After four years in labour and amidst anxious moments, the baby was finally delivered on August 31, 2019. But, as feared by some, it turned out to be a stillborn baby. While some felt vindicated and hence were relieved, if not rejoiced, others sulked and still many others screamed in horror. This perhaps best describes the entire National Register of Citizens (NRC) updating process in Assam, which had been on for the past four years under the Supreme Court’s supervision, and the general mood after it was finally published amidst great expectations.
It was perhaps a twist of irony that those claiming the issue of Bangladeshi, particularly Bangladeshi Muslims, was a mirage and deliberately exaggerated to harass Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam and hence bitter critics of the NRC update process were the ones who felt relieved and were among the firsts to rejoice at having felt that their stand was vindicated.
And those who had declared with conviction that the NRC would be a “jatiya dalil” (national document), and hence its strong votaries, were ironically the first to denounce the final NRC draft. And caught in the crossfire between the two groups with conflict of interest were the silent majority who had fervently hoped that the Bangladeshi issue would finally be laid to rest, besides those who felt that they had all along been unnecessarily targeted and stigmatised due to their mother tongue being Bengali.
Even some Bengali Hindu organisations have expressed their dismay over reports that 11 lakh Bengali Hindus have been excluded from the final NRC list in Barak Valley alone
Leaders like Asaduddin Owasi and organisations like the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) are today waxing eloquent over reports that more Hindus than Muslims have been excluded from the final NRC list. This, they say, proves their hypothesis correct that there are very few, if none at all, Bangladeshi Muslims in the state.
On the other end of the spectrum are jatiya sangathans (regional bodies) like the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) who are crying foul at having found to their dismay that the number of people finally left out – 19,06,657 – was much less than the figures often quoted by both the Central and state governments in the past or what they had anticipated, especially after the second NRC draft published on July 30 last year had left out 40 lakh individuals. No wonder, the AASU, which was a signatory to the Assam Accord that eventually led to NRC update, has announced to file appeal before the Supreme Court seeking review.
Even some Bengali Hindu organisations have expressed their dismay over reports that 11 lakh Bengali Hindus have been excluded from the final NRC list in Barak Valley alone. They see it as part of a sinister plot to deliberately harass members of the community. Some right-wing Hindu organisations too have rejected the final draft. So, the voices of dissent against the final NRC are only set to get louder in the days ahead.
Apparently stung by the outcome, the ruling BJP dispensation in Assam, which was hoping that more Bengali Hindus will be included in the final NRC and thus help its case of providing citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus, too has expressed its dissatisfaction. Battling national and international criticisms for having made over 19 lakh people allegedly “stateless” and to cater to the party’s support base among the Bengali Hindus, the BJP governments both at the Centre and the State were prompt to announce that none would be deemed foreigner until all due legal processes were over, and nor would anyone be detained.
Both New Delhi and Dispur have also set the ball rolling for setting up additional Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs) to take their total number to 1,000 in a bid to help those excluded to file appeals before them. The period for filing such appeals before FTs has also been increased from 60 to 120 days, while Dispur has offered to offer free legal assistance to “genuine” Indian citizens (though it runs counter to the very objective of updating NRC), as has been by some organisations.
And given reports of gross anomalies like a former Indian Air Force official being left out from the final list even though his children made it, while persons declared “foreigners” by FTs being included along with some Myanmarese nationals, besides names of family members of “martyrs” of Foreigners’ Movement missing, etc, there are reasons to believe that the process was not entirely fool proof and hence the final list totally erroneous. No doubt, many are totally disillusioned with the final outcome.
A woman had reportedly even committed suicide at Hailakandi after not finding her name in the final list despite possessing “valid” documents, while two FIRs have been filed against NRC state coordinator Prateek Hajela for the alleged anomalies.
Thus, instead of putting a lid on the vexed Bangladeshi issue in the state, as many had hoped, the final NRC draft may have actually inadvertently opened a Pandora’s box. For, some prominent jatiya sangathans have rejected it, while it is highly unlikely that lakhs of individuals excluded from the final list will give up claims of citizenship so easily. And disposing of claims of over 19 lakh individuals will be anything but another mammoth legal exercise that is likely to stretch over several decades.
Hence, instead of its resolution, the updated NRC is likely to add new complexities to the Bangladeshi issue, especially in the backdrop of reports of exclusion of scores of indigenous and tribal community members too. A woman had reportedly even committed suicide at Hailakandi after not finding her name in the final list despite possessing “valid” documents, while two FIRs have been filed against NRC state coordinator Prateek Hajela for the alleged anomalies.
Now, to any individual with an iota of wisdom, it was a foregone conclusion that the move to update NRC taken up with much fanfare will ultimately be a fluke. One of the most humongous exercises carried out ever in any corner of the globe to verify residency status of millions of individuals, it was quite an improbable task that the final list would be anything but error-free. Hence, as many have now alleged, the entire exercise has perhaps only helped legitimise those very people who were supposed to be called out due to their suspected foreign origin. And with the reportedly high rate of exclusion in tribal areas like Karbi Anglong and Dhemaji (reports say 16%) and minimal in areas bordering Bangladesh like Dhubri, Mancachar, Salmara, etc, (6% reportedly), the argument is perhaps not without merit.
But, wasn’t the final outcome on expected lines? Did the state government try and ensure that only employees with proven track record of being upright were involved in the exercise? Did the NRC authorities conduct any screening of such officials to check their antecedents before involving them? (A person pronounced “foreigner” by FT was found working at an NRC centre) So, given the chances of manipulation of data and forgery of documents being very real, the outcome of the entire exercise should very well have been anticipated.
Actually, looking for ‘Bangladeshi’ today in Assam is akin to searching a black cat in a dark room that has blended perfectly well with the environment. The idea of updating NRC might have been conceived with grand intentions, but was definitely not perfectly deliverable. It may be good in spirit, but seems bad in law.
Further, assuming that all these 19 lakh people excluded are foreigners, will the Government of India actually be able to deport them to their land of origin? New Delhi is yet to announce how it is going to deal with them. So, of what use will be the updated NRC then, especially after spending approximately Rs 1,300 crore? Actually, it is likely to end up just as another government document without any credibility, while organisations will continue to squabble over it as has been the case with the Assam Accord signed almost 35 years ago.
Actually, looking for “Bangladeshi” today in Assam is akin to searching a black cat in a dark room that has blended perfectly well with the environment. The idea of updating NRC might have been conceived with grand intentions, but was definitely not perfectly deliverable. It may be good in spirit, but seems bad in law.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati)