With just two days left for the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam to become public on August 31, there is palpable tension among those who are set to remain out of it. The draft NRC, released in July last year, left out about four million people; another one lakh were added to the list of left-outs in June this year, after cross-check. How many people the final document will leave out remains to be seen. But what is clear is that those missing the NRC bus will include both Hindus and Muslims.
The Indian home ministry, after a high-level review meeting on August 19, had sought to assuage apprehensions about the fate of those who will be excluded from the NRC by assuring that exclusion would not amount to a person being declared a “foreigner”, arguing that this can be done only at a Foreigners Tribunal, a quasi-judicial forum. There were a few more assurances held out by the ministry: (1) those not included in the NRC will be given 120 days, as against the existing provision of 60 days, to appeal against their exclusion; (2) those who cannot afford hiring lawyers for arguing their cases for inclusion will be provided with legal assistance by Assam government; and (3) more Foreigners Tribunals will be set up at convenient locations to expedite the disposal of cases relating to foreigners.
Clearly, this issue has two time-related implications: short-term and long-term. True, in the immediate term, a person out of the NRC will not be declared a foreigner. Equally true is the fact that the Foreigners’ Tribunal order can be challenged in the High Court and then the Supreme Court, meaning that the legal process is likely to be a long-drawn affair. But the prospect of being declared a foreigner will continue to loom large till a finality is reached.
The Assam government’s data, tabled in the state assembly in August this year, show Foreigners’ Tribunals have pronounced a total of 1,03,764 people foreigners between 1985 and August 2018. According to the federal Minister of State for Home, G Kishan Reddy, the Tribunals in Assam have declared 63,959 people foreigners through ex-parte proceedings between 1985 and February 28 this year.
The questions uppermost on the minds of those set to be excluded from the NRC are: will they be sent to detention centres; will they lose their voting rights; and how the poor among those excluded will mobilise funds for moving the Foreigners’ Tribunals? Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who attended the August 19 meeting in Delhi, said his government can take legislative action if questions come up over the exclusion of names from the NRC. But he did not elaborate on the proposed legislative measure, which apparently will be aimed at overcoming the Supreme Court’s rejection of the demands of the state and the Indian government for a re-verification of 20 percent of the names included in the NRC in districts bordering Bangladesh, and 10 percent in other parts of the state.
It may be recalled that the BJP government had taken the legislative route by tabling the Citizenship Amendment Bill in parliament early this year, proposing citizenship to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who are residing in India. That bill, which would have taken care of Hindus who would not figure in the NRC, lapsed in the Rajya Sabha. But the BJP has more than once said it would bring back the legislation during the current tenure of its government at the centre.
Implicit in Sonowal’s remark about the need for legislative action is a reflection of Assam and Indian government’s questioning of the fairness and correctness of the four-year-long NRC update exercise carried out by government officials. In fact, the Bharatiya Janata Party and other saffron outfits, Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, frontal wings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are increasingly speaking out in public and hitting the streets in the last one month claiming that the names of a large number of “foreigners” will find their way into the NRC while several people, including Hindus, will remain out of the document.
Assam government spokesman Chandra Mohan Patowar told The Indian Express that “actually, after the first draft of NRC was published, we realised that a lot of indigenous people and genuine citizens in districts like Karbi Anglong and Dhemaji were out of the NRC whereas in certain districts, where we expected the exclusion to be higher, it was not.” But in claiming that “genuine” Indian citizens are being excluded from the NRC, the BJP has framed it in its polarising narrative by choosing to argue that three Muslim-dominated districts of Karimganj, Dhubri and South Salmara have less rate of exclusion compared to districts like Hindu-majority Tinsukia.
The BJP has also alleged that people in Dhubri and Barpeta, another Muslim-dominated district, fabricated documents to have their names included in the NRC. The core concern for the BJP is that a large number of Hindus will be left out of the NRC and could hit its support base in Assam.
According to Indian media reports, the Election Commission will revisit the question whether those excluded from the NRC will be marked as “D” (Doubtful) voters, which is a category of the electorate in Assam whose citizenship is caught in dispute. When the draft final NRC was published in July 2018, the then Chief Election Commissioner O P Rawat had said that exclusion of names from the NRC would not automatically see their deletion from the state’s voters’ roll, if a person possesses any document to prove that he or she is a citizen of India, of 18 years of age (the minimum age for being eligible to caste vote) and is a resident of the constituency he or she wants to exercise their franchise from.
All in all, it is going to be a long haul on the legal front for those remaining outside the NRC. But that is just a part—howsoever important—of the whole story which will play out fully after the final NRC publication with all its dimensions: legal, political and above all, human.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.