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NRC (Assam Accord) : Beginning, implications and the road ahead!

NRC Assam

NRC stands for the National Registrar of Citizens and was first created as a document for the registry of all legal citizens living in India. All those who were enumerated in the census of 1951 were included in the National Register of Citizens 1951, which led to the formation of the first Register for citizens in India.

The NRC is governed by the Citizenship Act 1995, and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules 2003. This document was amended by the Government Service Representation [GSR 803(E)] on 9th November 2009, and the Ministry of Home Affairs (Office of Registrar General, India) on 15th March 2010.

The indigenous groups in Assam, over the years have been making demands to update the NRC. The first project for updating the NRC began in 2010 but was quickly halted after a protest by the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU). In 2015, the process for updating the list began after the Supreme Court ordered the completion of the process for updating the list in accordance with the Assam Accord.

I. The Assam Accord

The state of Assam has seen waves of migrations, first as a colonial province and then as an independent state of India. The waves of Bangladeshi immigrants, as a result of fleeing the Bangladesh War of 1971, saw the emergence of an ‘anti-foreigners’ agitation. The year of 1979 saw the All Assam Student Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gan Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) birthing the agitation against the illegal migrants of the state. This movement started when AASU noticed that the number of voters in a 1978 by-poll had drastically increased.

The Student movement began against the illegal migrants who settled in Assam and had not returned to Bangladesh when it was formed. This influx of migrants was changing the demography of Assam, according to AASU and AAGSP.

Assam is a state that houses a large population of tribal folk. Since the illegal migrants are largely Muslim, the AASU and AAGSP alleged that this instance of excess people from outside might drastically affect the culture of the state. The agitation ran parallel to the armed struggle by the United Liberation Front of Assam who demanded a sovereign state for the Assamese people.

This movement went on for six years, and ended up with the signing of the Assam Accord between the Government of India and the above mentioned two groups.

Clause 5 of the Assam Accord: Foreigners Issue

The Assam Accord has a list of clauses and deals with the issue of foreign migrants in   Clause 5.

Under Clause 5.1, January 1st 1966 is taken as the base year for the detection and deletion of foreign migrants.

Clause 5.2 states that all the people who came to the state prior to the base year, including those whose names appeared on the electoral rolls in the 1967 elections, will be regularised.

Clause 5.3 states that foreigners who came to Assam after the base year date upto March 24th 1971 will be detected in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigner Act 1946 and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order 1964.

Under Clause 5.4, The names of those (Foreigners) detected will be deleted from the electoral rolls in force. They will be required to register themselves before the Registration Officers of all the respective districts in accordance with the provisions of the Registration of Foreigners Act 1939 and the Registration of Foreigners Rules 1939.

Clause 5.6 states that on the event of expiry of 10 years following the date of detection, the names of all persons deleted from the electoral rolls shall be restored.

Foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25th 1971 shall continue to be detected, deleted and expelled in accordance to the law, under Clause 5.8.

The deportation of all persons previously expelled, but have re-entered Assam illegally since, is covered under Clause 5.7.

Those born after 1971, in the state of Assam, must furnish documents related to family members, alongside additional official papers ascertaining to their relationship, like a birth certificate.

II. First Draft of the NRC

In March 2017, the Guwahati High Court dismissed the residency certificates issued by the Gram Panchayat, stating that the documents could be used as a link to connect people born after 1971 with their ancestors. This move seemed to hit women the worst, especially married women.

The Supreme Court, however, overruled this decision and allowed the women categorized as ‘original inhabitants’, relying on such certificates, to make it onto the first draft of the register which was published on December 31st, 2017.

Under the first draft 1.9 crore people out of the 3.29 crore who registered, were incorporated into the registry.

III. Second and Final Draft

The deadline for filing the second draft of the NRC was set by the Supreme Court as July 30th, but the deadline was missed by the government and the deadline was extended by a month to August 30th. However, the final draft was published a day after the deadline.

The second and final draft of the NRC saw 2.89 out of 3.29 crore names being registered as citizens of Assam. However, around 40 lakh people were excluded from the list.

