue to be detected, deleted and expelled in accordance with law. Immediate and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners.” In the absence of any expressed demand for updating the NRC of 1951 (a charge denied by AASU leaders), the Government of India took no initiative in this regard. Instead, it constituted a number of Tribunals and Appellate Courts under both the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act of 19833 and the Foreigners Tribunal Act of 1964 to detect illegal Bangladeshis.
It was only in May 2005 that the first step towards updating the NRC of 1951 was taken, when a tripartite meeting between the Centre, the Assam government and AASU was held to review the progress made in the implementation of the Assam Accord. At that meeting, it was decided that the Assam government will take up and complete within two years the process of updating the NRC of 1951 by including the names that appear in the 1971 voters’ lists and those of their descendants. Yet, no efforts were made either by the State government or the Union government in subsequent years to update the NRC. The issue was again raised by AASU at the April 2009 review meeting, on which occasion the Assam government gave an assurance that it would start the process of updating the NRC. Following the assurance, in June 2010 a pilot project was initiated in two revenue circles – Barpeta and Chayagaon. However, the project was suspended following violent protests by the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU), which alleged that there were numerous anomalies in the NRC.
Whereas successive governments have been extremely reluctant to update the NRC of 1951 due to various political considerations and vested interests, the Hon’ble Supreme Court took up the matter in earnestness when the issue was brought before it. In the course of hearing a clutch of writ petitions filed by various parties, especially the one by Assam Public Works, an NGO, in July 2009 in which it had prayed for the deletion of illegal voters from the voters’ list of Assam and sought updation of the NRC as part of that process, the Supreme Court, brushing aside the delaying tactics of the Union and state governments, ordered them to begin the process of updating of the NRC in Assam. Accordingly, the Ministry of Home Affairs, in consultation with the Ministry of Law and Justice, issued the notification for starting the work of updating the NRC and appointed Prateek Hajela on January 28, 2014 as the State Coordinator for the NRC. For its part, the Supreme Court constituted a Committee “to take care of any clarification that would be required with regard to the modalities in the preparation of the NRC.” Initially, the date for publication of the final draft of the NRC was set as on or before January 1, 2016. But upon the request of the State Coordinator, the Court agreed to extend the deadline by two years.
The publication of the first draft has not been met with any violent protest as anticipated. However, it has raised serious apprehensions in the minds of those whose names do not figure in the list. The fact that only some of the names of the members of a single family appeared on the list while others did not has also raised doubts about the rigour of the verification process. But the hope that their names might appear in the next list has kept them from protesting violently against the NRC. Given that a proper documentation system does not exist in the country, for most of those whose names do not appear in the NRC, procuring the required documents, especially birth certificates, in order to prove their relationships with persons whose names have appeared in the legacy documents and thus establish their citizenship is fraught with difficulties. This is particularly so in the case of many settlers who have come to Assam from other parts of the country. State governments to which documents were sent for verification have been slow to respond. So far, only 1.5 lakh of the 5.5 lakh documents sent out for verification have been reportedly returned by other state governments. Given these hurdles, and especially the delay caused by the slow disposal of cases by other state governments, it is to be seen when the next iteration of the list would be published, how many names appear therein and whether the government would be able to publish the final NRC by the end of 2018.
An even more important issue is what happens to those people whose names do not figure in the final NRC and are declared illegal entrants into the state. The popular rhetoric for dealing with such illegal migrants has always been to deport them to Bangladesh, but this is easier said than done. Bangladesh has consistently denied that its citizens have illegally emigrated to India. Although the Supreme Court in its order of 2014 had instructed the Government of India to enter into discussions with Bangladesh on streamlining the deportation of illegal Bangladeshis, nothing has happened on the ground as New Delhi is reluctant to raise this tricky issue lest it jeopardises relations with Dhaka. In the absence of any agreement under which Bangladesh agrees to take back its citizens, the Government of India cannot do much except push a few illegal migrants across the border. The situation is further compounded by that fact that many illegal migrants who were declared foreigners by the Foreigners Tribunals have either absconded to other states to evade arrest or are dead. Since the deportation of illegal migrants is not feasible, the only option before the government is to let them reside in the country on humanitarian grounds but after stripping them of all citizenship rights. Such an option, however, might not go down well with the people of Assam who are at present protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016, which proposes to grant citizenship to all refugees (except Muslims) who have fled religious persecution in their home countries.
The publication of the updated NRC is indeed a positive step in so far as it puts to rest wild speculations about the extent of the illegal migrant population in Assam and the resulting polarisation that political parties have been exploiting to make electoral gains. However, the absence of any clear policy as to how to deal with the proclaimed illegal migrants has created a sense of unease in the minds of many presently residing in Assam. Further, while the NRC is being updated for Assam, there is no plan to prepare similar NRCs for the other states in the North East where illegal migration continues to be a volatile issue. The need of the hour therefore is for the Union Government to allay apprehensions presently in the minds of the people of Assam and take steps to contain any adverse fallout after the publication of the final draft of the NRC. At the same time, it also needs to spell out what it intends to do with the persons whose names do not figure in the final NRC.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.
About the author
*Dr. Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
This article was published by IDSA
- 1. According to the 2011 Census, the total population of Assam is 3.12 crore.
- 2. The NRC of 1951 and the Electoral Roll of 1971 (up to midnight of 24 March 1971) are together called Legacy Data. Persons whose names appeared in these documents and their descendants are certified as Indian citizens.
- 3. The IMDT Act of 1983 was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005 and all the pending cases in IMDT courts were transferred to the Foreigners Tribunals of 1964.