Now parties can’t claim Assam is teeming with millions & millions of migrants: Leader of Opposition

Debabrata Saikia, Leader of Opposition in the Assam Assembly, clears Congress party’s stand on NRC, articulates his reservations and rejects BJP’s principle to grant citizenship based on religion

Leader of Opposition in Assam Legislative Assembly Debabrata Saikia (NH photo).
Leader of Opposition in Assam Legislative Assembly Debabrata Saikia (NH photo).

Ashlin Mathew

What is your opinion about the recently released NRC data?

We are glad that the process is over. At least now, we have come to know that only 19 lakh people are out of the list and that many more will be able to make it into the list. Now, parties can’t claim that the entire state of Assam is teeming with millions and millions of migrants. All these numbers that have been paraded are a myth. At least, this process has busted that myth.

The laid-down procedure of verification was methodical and everyone had earlier accepted the process. In some cases, fake documents were detected. Some people said they wanted reverification of 20 per cent of the population. NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela has said that they have done re-verification of 27% of the population.

There are anomalies in the process too. The Border Police is supposed to detect foreigners and if anyone is considered doubtful, they have to ask them for documents. They have to go to the field to verify and see if they are genuine Indians or not. But, the Border Police has done a shoddy job and, as a result, many Indians have become victims. They demanded bribes and in case they were not paid, the Border Police excluded them from the list.

We have always said that we stand by all genuine Indian citizens and we will fight for them. We have got many instances where family members of freedom fighters and even the first Deputy Speaker of Assam Assembly of 1937 have not been included.

Assam has seen many earthquakes over the years and floods are an annual occurrence. Many documents would have been lost. Many people did not even have documents to begin with as no one thought they would require it later in their lives. In Assam, registration of birth and death became compulsory only in 1985.

But Tarun Gogoi has called the NRC a wastepaper. What would you say to that?

I’ll contradict it. He should not have said that. All the reports are stating that several people are excluded but no one is stating that it is a wastepaper. That is why we are saying that we will extend help to all genuine citizens. Assam has accepted foreigners up to 1971, while the rest of India accepted them up to 1951.

We have always said that we stand by all genuine Indian citizens and we will fight for them.

What we need to understand is that people preyed on the fear of the Assamese people that many immigrants would cross the border and settle here.

Before Bangladesh became independent, in the violence that ensued, several refugees, mainly Hindus, came to Assam. The government said anyone coming to India up to March 24, 1971, would be considered an Indian citizen.

The government, at various points of time, wanted to update the NRC. Even the NDA government released funds for the same. The state government at that time was helmed by the Asom Gana Parishad. These people had started the agitation through All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) for NRC when they were students. They formed the government twice here (1985-1990 and 1996-2001). But they did not initiate any process for verification of citizens.

Our government came in 2001 and continued till 2016. In 2004, the Manmohan Singh government came to power at the Centre. A tripartite agreement was signed with AASU leaders and one of the several points of agreement was detection of foreigners. Though NRC was not in the MoU, it was a part of it indirectly as one had to identify foreigners. So, the pilot NRC project was conducted in Barpeta and Chaygaon. Violence broke out in these areas and, as a result, the process was delayed.

Then in 2013-14, a few people moved the Supreme Court demanding NRC. Then the Supreme Court decided to supervise it and modalities were discussed and certain conditions were arrived upon. In 1951, there was an NRC exercise. There were voter lists prepared in 1966 and 1971. It was agreed that people could use documents prior to 1971 to ensure linkages with those on the lists. The NRC verification was done using that.

There was a process, which included field verification, checking with other states, etc. Now, suddenly people are saying that there should have been more people excluded.

What do you think will happen to those excluded from the list?

I do not know what will happen to those who will not be able to make it even after the re-application process. The government will have to take a decision as per law. We do not support the BJP’s decision to grant citizenship based on religion. This is against the Constitution and that’s why we have been opposed to the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

There are reports that several Hindu migrant families in Silchar have not even applied for NRC as they do not have the documents. What about them?

Many people have not even applied. So, I’m hoping there will be other provisions. The registration of citizens is a continuous process.

The rules are clear that we will accept those who came in till 1971. Some parts of Cachar was already with India and most of them are likely to be genuine Indian citizens. Several people will make it and several others may not.

Are you satisfied with the supervision of the Supreme Court?

I am not fully satisfied but I would not like to reject the process either. It’s the first step to understanding the situation and we have scope to improve it. This is the first step after so many years. So, one should not place it in the dustbin. It is our government which initiated it.

Whenever there was any lacuna in the process, the aggrieved party would approach the Supreme Court. Even our party has gone to the Supreme Court to highlight the difficulties. An orphan could have migrated to a place and has been staying there for 50 years. He is an Indian, everyone in the locality knows. But how will he prove it? He will not have any document. So, we have pointed out such problems and a few such issues which are still pending in the court.

In another case, the parents had separated when the children were young. The son grew up in the maternal uncle’s house. His father died, and he lost his mother too. This person will not have his parental linkage. His uncle is also his relative, but it’s not his real parent. The person will find it difficult to establish his legacy. We have asked these questions in the Supreme Court.

Do you think the BJP decided to bring in the NRC process to cause a Hindu-Muslim rift?

There was no doubt that the BJP wanted to do that. Just before the elections, the BJP and Amit Shah had been crying hoarse that they had detected 40 lakh guspetias (infiltrators). We had protested against that. Amit Shah said it even in Parliament.

At that time, he thought most of those who would not be included would be from the minority communities but he forgot that minorities have been here from the beginning of the century. He thought Hindus would not be there in the list. Now, that Hindus are also on the list, they will attempt to bring in the Citizenship Amendment Bill. They want a Hindu Rashtra. People were motivated for other reasons. This is a part of the RSS’s plans.

Even now, the list only got published because Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi was adamant. Otherwise, the BJP would have dragged it.

As the leader of Opposition in the Assembly, what is your plan now?

We are helping a large number of people. We have filed cases in the Supreme Court. We will assist whoever needs help.

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