Migration from Bangladesh, illegal or otherwise, has always played a major role in Assam’s politics, making heroes out of former student leaders, dumping veterans to the pages of history and uniting voters against a common enemy. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) may have just turned “illegal Bangladeshis” into a national issue, and handed the ruling BJP a potent weapon for 2019. On Tuesday, barely days after Assam made public the final draft of the NRC, BJP president Amit Shah threw the gauntlet at the opposition. “It (NRC) will be implemented to the last full stop and comma,” he told reporters, linking it to national security and Indians’ rights. He was particularly harsh on the Congress and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, terming their concerns over the NRC as politics of “votebank”.
The final draft, an updated version of the document first published in 1951, has left out 40 lakh names out of 3.29 crore applicants, raising allegations of a witch-hunt against Muslims and Bengalis. The furore over the NRC even forced Union home minister Rajnath Singh to issue a clarification in Parliament, assuring a fair mechanism for redressing claims and objections.
However, it is the very mechanism of the NRC which has come under scrutiny, with stories emerging about major errors that have seen one among twins being left out, or about seven former army personnel not finding their names in the list. So much so that even the names of two sitting MLAs are missing from the NRC. Opposition parties, including Mamata’s Trinamool and the Congress, are pointing to these lapses to accuse the BJP of anti-Bengali and anti-Muslim bias in preparing the NRC. The parties even disrupted Parliament over the issue on two consecutive days, once when Amit Shah was speaking. Mamata, in particular, has warned of unrest over the NRC and promised to shelter the 40 lakh left out of the draft.
Shah was quick to respond to the charges. Unable to speak in Parliament due to opposition protests, he addressed a press conference within a couple of hours to hit back at rivals “who are concerned with the rights of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants”. It is a calculated move of the BJP to club the issue of illegal migration with its broader agenda of nationalism. Shah stated as much, saying the Congress-led UPA started the NRC process in 2005 but lacked the courage “to throw out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants”. What is even more important in the context of 2019 is the BJP’s assertion that it will next target “illegal migrants” in Bengal. Sources in the BJP said that the issue of Bangladeshi migrants will resonate as much with a voter in Guwahati as it will to a voter in Gurgaon or Mumbai. “They are everywhere and growing in numbers… most people want them out,” said a senior party leader in Delhi. The leader, like Amit Shah, will not say how the party plans to deal with those who will be declared foreigners after they have exhausted all their official and legal options in Assam. But that is still a far way off.
In Assam, the people left out of the final draft are getting ready for a long haul, which will start with submitting new forms challenging their exclusion. “Whatever may be the reason (for exclusion), they will have to come up with some valid documents. I believe more than half of the people will get their names in the list through this route,” lawyer Syed Burhanur Rahman tells Outlook. What will happen to the rest of the people? “Then they have no other option but to approach the foreigners’ tribunals (FTs) to get their names clear. And even if that doesn’t work, that is not the end of the story…then you have a normal route of filing a writ petition in the Gauhati High Court and then in the Supreme Court,” Rahman adds.
Nearly 2.5 lakh cases are pending in the 100-odd FTs, quasi-judicial courts set up to try cases of illegal migrants and doubtful voters, which could further delay the entire process, Rahman says. The Centre has not set any deadline for completing the final NRC.
Among those who will approach the NRC authorities again is retired soldier Azmal Haque. So will six other army personnel, including serving lance-naik Enamul Haque. “After serving the nation in the best possible manner in the border and in the skies, do I need to prove my citizenship by filling up forms? We are deeply hurt. We are going to write to the President of India,” Azmal Haque tells Outlook. Earlier in 2017 too, Haque was served a notice by the foreigners’ tribunal to prove his citizenship. Later, Assam Police said it was a case of “mistaken identity”.
The updated NRC includes the names of those persons or their descendants whose names appeared in the NRC, 1951 or in any of the electoral rolls up to March 25, 1971, or in any one of the other admissible documents issued up to midnight of the same period, which would prove their presence in Assam.
Nabarun Guha, grand-nephew of prominent social scientist Amalendu Guha, didn’t find his name in the final draft but is still hopeful. “Though it’s shocking not to find my name in the list, I’m hopeful. We are Indian and Assamese by birth. We have submitted all the necessary documents,” Nabarun says. He, however, believes that the NRC is not against Muslims and Bengalis as is being made out by many. “Even after keeping out 40 lakh people out of the list, there is no tension. We haven’t heard of any kind of violence in spite of provocation from outside the state. People have shown great restraint,” he adds. The rest of Nabarun’s family members, however, have their names included in the list.
Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal also thanked the people of the state for welcoming the verdict with restraint. “While people have welcomed the draft NRC, certain sections are trying to destabilise and spread lies. People of Assam have always lived with peace and harmony. We will not allow anyone to disturb peace and law and order,” Sonowal says.
However, passions could rise again, with a Trinamool delegation set to visit Assam over the next few days on a fact-finding mission. As a counter to Mamata’s claims of targeting Bengalis, NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela told a local news channel in Guwahati that the Bengal government did not check nearly 1.35 lakh documents out of 1.50 lakh sent for verification from Assam as proof of citizenship submitted by applicants.
As the plot unravels in Assam and elsewhere, the NRC story is set to get murkier in the political battle over millions of people who could find themselves without a home or a country. It would be another humiliation for these people to become just an “election issue”, whether at home or another country they call home.