Imagine you and your family have lived in your town for decades and you possess a legitimate Indian passport, Aadhaar Card or ration card, yet if you can’t demonstrate that your parents or great parents and other family members had a legitimate citizenship document that was valid before March 24, 1971, you would still be declared non-Indian.
The cut-of date could be 1947 or 1951 or any other year. But if Home Minister Amit Shah’s threat of rolling out NRC ( National Register of Citizens) throughout the country is carried out, this scenario from Assam is likely to get repeated across the country.
Even if you did have your father’s citizenship documents, but the name spelt in the document is spelt differently from how the name is written in your own ID document, you would be still declared a non-Indian.
For those in rest of India trying to make sense of the daily headlines from Assam, this in nutshell is what the NRC conundrum is all about.
Now imagine you are not well-off. Your family migrated to Assam, say from Kanpur, 40 years ago. You didn’t keep detailed family documents and you don’t have contacts or connections, you would suddenly find yourself in the same position as someone who entered illegally from Bangladesh.
This is why the NRC’s implementation has become such a political hot potato. It was meant to “weed out illegal outsiders”, yet as many as 19.07 lakh (almost 6 per cent of the 3.29 crore who applied) were excluded from the final NRC list. Second, the rate of exclusion in the border districts with Bangladesh such as South Salmara (7.22 per cent), Dhubri (8.26 per cent) and Karimganj is much lower than districts like Karbi Anglong (14.31 per cent) and Tinsukhia (13.25 per cent) where Assam’s Bhumiputra have lived for centuries.
Assam’s Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma says that NRC is a “mixed bag” and that “we are in sorrow”, all the while upping the rhetoric on “ghuspetiyas”, while finding thousands of Assamese and Bengalis Hindus out of the final NRC list. This is why the Assam state and the central governments went to the Supreme Court earlier this year for re-verification of the NRC list. The request was rejected but the state government is appealing to the court to reconsider.
The last Assam government under Tarun Gogoi tried to start a project to update the 1951 NRC list with a pilot project in 2010 in Barpeta and Kamrup. It was put on the backburner after a serious pushback. Things changed only after the Supreme Court mandated an updated exercise in 2013 after a writ petition filed by Assam Public Works. The exercise began in early 2015 and the court has been constantly monitoring the exercise since then.
It has reportedly cost Rs. 1,220 crores, engaged 40,000 government employees, 8,200 contractual employees and taken over five years.
What does it mean now? First, nobody is happy with the result. Law-abiding citizens have been seriously discomfited. The overall number of illegals identified is too low and demographic spread of those who failed the NRC test is different from what political parties expected.
Nobody can defend exclusions like that of Mohammad Sanaullah, who served the Indian Army for 30 years and Assam Border Police before suddenly being “declared an illegal”. Or, the case of 79-year-old Sunirmal Bagchi who was honoured in the state government’s Independence Day roll of honour, before finding his name off the NRC. Or seven-year-old Somiara who has been facing Bangladeshi taunts because she was excluded from the NRC even though both her parents made it into the list.
Second, though the Congress could have made political capital, the state BJP has been ahead in seizing the political narrative so far. It positioned itself as an aggressive defender of locals against supposed illegal outsiders.
Now that NRC is a mess, it is equally positioning itself as the defender of those, mostly Hindus, who have been wrongly left out in the implementation. The state government made the district-wise NRC exclusion numbers public in the state assembly though the apex court got these earlier in a sealed cover. It is now arguing that 200 new foreign tribunals, being set up, can be used to provide relief to those wrongly left out.