A political consensus has evolved in the State for updating the National Register of Citizens
For Mofidur Rahman of Assam, having an updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the State is the top issue this election.
“We have to live in constant fear of being harassed or driven out as Bangladeshis. So our top priority is to keep safe all documents such as copies of the 1966 voter list, land documents, ration card and the NRC [document], which can prove our Indian citizenship when challenged,” says the 23-year-old from Nawerbhita village of Dotma revenue circle in Kokrajhar district.
“When miscreants attacked our village during the 2012 clashes, the first thought that came to my mind was to take all those documents and run for life. Once the NRC is updated with all our names in it and photo-identity cards are issued to all, we can hope to escape a life of constant fear.”
Others in the village echo his fears.
The village, inhabited by migrant Muslim settlers, was reduced to ashes and rubble during the violent Bodo-Muslim clashes in the Bodoland Territorial Area District areas in July and August in 2012, which claimed 103 lives and displaced 4.85 lakh people belonging to both communities.
For a majority of the migrant Muslim settlers in the State, protection from harassment in the name of detection and expulsion of undocumented Bangladeshi migrants has been the dominating issue in Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Assam since 1979, when a six-year-long anti-foreigners’ movement (known as the Assam Movement), led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), began in the State. This election is no exception.
Muslim voters constitute about 30 per cent of the electorate in the State and play a deciding role in at least 40 of the 126 Assembly segments and in at least six of the 14 Lok Sabha constituencies.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, caused heavy erosion of the Congress base among immigrant Muslim voters. This helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wrest the Gauhati and Silchar seats from the Congress to double its tally from two in 2004 to four. Maulana Ajmal himself wrested the Dhubri Lok Sabha seat from the Congress. He formed the Assam United Democratic Front (later renamed the All India United Democratic Front) after the Supreme Court scrapped the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, which was showcased by the Congress as a piece of legislation for the protection of linguistic and religious minorities.
A political consensus has evolved in the State for updating the NRC with inclusion of all those enrolled on the 1971 voter list and their descendants to solve the problem of illegal migrants.
However, as the work of updating the register is yet to begin, the issue still dominates the political discourse in the State, remaining a poll plank this time. The decision to update the register was taken at a meeting of the Centre, the Assam government and the AASU in 2005.
The BJP’s position has been that Bangladeshi Hindus who have come to Assam out of religious persecution in the neighbouring country even after March 25, 1971 (the cut-off date for detection, deletion of names from voter list and expulsion of illegal migrants from Assam) should be treated as refugees, but others should be expelled.
In tune with the AASU’s stand, the Asom Gana Parishad is opposed to the BJP’s stand of discriminating migrants on the basis of religion. However, the regional party accuses the Congress of delaying updating the NRC with an eye on votes of illegal migrants who allegedly enrolled their names on the voter lists.
Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi says it was the Congress which took the initiative for updating the NRC, while the AIUDF has promised to make it one of the preconditions for extending its support for the formation of a government at the Centre.