THE National Register of Citizens (NRC) has opened up a can of worms in Assam. Nobody is happy with the final count of 19 lakh non-citizens. The Assamese feel let down as the numbers are small. The BJP, one of the staunchest supporters of the anti-foreigner movement in Assam and a major backer of the NRC, is squirming. The fact that a large number of Hindu Bengalis are a part of the 19 lakh goes against the BJP’s political calculation in Assam.
What most of the stakeholders have missed while quibbling over figures is that it is actual peoples’ lives that have been reduced to mere numbers. At the heart of the exercise are people, not commodities.
Spare a thought for these hapless non-citizens, families where the grandparents are Indians while the children and the grandchildren are not. In one case, the husband is a citizen while the wife’s name is missing. In another case, while the rest of the family is fine, one sibling has been marked out as a non-citizen. There have been mistakes galore.
While the government has all along said that actual citizens will not be touched and they can appeal to the foreigners tribunals as well as the civil courts and the Supreme Court, the fact remains that assurances mean little to those affected. There is a vast difference between official pronouncements and what actually happens on the ground.
The government is likely to go out of its way to restore the citizenship rights of the Bengali Hindu refugees through legislation. The Amendment to the Citizenship Act, which has lapsed, can be brought back. The NDA has enough members to pass it through Parliament.
The stakeholders — the AGP, All-Assam Students Union, Assam Public Works, an NGO which initially approached the Supreme Court for the NRC and the BJP — were not prepared for these results. For them, the already complex problem has been further compounded by the NRC findings.
The local Assamese who fought for ridding the state of alleged Bangladeshi foreigners are angry with the final figure of 19 lakh. The AASU chief adviser, Samujjal Bhattacharjee, was quoted as saying in the local press, “From time to time, the government itself has admitted of having over two crore Bangladeshis in the country, with a maximum of them possibly in Assam. But the numbers of those excluded from the NRC list are not even close to anything like that. We are unhappy, but have belief in the judiciary and, therefore, we are going to move the SC shortly for necessary rectification of the errors in the NRC.”
The students who led the movement against illegal influx believe that the NRC figures have been manipulated. They point to the fact that in 2004, UPA government’s Home Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal had said in Parliament that there were around 12 million illegal Bangladeshi nationals living in India. In 2016, Kiren Rijiju, junior Home Minister in the first Modi government, had said in a written reply to a Member’s question in the Rajya Sabha that 20 million illegal Bangladeshi nationals were in the country.
The NRC list has brought down the number drastically. The move now will be to appeal to the Supreme Court for re-verification.
The truth is that no one has a clue about the actual numbers. It is well known that data is not India’s strong point. The NRC certainly may have inaccuracies, but by and large it has done a credible job, considering the numbers involved. As many as 64.4 million documents were scrutinised by 55,000 government employees at a cost of roughly Rs 12,000 crore.
As Hiren Gohain, Assam’s well-known public intellectual, said, the NRC was not put in place to “fulfil some people's fantasies.”
Ever since the AASU spearheaded the agitation against Bangladeshi immigrants, the fear of being
overwhelmed by foreigners and being reduced to a minority in their own state has been a constant narrative for the locals.
This latent fear was fanned across the state by the RSS and BJP. So much so that people spoke of Assam becoming the second Muslim-majority state in India after Kashmir. No less a person than the Governor of Assam, Lt Gen SK Sinha, sent in an alarming report in 1998, pointing to the demographic change in Assam.
All this has been turned on its head by the NRC findings which show that just 5 per cent of Assam’s people are non-citizens. The Assamese are not bothered whether the immigrants are Hindus or Muslims, they just want them out of their state.
The protests against the amendment to the Citizenship Bill last year were to ensure that the Hindu refugees who entered the state after March 24, 1971, the cut-off date mentioned in the 1985 Assam accord, should also be sent out.
The numbers will come down drastically after the Hindus are accommodated and many Muslims win their appeal in the tribunals. But there will still be a large section which will be declared as illegal foreigner. What will New Delhi do with them?
It was a good election card, which the BJP used across the North-East, with leaders, including PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, thundering that illegal immigrants would be thrown out of the country.
Bangladesh has made it clear that it is ready to take back people who have papers to prove their antecedents. Most of those affected, especially the Bengali Muslims, are poor and illiterate. They have no documents to prove their nationality.
When Foreign Minister S Jaishankar was asked during a visit to Dhaka last month about the NRC by the reporters, he refused to answer the questions, saying it was an internal matter.
Will they remain stateless people within Assam, living in camps without any fundamental rights, much like the Rohingya of Myanmar? Will India have its version of the boat people?
Considering the complexities thrown up, loose talk about the NRC being replicated across the country will, perhaps, stop. That, perhaps, is the silver lining from the entire NRC exercise.