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Assam NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela
Assam NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela|Twitter 
OPINION

Is Assam’s NRC process in limbo?

What will be the fate of the mammoth citizenship registration exercise? This is indeed something to ponder about, after some vital twists and turns in the entire process

Raul Johnson

The 46th Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi will retire on November 17 this year. The first Assamese CJI was heading the apex court towards significant cases including the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute, review petition on the infamous Rafale fighter jets deal, and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, among others.

Heading to a case closer to home, less than 10 days after Gogoi’s retirement, that is, November 26 is slated to be the next hearing on NRC. Also, the NRC state coordinator Prateek Hajela, who was at the helm of affairs for NRC in the state, is in the process of getting transferred to Madhya Pradesh, his native state.

What will be the fate of the mammoth NRC process? This is something to indeed brainstorm on, after these vital twists and turns in the entire process.

Prateek Hajela was under tremendous pressure from various political parties but he only listened to the Supreme Court and worked according to the apex court’s orders. The Supreme Court was monitoring the entire process, yet, political parties and even the state and the central government were unhappy with the NRC coordinator who had at least managed to publish the first NRC list in Assam, three decades after signing the historic Assam Accord in 1985.

Earlier this month, a Supreme Court bench including CJI Gogoi and chief justice designate SA Bobde among others had ordered the Centre and the Assam government to transfer Hajela to his native state -- Madhya Pradesh -- within seven days. The bench also ordered a deputation for a maximum possible period. However, the Centre has now sought more time for transfer of the 1995 batch IAS officer of Assam-Meghalaya cadre stating ‘procedural formalities’.

The final NRC which was published on August 31 this year, found a total of 3,11,21,004 persons eligible for inclusion in the registry, leaving out 19,06,657

The bench had not specified the cause or the reason for passing the order of transfer, leading to speculation that Hajela might be apprehending some kind of threat after overseeing the gigantic task of finalising Assam’s NRC.

Meanwhile, the Assam government is on the lookout for the next NRC state coordinator, which is a commissioner-level post. The government has started the process of selecting Hajela’s successor; however, there is not much enthusiasm to take over the post among bureaucrats because it deals with a complex and sensitive process.

The final NRC, which was published on August 31 this year, found a total of 3,11,21,004 persons eligible for inclusion in the registry, leaving out 19,06,657.

Going as per the process, these around 20 lakh people whose names did not appear in the list were expected to receive rejection orders from the NRC coordinator. But at present, there is a confusion regarding who will issue such orders? Will it be the new NRC state coordinator or the deputy commissioner of the districts? The order is expected to explain the reasons for rejection and the process explaining how to move the Foreigners Tribunals.

Many organisations have expressed their unhappiness with the final figures as they feel that it has not taken into consideration the fact that Assam for long has battled the problem of illegal influx from Bangladesh.

For alleged discrepancies in preparation of the final NRC, two cases have already been registered against Hajela. Allegations like financial irregularities have also been raised against him. Meanwhile, the irked ruling BJP has asked the government to ensure that the NRC coordinator submits the accounts of Rs 1,600 crore spent on the NRC process before leaving the state.

There are also questions like this time only 3.29 crore applicants applied for the registration. What about the genuine citizens who did not apply? When will they get the chance to apply? What about the newborns?

All these questions were expected to be answered by the NRC coordinator but he is getting transferred to Madhya Pradesh. The soon to be appointed new coordinator will take at least a few days or months to understand the entire process and only after that start working. There is also the issue of Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 (CAB) which will be gradually raised by the government.

The government quietly shelved the controversial amendment to its citizenship law after violent protests across northeastern part of the country earlier this year.

The bill was aimed at helping Hindus and other minorities move to India from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries.

The legislation was cleared Parliament's Lower House but the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to enact it in the Upper House, which ended its term without hearing it.

But the BJP’s CAB dream is not yet shattered, as time and again several party leaders keep pitching for the bill.

The controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill being brought by the Centre will "protect" the indigenous Assamese and will prevent the Muslim-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) from controlling large swathes of Assam, state finance minister and North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma had said. He had also mentioned that the bill is needed because there is a secessionist movement in Assam that threatens to lead to the state becoming a “part of Pakistan".

In a replay of the violent protests earlier this year, Northeast has erupted again in protests against the BJP’s plan to grant citizenship to a section of non-Muslim migrants and refugees from the neighbouring countries. Protests swept across Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh while civil society organisations in Assam and Mizoram have decided to launch a fresh protest against the BJP’s decision to reintroduce the bill in Parliament to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955.

If passed in Parliament, the amendment Bill will grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees and migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, such as Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, Sikhs, and Christians, who came to India before December 31, 2014. It also reduces the mandatory requirement of 11 years in the country to six years to obtain citizenship by naturalisation. The bill is calculated to be discussed in Parliament during the winter session, likely to commence from November 18 and continue till December 13.

If the bill is passed the NRC will not only in limbo but will be a list which will go to the trash.

(Raul Johnson is a Guwahati-based environment crusader and RTI activist. Views expressed are his own)