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Assam: Contentious Citizens Register Rolls On; Political Developments To Be Monitored
06 August 2018

Introduction

The first National Register of Citizens (NRC) was prepared as part of the Census of 1951 when the problem of illegal immigration was at its peak due to movement of people from East Pakistan. The work started under the directive of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) set under the Foreigners Act of 1946. The NRC based on the Census of 1951 was essentially an attempt at documenting records of Indian citizens.On July 30, 2018, the final draft i.e. the second draft of NRC was released as per which there are 2,89,83,677 Indian Citizens from the Indian state of Assam. Assam is the only Indian state that has such a register. The second draft added over 28.9 million names to the first draft which was released on 1 January 2018. However, it is alleged that at least four million residents are yet to be acknowledged as Indian citizens.

 

Contentious Issue

The NRC is a contentious issue in Assam, as it is believed to be a precursor to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The bill was introduced in Lok Sabha on 19 July 2016 by the Narendra Modi government with an aim to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955. According to the provisions of the bill, illegal migrants belonging to religions such as Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan will be eligible for Indian citizenship. Critics alleged that the NRC could forcibly identify bonafide Indian Muslims as illegal immigrants, and thereby strip them of their nationality if the proposed bill is passed. In Assam, it is argued that immigrants, irrespective of their religion, are already eating into their limited resources and rights. The NRC and the subsequent citizenship bill will benefit stakeholders once they are legitimized by citizenship.

 

Demographically, the NRC also stokes tensions between the ethnic Assamese and other groups. For instance, in 2010, during the process of updating the NRC, Barpeta and Chaygaon violent protests occurred, in which four persons were killed and many others injured. The violence was reportedly targeting suspected Bengali speaking groups in Assam. Similar incidents of violence against non-ethnic Assamese was also reported in the 1990s, against the influx of Hindi-speaking people.

 

The ethnic tensions therefore have a spillover effect across the border in West Bengal, with the local government there strongly opposing the NRC and linking it to Bengali identity politics. The West Bengal Chief Minister has called the NRC a “Bangali khedao movement”, asking where 4 million people will go. “Bangali Khedao” is a reference to the violent eviction of Bengalis from many parts of Assam in the 1960s and 1970s. The Chief Minister had further warned of protests over the alleged torture of Bengalis.

 

Elsewhere, nationally, the discussion on the NRC is concerned with the possible extension of the exercise outside Assam, to at least all the border states, with some alleging the need for such an exercise in Rajasthan for instance. Critics have alleged that the NRC is a futile exercise, as suspected illegal immigrants could easily move across the state borders to areas where such documentation does not exist. To conduct this exercise on a national scale would be both time consuming, and potentially politically divisive as it could erode into the vote banks, including those who have illegally obtained electoral documents.

 

Within Assam

While there are tensions associated with the NRC, the entire exercise has been carried out in a relatively peaceful manner. Ahead of the release of the final NRC draft on July 29, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had appealed to the people in the state of Assam to maintain calm. He pointed out that the first draft was released in a peaceful environment too. The State Government has enhanced security across the state and imposed Section 144 of Code of Criminal Procedure in seven districts of Assam. This section prohibits unlawful assembly of over four people.

 

It is likely that there will be no disruption to the working environment in the state, especially as there remains a long road ahead for the NRC and considering it has already been over six decades since it was launched. The central government has also calmed frayed nerves by stating that immediate action against those who are not endorsed in the NRC is not expected. The Supreme Court has directed the Central Government to set a standard operating procedure on NRC and submit it for its approval.

 

Conclusion

In near to medium term, the NRC process continues to be rolling on as per a roadmap of the authorities. Despite rhetorical statements from opponents of the NRC, no significant demonstrations have taken place over the issue, and it is likely to remain peaceful till much later in the registration cycle. The government has stated plans to introduce biometric mapping to mitigate the possibility of migrants escaping to the other states; however, it is unclear when such a plan could roll out, or if it could meet the approval of the Supreme Court. Due to the various political and social vagaries which surround this issue, it is recommended to keep monitoring this.