Ananta Kumar Malo, 63, is a businessman and the MLA representing the South Abhayapuri constituency in Bongaigaon, a district near the western border of Assam. His educational qualification reads 10th pass from Dhupguri High School, in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri. Malo owns a house and seven bighas of farmland in Chalantapara village in Bongaigaon. These personal details are suddenly in the spotlight because the legislator has failed to make it to the National Register of Citizens (NRC), published in Assam on August 31. The register has been updated to detect illegal immigrants in the state, after widespread protests and allegations that millions of illegal Bangladeshi nationals have flooded the plains of Assam. A total of 33,027,661 people living within the geographical boundary of Assam had applied for inclusion in the register. Of them, 1,906,657 were excluded.
Queues outside the panchayat office in Pavakati village, Moregaon district (Photo: Anuwar Ali Hazarika/Getty Images)
So does non-inclusion in the NRC mean Malo is no longer a citizen of India? Will Malo lose his membership in the assembly? Will he lose ownership of his land? Will he be able to vote again? Will he be arrested or kept at a detention centre till he is finally deported to the country he allegedly came from?
None of the above will happen to Malo and the 1.9 million others who do not find themselves in the NRC. They will continue to enjoy all the rights and privileges granted by the Union of India. For, there are two more steps to follow. As the Supreme Court has been directly monitoring the NRC updating process since 2015, it must first accept the list published by the NRC state coordinator. The court may accept or reject it in totality or may accept it with modifications. Once the court accepts it, the Registrar General of India (RGI) must notify the NRC, as the Government of India is the sole custodian in the issue of citizenship. So the list published on August 31 will be effective only from the day a gazette notification is issued for the same.
The excluded individuals have four months from the date of notification to the Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs) to file an appeal contesting their exclusion. The FTs are only authorised to decide on the status of the citizenship of an individual. If the rejected ones from NRC don’t get reprieve from the FTs, they can go to the high court and later the Supreme Court. “We will provide all necessary assistance to those excluded to ensure that they get fair legal support,” says Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal. In short, these 1.9 million people have a wide legal window-almost indefinite in a country where more than 200,000 cases have been pending for 25 years-available to prove the conclusions of the NRC wrong. About their voting rights, the Election Commission of India will take the final call once there is an official notification from the Registrar General.
This long process has made many question the purpose of this Rs 1,200 crore exercise, the consequence of a four-decade-long struggle by the indigenous people of Assam against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Several estimates have been floating around on the total number of illegal immigrants in the state. In 2004, the then Union MoS for home affairs, Sriprakash Jaiswal, told the Rajya Sabha that there were 12,053,950 illegal Bangladeshis in India-and that Assam accounted for 5 million of them. The Assam Public Works (APW), a Guwahati-based NGO, which moved the Supreme Court in 2009 seeking a revision of the NRC, stated in its PIL that 4.1 million illegal Bangladeshis had got on to Assam’s voter list. The EC did not dispute the figure in court.
So when the NRC found only 1.9 million ineligible for Indian citizenship, all the ‘stakeholders’ expressed anguish over the ‘unexpected’ number. What has made matters worse is the exclusion of several bona fide Indian citizens from the list, merely based on some bizarre documentary errors. “The process was faulty, and we had pointed it out earlier. There was an inexplicable hurry to complete it and consequently a large number of foreigners have been granted citizenship via this NRC. We are certainly going to demand further scrutiny,” says the APW chief, Abhijit Sarma. According to Prof. Nani Gopal Mahanta of Gauhati University, the low level of exclusion in the NRC could be due to the manipulation of legacy data as the family tree is not biometric-based and there is no mechanism to verify the authenticity of such claims and documents.
Ironically, the people who have expressed happiness over the NRC are mostly those who had till now either had reservations about the process or aggressively campaigned against it. A campaign was on to paint the process as an attempt to strip Muslims of citizenship. “The myth of the illegal migrant has been dispelled with the NRC. Will (Union home minister) Amit Shah now explain how he came to know of 4 million infiltrators?” asked Asaduddin Owaisi, chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM). For the record, 4 million people were excluded from the draft NRC published last year and the number has more than halved after appeals and claims. If sources are to be believed, Muslims account for just 700,000-or 37 per cent-of the 1.9 million excluded from the final NRC.
This particular statistic has turned the BJP into the severest critic of the NRC. Last year, after the draft NRC was published-nearly eight months before the Lok Sabha elections-BJP president Shah had talked of preparing an NRC in every state of India. Several of his colleagues too had made similar demands. Calling illegal immigrants “termites”, he had thundered, inside Parliament and outside, that every one of them would be deported. Since the release of the final NRC, Shah has maintained a studied silence. His trusted deputy in the Northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who also happens to be Assam’s finance minister, has openly criticised the NRC’s methodology and has advocated exploring new ways to detect illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. “It has been a learning process. When the NRC becomes a national exercise, including Assam, we will keep these lessons in mind. Don’t forget, the NRC has to be updated every 10 years. This is not the last one,” Sarma told India Today, while appealing to the state’s various social groups, including APW and AASU, to join the Assam government in moving the Supreme Court to seek a re-examination of the NRC data.
