For whom does the bell toll on June 30? The upcoming publication of the final draft of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC), following a first draft that was published on December 31 last year, has engendered an air of nervous anticipation in the state, with the state government making massive security preparations to combat any disturbance—some 150 paramilitary companies have already been put on alert. Assam has seen a prolonged battle against ‘illegal immigration’, with many political and students’ movements emerging from the struggle. The people’s feelings are mixed; all hope that an accurate NRC will draw a line under years of conflict and harassment, allow those of Bengali origin—of all castes and creeds—to live with dignity, and provide a permanent solution for the state. But some worry about genuine Indian citizens being excluded, while others are more complacent, putting their faith in the system.
The first NRC was prepared in 1951 by recording particulars of all the persons enumerated during that year’s census. Unique to the state of Assam, this document was put together to distinguish Indian citizens from illegal migrants from then East Pakistan. The movement against illegal immigration stems from the indigenous population’s worries about being overwhelmed by ‘outsiders’, andfear that demographic changes would lead to the loss of culture, language and identity. Now, the updated register will be published to include the names of those persons or their descendants whose names appeared in the NRC, 1951, in any of the electoral rolls up to March 25 of 1971 or in any of the other admissible documents issued up to midnight on that final day, which would prove their presence in Assam. The update comes amid protests across the northeast over the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, which aims to give Indian citizenship to ‘persecuted minorities’ from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many in Assam fear that the BJP-led central government’s move will negate the very purpose of the NRC.
On the other hand, many—particularly Muslims, who are 34 per cent of the state’s population, the second-highest figure after J&K—have been facing harassment over their citizenship, and stress the need for an accurate register to put an end to this. “Ever since the NRC updating process started, Muslims have been always in favour of an error-free NRC. Muslim community organisations and students’ bodies have organised thousands of meetings and awareness camps to mobilise the people to participate in the process. They worked hand in hand with the authorities even after the publication of first draft on December 31 last year,” says Abdul Kalam Azad, a researcher and community worker based in Barpeta. In the first list, 1.39 crore people were excluded out of a total of 3.29 crore who had applied to be included.
This cooperation may not have been enough. Though NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela told the media recently that the names of nearly 50,000 foreigners would not be in the final draft, many suspected that the number might go even higher. A notification from the NRC office on May 2 asks border police to refer brothers, sisters and other relations of ‘declared foreigners’ to the foreigners’ tribunals and not include their names in the NRC.
“Since May 2, the Muslim community is seeing a conspiracy to exclude as many Muslims as possible from the final list. There are allegations that fresh reference cases under the Foreigners Act are being registered only to exclude them from NRC. Large numbers of women who submitted panchayat certificates are facing anxiety and apprehension about being excluded from NRC,” adds Kalam.
Ainuddin Ahmed, vice-president of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union, has his own questions. “We have some problems with certain developments. The notification which was issued on May 2 is a little problematic. We want to raise a question: why was it only issued at the last moment? So, we are going to the Supreme Court to sort out certain things. Otherwise, we fully support the system and want an error-free NRC for a permanent solution,” he says. The students’ body and other minority organisations believe that several lakh Muslims might be left out if the May 2 notification is applied. Political parties like the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front have expressed similar apprehensions that a good number of genuine Indian citizens might be left out.
Meanwhile, others emphasise hope. Prantosh Saha, a vegetable seller in Dalgaon, Darrang district, tells Outlook, “In our extended family of 20, none of the names was featured in the first draft but we are not worried. We have faith in the system and everything is being monitored by the Supreme Court; we are confident of seeing our names in the final draft.”
All these hopes and fears will soon have their resolution, although with the massive flood hitting several areas of Assam, there might be a delay in announcing the final draft. Seva Kendras in several districts have been hit and many have been shifted to more elevated locations.
By Abdul Gani in Guwahati