The controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam appears to have been discarded for all practical purposes. That is the message emanating from Indian Home Minister Amit Shah’s remarks made in the Rajya Sabha on November 20. Shah said whenever the NRC exercise is held across India, it will be repeated in Assam where the publication of the final updated document on August 31 this year set off a hue and cry over the exclusion of 19.6 million people. “The NRC exercise in Assam was undertaken as per an order of the Supreme Court and as per an Act. When the NRC exercise is replicated across the country, it will naturally have to be repeated in Assam,” Shah said. There could be no stronger proof that the NRC exercise in Assam, conducted for four years at a cost of 1,600 crore rupees, has been given a quiet burial.
The NRC in Assam did not satisfy anyone—its proponents and opponents—for a variety of reasons. Within hours of Shah’s statement in the upper House of parliament, Assam Finance Minister and a senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Himanta Biswa Sarma, enumerated the reasons why the “erroneous” NRC in the state was not acceptable to his party and government, and demanded a pan-India NRC with Assam within its ambit. The sequencing of the remarks by Shah and Sarma on the same day was hard to miss.
The rejection of the NRC exercise in Assam came almost three months after the Supreme Court rejected the pleas of the Indian and Assam governments for a sample re-verification of the names “wrongfully” included and excluded in the final NRC—20 percent in Assam’s districts bordering Bangladesh and 10 percent in other parts of the state. Assam NRC Coordinator Prateek Hajela had at that time told the apex court that re-verification of 27 percent of the names had already been conducted.
Shah’s November 20 statement did not just put the NRC exercise into the deep freeze but also gave a key component of the contours of the proposed countrywide exercise. “I want to make it clear again that people, whichever religion they belong to, should not feel scared. Everybody will be included in the NRC,” he said. Indian home ministry officials maintain that a pan-India NRC can take place only after the National Population Register (NPR) is updated which is expected to be done along with the Census in 2021. In fact, the NPR, the officials said, would provide the basis for the new NRC exercise.
The home minister’s announcement of a country-wide NRC evoked a sharp reaction from opposition parties along expected lines—West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, CPI(M)-ruled Kerala’s Minister for Minority Welfare KT Jaleel, and senior Congress leader Anand Sharma pointed out that present law does not allow a nationwide NRC. The BJP in Assam was put on the spot by the final NRC, made public on August 31, because an estimated 12 million of the 19.6 million kept out of the document were reportedly Hindus. Prateek Hajela, a senior official who presided over the huge complex exercise, was transferred out of Assam with the approval of the top court. Hajela had come under fire from almost all quarters over the project allegedly marred by widespread irregularities.
The experience of Assam NRC might throw up a useful lesson for a similar exercise countrywide. What happens to the people who might be out of the pan-India NRC? Can the pitfalls encountered in Assam be avoided in the proposed new initiative?
In the midst of the continued debate over whether a pan-India NRC was desirable, what often tends to go unnoticed is that the exercise in Assam was context-specific as it flew out of the 1985 Assam Peace Accord signed by the Indian government, Assam administration and the outfits that had waged a long-drawn violent agitation against illegal immigrants in the state in 1970s and 1980s. The Assam Accord was the product of the politics of identity—politics based on ethnicity and language—and played out on the dynamics of “outsider versus insider” debate of the demography of Assam. It also saw the birth of insurgency in the state. That politics took little note of the fact that Assam has for centuries witnessed the influx of people from some South East Asian countries, including what are now Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. While Assam had provided a historical backdrop for the NRC exercise, most of the other Indian states do not have that.
Despite the ethnic and linguistic fault lines exposed by the agitation against illegal immigrants in Assam, one inescapable fact of that movement is that it was, by and large, religion-neutral. Shah was right when he said on November 20 that the NRC did not provide for faith-based exclusion. That being so, it is open to debate whether the BJP government’s proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which is an offshoot of the NRC in Assam and seeks to give Indian citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants in India, is the right step. A logical question is: if the NRC is religion-neutral, can the CAB also be the same?
The CAB, which the BJP wants to use to give citizenship to Hindus excluded from the final NRC, has already seen a groundswell of resistance in the entire north-east of India including recent street protests and shutdowns. The BJP government has included the CAB in its legislative agenda for the ongoing winter session of parliament. It remains to be seen if it goes ahead with it.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.