Sarma is legally correct, as the NRC is an official data bank of all Indian citizens which is to be updated across all states every 10 years. However, the exercise has never been carried out anywhere except in Assam. According to a senior BJP leader, the Narendra Modi government has plans to prepare an NRC for all of India. In fact, the Union home ministry recently sent out a circular to all states to prepare detention centres with modern facilities. However, the process of updating the NRC will not be the same in other states as it was specially tweaked for Assam. While the existing rules provide for preparation of the NRC strictly through house-to-house enumeration, in Assam, the Citizenship Act rules were amended to enable the updating of the NRC by inviting claims from direct descendants of those figuring in the 1951 NRC or the 1971 electoral rolls.
After the draft NRC came out last year, Assam had approached the Union home ministry seeking guidelines on the status of those finally excluded from the list. The ministry asked the state government not to take any action and maintain status quo. Later, the Centre extended the time period given to those excluded to move the FTs from 60 days to 120 days. This extension, say sources, was part of the BJP’s game plan to tackle any unwarranted situation created by the NRC. But they may have failed to anticipate the exclusion of a large number of Hindus. Sources say the party will now seek to pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the winter session of Parliament as a remedial measure. The bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, to make minority group immigrants-Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians-from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship. If the bill is passed, this could help the government to grant citizenship to the NRC-excluded Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh.
A senior BJP leader claims the bill is crucial for the party’s larger plan to prepare a nationwide NRC. “It may begin along with the next Census, which is scheduled for 2021,” he says. If that happens, the current Assam NRC will remain valid-provided it is notified by the RGI-for just two years. Besides, there is no guarantee that those who have got into the NRC will remain immune to challenges to their status as Indian citizens. If the district administration or border police suspect the citizenship credentials of an individual, he or she can still be referred to the FTs. If the FTs find valid grounds in such referrals, the individual in question may be declared a foreigner. “The border police have the right to probe those with questionable documents and citizenship, and that will continue,” Sarma has stressed. Which is another way of hinting that the second NRC has done little to bring closure to a four-decade-long contentious issue in Assam.
What happens if your name is not in the NRC?
Exclusion from the NRC has no implication on the rights of a resident of Assam. Those who are not in the final list will not be detained and will continue to enjoy all the rights as before till they have exhausted all the remedies available under law. It does not make the excluded person stateless. It also does not make him a foreigner,” says Raveesh Kumar, official spokesperson of the external affairs ministry. So, a person excluded from the NRC will continue to own land and property, keep jobs and apply for new positions in government and private sectors. The excluded individuals can file an appeal within four months to the Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs) contesting their exclusions. The district administration can also refer their names to the FTs. If they don’t get reprieve from the FTs, they can go to the high court and later the Supreme Court. The Election Commission will take a call on their voting rights once all the names are referred to the FTs. In Assam, since 1997, a person referred to the FTs, is marked as D-Voter (they lose the right to vote). Once a person is legally declared a foreigner, he or she will be sent to a detention centre.
Why did Assam need an NRC?
- The NRC is the second such exercise in the state, carried out in response to protests over alleged unabated illegal immigration from Bangladesh (earlier East Pakistan). The first NRC was in 1951
- There was a big surge in this influx after the 1971 Bangladesh war
- In 1978, during a by-poll to the Mangaldoi LS constituency, the detection of 45,000 illegal names in the electoral rolls triggered the Assam agitation (1979-85) against foreigners
- The agitation ended with the Assam Accord, a tripartite agreement between the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad, the Centre and state governments
- According to the Assam accord, all residents who entered the state until January 1, 1966, would be deemed citizens. Those who came between 1966 and March 25, 1971, to be disenfranchised for 10 years. Those who came after would be deported
- Citizenship Act rules amended for Assam to enable updating of its NRC by inviting claims from direct descendants of those figuring in the 1951 NRC or 1971 electoral rolls
- In 2005, at a tripartite meeting between the Centre, Assam government and AASU, it was decided to update the NRC. Exercise abandoned in 2010 after violence erupts during a pilot run in two districts
- In 2005, the SC observed: “The presence of such a large number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh… is in fact an aggression on the state of Assam and has contributed significantly in causing serious internal disturbances”
- The current process of updating the NRC is the consequence of a 2009 PIL filed in the SC by the NGO, Assam Public Works, which claimed that 4.1 million illegal Bangladeshis had found their way into Assam’s voter list. The SC has directly monitored the NRC update since 2015
- In 2017, an interim report of a committee for the protection of land rights of the indigenous people of Assam, headed by ex-CEC H.S. Brahma, said that illegal Bangladeshis dominated in as many as 15 of the state’s 33 districts