Chief Minister of Assam, Sabarnanda Sonowal said, “No one will be treated as a foreigner if his or her name doesn’t appear in the NRC. Anyone whose name that doesn’t feature in the final list will have ample opportunity to prove their eligibility for inclusion in the final NRC through claims and objections.”

Sabarnanda further said that the NRC is the ‘biggest safeguard’ for Assam and its people, assuring that genuine citizens who do not make it to the draft will be able to seek legal redressal in multiple stages right up to the Supreme Court.

IV. The Aftermath

When the draft was released on Monday (July 30th), the atmosphere in Assam was very tense. The Army was put on standby, with over 22000 paramilitary troops being deployed to Assam and the adjoining states. The state police were on high alert, and the leaves of all state government employees had been canceled.

The situation did not get any worse though, with a sense of calm being observed throughout the state. Everyone from media and social analysts, to the state government; which had asked for an additional 150 companies of paramilitary forces to deal with possible outbreaks of violence and seeking help from the North-East Space Application Centre for mapping of the char and riverine areas for policing; everyone was taken by surprise.

Some people attributed this calm to the assurance given by the central government that the mere omission of names from the registry did not amount to being labeled a foreigner and that those left out of the NRC could file claims before September 28th, 2018 (There’s a hint that this date could be extended).

Others have said that the sense of calm can be credited to the Assamese and other indigenous people over the fact that they reacted with a sense of ‘maturity’ to the announcement of foreigners being ‘detected’ in the state.

Assamese nationalist organizations like AASU and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Paridhad (AJYCP) declared that they would help all Indian citizens whose names have been excluded from the NRC, in filing their claims and even offering free legal assistance to those who cannot afford it.

The endearment shown on part of AASU and its sister organisation, who enthusiastically celebrated the publication of the final list, can be attributed to the fact that the NRC stands as a victory for their decades-long struggle of ridding the state of illegal foreign migrants.

Several minority organizations of Assam have expressed their concerns over the NRC process, but the overall response to the publication of the NRC’s final draft have been generally positive.

It is indicated that after all the claims and objections are dealt with, the actual number of deletions will substantially reduce. Even then, there would be a large number of stateless persons which necessitates a well coordinated, nationwide move to find a solution to this problem within humanitarian parameters.

However, that should not negate the ground realities in Assam where immigration and demographic change continue to be a major concern amongst Assam’s indigene.

V. Centre and Opposition

1. Statements and Opinions

Naturally, the NRC issue in Assam became a tug of war (War of words) between Centre and the Opposition as the issue has potential to severely affect the vote share ahead of Lok Sabha Elections of 2019. BJP-led NDA government and Congress-led UPA government were engaged in a bitter war of words, both inside and outside the parliament, a day after Assam released the final draft for the NRC.

BJP president, Amit Shah claimed, while leading the charge in the Rajya Sabha, that the NDA government achieved what the UPA government couldn’t. He said that while Rajiv Gandhi signed the Assam Accord in 1985, which is similar to the NRC, the Congress didn’t have the courage to implement it. This statement triggered a protest from Congress MPs.

Senior Congress spokesperson, Anand Sharma added that there should be no politics over the issue. Till all the matters related to the NRC are disposed of, he said that people and families should not be separated and that the matters be suspended.

Congress President, Rahul Gandhi called the NRC list ‘tardy’ and said that the registry has created ‘massive insecurity in the state’. He mentioned in a Facebook post that the NRC was first initiated by the UPA government under former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with the intention of fulfilling the commitment made to the 1985 Assam Accord. Commenting on the BJP government’s manner of executing this exercise, he talked about the reports from from all parts of Assam about people finding their names missing in the draft, attributing this to the ‘mass insecurity in the state’.

West Bengal‘s Chief Minister, Mamata Bannerjee of Trinamool Congress (TMC) addressed the media claiming that ‘Bengalis and Biharis’ living in the state of Assam were ‘being targeted’. She further said that these people were ‘Indians, and not Rohingyas‘.

Meanwhile, All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) president Badruddin Ajmal said that the party would provide assistance to all the people whose names were not featured in the draft to ensure that ‘no Indian Citizen is left out’. He welcomed the release of the final draft but said that the exclusion of 40 lakh people from the list ‘is not a small matter and that we must consider the fact that this draft is not the final list, and we should wait for it’.

