The fear of being rendered homeless and stateless has once again swept over Assam. The first draft under NRC, shoddily orchestrated under the Bharatiya Janata Party regime, left out over 40 lakh people in 2018. This included people like Mohammad A Haq, who served in the Indian Army for an upward of 30 years. 40 lakh other such persons and families were left out of the draft that was intended to identify the rightful residents of Assam. As the Supreme Court’s final date for the NRC nears, an urgent summoning of people for re-verification has heightened anxieties. While the state battles worsening floods, the people are also fighting an upward battle to declare themselves legal residents of Assam. Over 30,000 people on the rolls have been suddenly summoned for reverification of papers on a notice of just 24 or 36 hours. As the people of Assam exhaust their life-savings just to afford transit to the reverification centres, it is imperative to revisit how the practice of NRC- initiated by the Indian National Congress- has been grossly misinterpreted and ill-implemented by the BJP government at the Centre and the state.
From 1979 to 1985, the state of Assam was under the grip of a turbulent anti-foreigner movement, owing to the massive infiltration of illegal immigrants from erstwhile East-Pakistan. The Assam Accord, signed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, then formed the cornerstone of the National Register of Citizens project in Assam. Since then, the Congress party has initiated the process of updating the original 1951 NRC. Taken forward by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005, the history of the NRC is marked by the Congress’s efforts of identifying illegal immigrants- a truth that the BJP has vowed to deny on countless occasions. The Congress leadership was aware of the vacuum that existed pertaining to documentation of illegal migrants in Assam. Different agencies stated different numbers and no coherent exercise had been adopted to arrive at a consensus. Even prior to the NRC, the Congress Government both at the Centre and State undertook several measures to identify illegal immigrants in the state, including re-verifying and updating voter-rolls in Assam.
With the NRC updating exercise, the Congress Party ensured consultations with all stakeholders before moving forward with the exercise. The modalities drafted by the Congress government were meant to prevent any exclusion errors and produce a flawless NRC after proper verifications and perusals by authorities. However, things took a turn for the worse after the change in government at the Centre and State in 2014 and 2016 respectively. The political hotbed that the NRC has become today is not what our leadership envisaged. The NRC updating process, birthed by the Congress government, was constitutionally valid and respectful of the humanitarian cost of undertaking such a mammoth exercise. In our vision, patience and precision were indispensable virtues, especially key in preventing exclusion errors of 40 lakh residents. The present condition that the NRC is in has made it unrecognizable from what the our leadership envisioned. It is unrecognizable, because from a consultative, deliberative, and accommodative process, it has become an authoritative, politically charged, bureaucratic ordeal under the BJP government.
Despite these hindrances, the Congress leadership and individual members have upheld the spirit of ensuring a proper NRC exercise. At the national and state level, Congress leadership and party members have fought to ensure that our initial vision is not undermined by the current party in power. As an individual MP, I have raised several interventions and questioned the Government about the errors encountered under the implementation of NRC under their leadership. Regularly alerting the Government to the several exclusion errors, I have raised the issue of several people being left out of the initial draft. This includes communities such as the Gorkhas, Bengali Hindus, Hindu speaking Bhojpuri community, and prominent personalities such as a Sahitya Akademi winner Sahitya Akademi winner Durga Khatiwada and a grand-daughter of a prominent freedom fighter. At the state level, our party has spearheaded district-wise legal counselling and other related services in order to help locals with their verification papers under the NRC proceedings. Other members of the Congress party, such as Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid, are simultaneously fighting a legal battle for a flawless NRC in the Supreme Court. Whether the Congress Party forms the ruling government or not, our efforts are still underway to uphold the vision of NRC we prioritised.
While the failure in implementation has captured vast coverage, several other questions remain unanswered by the Government. For instance, what is the Government’s plan pertaining to those that are excluded and declared illegal immigrants as per the final list? As the foreign tribunals remain overloaded beyond capacity and deportation seems unlikely unless the Bangladeshi government cooperates, the situation in Assam post 31st August reeks of an impending humanitarian crisis. If not rightful residents of Assam, the illegal immigrants are still rightful human beings that are being rendered stateless with no definite roadmap of what the government wishes to do with them.
More importantly, the BJP has time and again emphasized upon their desire to ensure a pan-Indian NRC as their pet-project. The project, however, has its roots in the National Population Register (NPR) forwarded by the Congress government- that was eventually slowed down in the face of Aadhaar. As the BJP government tries its hands at both- a pan-India NRC as well as the NPR in the coming years, we are approaching the same fate. Once again, the BJP government is stealing an idea birthed by the Congress, and in the process, completely stripping it off of its core intent.
This aim of the Government is overly ambitious, especially considering the constant failure of the NRC processes in Assam. Before the government pushes for a pan-India NRC and NPR, they must achieve a flawless exercise in Assam. To prevent another 40 (or more) lakhs of people being left out of lists at the national level, the Government must look backward to rectify all of its past mistakes and restore the NRC to what was epitomised by the Congress government. Only then can such an exercise be replicated at the national level. However, with the sheer magnitude of failures in implementation encountered by the BJP in just one state, it is unlikely that the fate of a national NRC will be any different.
It should not be forgotten that a practice like the NRC is needed to identify illegal migrants, not to target the rightful residents that are left in desolation because the processes are being built to make them fail.