National Register of Citizens: Assam in throes of crisis, rocky road ahead

With the last sunset of 2018, 31 lakh claims and 2.65 lakh objections have been filed from almost all the districts of Assam on the draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The claims and objections will now be examined.

The NRC, one of the sensitive and important issues, kept the state on the tenterhooks in 2018 and the battle of throes of identity, political and humanitarian crisis is likely to continue this year too.

The first draft of the NRC was published on December 31 (midnight), 2017 and the second draft came out on July 30, 2018.  The updation exercise of the register to identify the bonafide citizens of India and to weed out illegal immigrants grabbed the headlines in 2018 – nationally and internationally – and dominated the state politics.

The process of filing claims and objections started on September 25, 2018. It was supposed to end by December 15, 2018 but the Supreme Court extended the date to December 31, 2018 after the Assam Government sought for the extension of the last date following demands from the various indigenous organisations.

2,89, 83,677 persons were found eligible out of 3,29,91,384 applicants in the final draft of the NRC. Names of 4,007,707 people were not included in the final draft NRC. Of these, 37,59,630 names have been rejected and the remaining 2,48,077 are on hold.  The process of name correction and other particulars appearing in the final draft of the register started from January 2, 2019.

A joint committee of the state and central governments was appointed to study the position of those excluded in the final NRC.

The publication of both the drafts received mixed responses across the state. Following the publication of the second draft, panic and furore in equal doses rose from those excluded from the list. Several petitions were launched against the “biased and minority targeted” updation exercise. Several civil society groups claimed that few objections were filed because the rules were very rigid. Several students, civil and indigenous bodies also accused the state government of playing divisive politics in the name of the NRC. The indigenous bodies also slammed the NRC authorities for leaving out the names of genuine Indians.

Expressing deep concerns of the updation exercise, three United Nations human rights experts recently warned that the NRC could inflame ethnic tensions, potential humanitarian crisis in Assam. The human rights experts expressed serious concerned about the lack of clarity regarding what will happen to those left out of the finalised NRC. The human rights experts mentioned that the entire updation process is increasing inter-ethnic tensions in a region that has already experienced a history of identity-based conflicts. The UN’s special rapporteurs on minority issues also dashed off a letter to Minister of External Affairs of India, Sushma Swaraj last year and appealed to ensure that the implementation process of the NRC is compliant with relevant international human rights standards.

Questions have also been raised about the detention centres in the State. The Supreme Court has slammed the Assam Government for keeping foreign nationals in detention centres without plan.

On the other hand, the Centre said that India is not a dharamshala (charitable shelter home) where the illegal immigrants can come to settle down. Whereas, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat is of the view that the Government of India should deport those found to be unregistered immigrants in the on-going updation exercise of the NRC.

The Ministry of Home Affairs is working on chalking out a strategy to issue ‘biometric work permit’ to all those who, out of 40 lakh, will be declared ‘illegal foreigners’ in the ongoing process of updating the NRC.  It may be recalled that the Centre has given an extension of six months to complete the ongoing exercise for updating the NRC in Assam by June 30, 2019.

The people of Bengali origin, including both Muslims and Hindus, are in a state of panic, several local organisations claimed. The experts said that people not finding their names in the list might be effectively rendered stateless.

With daggers drawn, tension simmering, Assam is once again on the rocky road of chaos and uncertainty.