On the other hand, Assam’s former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the spear-head of the six year long Assam agitation against foreigners in Assam and one of the signatories to the Assam Accord, said that the government ‘must deport all people to their country, those that came after March 24th 1971’.

Assam Pradesh Congress president, Ripun Bora hoped that the Centre would echo Rajnath’s statement, in letter and spirit, that no genuine citizen be left out.

All India Students’ Union (AASU) General Secretary, Lurinjyoti Gogoi said, “We have always wanted Assam to be free of foreigners”, further adding that the publication ‘is a historic moment after the signing of the Assam Accord’.

Krishak Mukti Sangam Samiti (KMSS) Advisor Akhil Gogoi welcomed the publication of the draft as well, assuring legal help to genuine Indian Citizens.

2. Opposition Politicising the Issue

Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh urged all the opposition parties not to politicise the issue; the Congress asked the government to immediately convene on all-party meetings on the contentious issue and inform the Opposition on the proposed steps to ensure that no Indian citizen is left out.

He said that there is ‘no question of any coercive action against anyone’, while stressing that the NRC process is ‘being carried out with complete fairness and transparency’.

The final draft comprising the names of 2,89,83,677 people of Assam was published online by the Registrar General of India.

VI. The Road Ahead

The NRC can be viewed by many, especially those in the political spectrum, as a lens to view the Hindu-Muslim binary. The issue, however, goes beyond the realms of the religious divide, although certain key figures are politicising the issue on communal grounds in a bid to gather votes for the General Elections in 2019.

The publication of NRC’s final draft is a cause for worry to the 40 lakh people not included in its list.

Silchar District

The story of Sanjit Debnath and his family, who live in Silchar, is particularly sad. Sanjit is a 65-year old retired government employee from Silchar. The names of him and his 19 member family, including his five brothers and a sister and their respective children, were missing from the registry.

All of them reside in Silchar with the exception of his brother Asit, who resides in Delhi. While two brothers including Sanjit retired from government service, the remaining sibling are still employed in the government. His brother Sujit runs a homeopathic medicine shop.

However, the names of the spouses of the family members were included in the second draft.

Sanjit said that he submitted documents such as land deeds and a copy of a voters’ list with his father’s name on it dating back to the 60s. He said that the family got all documents verified at an NRC Seva Kendra in Cachar district’s Palonghat on April 5. According to him, the officials informed them that everything was in place, and that they did not raise any red flags.

Prominent figures not included in NRC

Also, among those not identified in the list are the names of certain prominent figures and their kin.

Barkukuria District

The nephew of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, India’s fifth President, named Ziauddin Ali Ahmed and his family were excluded from the list. Ziauddin is a marginal farmer and a seasonal fisherman from the village of Barkukuria district of Assam. He is also the grandson of Lieutenant Colonel Jalnur Ali Ahmed, the first person to hold an MBBS degree and qualify as a doctor in Assam.

Cachar District

Other prominent personalities include those from the Barak Valley, including Archana Paul who is the wife of a BJP MLA from Cachar, Dilip Paul, as well as former Congress legislator Ataur Rahman Mazarbhuiya.

AIUDF’s Cachar unit President Samimul Islam and his family are also not included in the list.

What the Supreme Court has to say

The Supreme Court, a day after the publication of NRC, said that the exercise for verifying citizenships of residents would lead to a logical conclusion, as it asked the Centre to frame a ‘fair and equitable’ standard operating procedure to arbitrate claims for Indian citizenship.

A bench consisting of Justices, Ranjan Gogoi and R.F. Nariman made it clear that the exercise would continue, but no coercive action would be taken by any authority against the 40 lakh people who failed to make it in the final draft.

Attorney General K.K. Venugopal told the Supreme Court that the concerned ministry would prepare a detailed standard operating procedure to receive and adjudicate claims and objections of those excluded.

“Given the magnitude of human dimensions in this problem, it would be appropriate if the SC assured the public against any coercive step on the basis of draft NRC.”, said Venugopal.

Amidst polarisations over the NRC draft, the Centre said that it was thinking of seeking biometric scans of those claiming citizenship, to prevent them from vanishing into other states by changing identities.

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