Assam: The many problems of the NRC exercise     

Assam has a problem of annual floods in the Brahamaputra. Documents get destroyed, geographies shift, addresses change. Instead of understanding it, officials have been generally uncooperative

Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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Amit Sengupta

The Supreme Court bench of Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton Nariman have categorically stated on Tuesday that no coercive action can be taken against people in Assam who have been left out of the Draft NRC (National Register of Citizens) released in Guwahati on July 30.

The NRC, fast-tracked by the BJP-AGP-led regime in Assam, is operating under the supervision of the apex court. In a significant observation, the court has stated that the Centre, in consultation with state coordinator Prateek Hajela, shall submit modalities and a standard operating procedure, including timelines, mechanism, etc. for deciding claims and objections.

The standard operating procedure and modalities, which have to fair, have to be filed before the next date of hearing i.e. August 16, 2018. Incidentally, there has apparently been another shift by the NRC authorities. There was earlier widespread speculation that the final deadline after claims, verifications and objections would be December 31, 2019. Significantly, Hajela has reportedly stated that no final deadline has been fixed for the publication of the “final NRC” and any such deadline can only be fixed by the apex court. This marks a subtle and tangible shift, after the NRC, the state and central governments hurriedly issued statements that the second report was not a “final” report, but only a “draft”, though it was earlier believed that the second report would be the “final” NRC report.

The first report was announced on the intervening midnight of December 31-January 1, 2017. This only proves that the removal of 40 lakh people might lead to a major social and political crisis, even as Opposition parties have taken it up aggressively in both the houses of Parliament. Technical issues apart, this gigantic, difficult and sensitive task, specific to Assam, has not been smooth. While there has been fair play in many cases, however, it has been loaded with the possibility of anomalies and mistakes.

Surely, the Supreme Court’s observation will perhaps ease the mass insecurity and social crisis stalking the 40 lakh people of Assam, their relatives and friends, and all those concerned with peace and harmony in this strategic and sensitive border state, and across India. The new process of rectifications and verifications will start once again by next week. Surely, it will be a big burden once again on the people of Assam, especially the poorest and labouring classes.

All Opposition parties have agreed to help restore peace and sanity on the ground. Most civil society groups have backed the NRC, with the midnight of March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date, as per the Assam Accord signed by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, AASU and the state government. However, they have warned that the harassment and hounding of innocent Indians and bonafide citizens will not be tolerated. There have been reported accusations by locals and villagers of bias, partisan behaviour, prejudiced operations on the ground and bureaucratic inefficiency across the several layers of this identification process whereby the onus is on the ‘accused’ to prove his or her identity.

In this jarring synthesis and double-speak, the BJP should know that it is playing with fire. Besides, they should be aware that not only the Supreme Court, the whole nation and the world is watching the NRC process in Assam

Assam has a peculiar problem of villages getting ravaged, or disappearing, due to annual floods unleashed by the fiery Brahamaputra. Documents get destroyed, geographies shift, addresses change. This is a major problem which the authorities will have to consider. It is often perceived that instead of helping ease the process, officials on the ground and in the foreigners’ tribunals have been nitpicking, asking for inaccessible evidence and generally being uncooperative.

Besides, tens of thousands of people, including the poorest and illiterate, have been running from pillar to post, often through large distances, with old, damaged documents, to prove their identity. There have been several cases of transparent injustice whereby families have been divided – some declared Doubtful Voters and foreigners, others as bonafide citizens.

Even families of certain eminent citizens with a legacy and family history, have been facing the trauma. In this scenario, how can the poor and voiceless on the margins assert themselves with their fledgling documents, even while the panchayat certificate (with verifications), which has been approved by the Supreme Court, is being rejected on the ground? The fact that the BJPled regime is not considered ‘secular’ and the fact the party has been playing a polarising game across India, is not helping the ground situation. There is a widespread perception that specifically linguistic and religious minorities are being targeted - namely, Bengalispeaking Muslims and Hindus. The divide can reap political advantage in terms of electoral results.

Cynical observers feel that if they remove large chunks of voters belonging to a certain community from the voters’ list, the ruling parties in Assam might get electoral advantage in certain key constituencies where they have been traditionally weak. There is an opinion that certain sinister forces are choosing to create mass divides and social tension.

Even while the Union Home Minister and state Chief Minister call for peace, asking all concerned not to politicise the issue, a top BJP leader from Madhya Pradesh, in-charge of West Bengal, has threatened to undertake a similar process in Bengal. He has claimed that crores of illegal migrants from Bangladesh are residing in West Bengal.

Has he done a demographic survey? From where has he discovered his population statistics? And if this is not a dirty and diabolical ploy, with an eye on the vote bank in Bengal and Assam and on the 2019 general elections, what else is? Do the BJP leadership and the Modi regime endorse this irresponsible provocation? Or, will they choose tacit silence, as it ritualistically does when Muslims are mob-lynched, often by Hindutva fantatics, even while a minister garlands the accused or other BJP leaders openly endorse mob attacks? In this jarring synthesis and double-speak, the BJP should know that it is playing with fire. Besides, they should be aware that not only the Supreme Court, the whole nation and the world is watching the NRC process in Assam.

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