The long pause in the exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and a series of decisions have indicated that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Assam government may have gone soft on the ‘Bangladeshi’ issue.
Some feel the bid to accommodate a set of people from three Islamic countries in the neighbourhood through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act could be a factor.
The CAA seeks to fast-track the process of granting citizenship to non-Muslims perceived to have fled religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan and taken refuge in India till December 31, 2014.
Rejection slip yet to be issued
The Supreme Court-monitored NRC has been in a limbo since the complete draft was published on August 31, 2019, leaving out 19.06 lakh of the 3.3 crore applicants from the updated list of citizens. Each ‘rejected’ person is yet to be issued a rejection slip to approach the quasi-judicial Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs) within 120 days of receiving the slip for deciding his or her fate.
The Assam government has been demanding the re-verification of the NRC as it believes the number of non-citizens should have been more than 19.06 lakh. The NRC State Coordinator had in May approached the apex court seeking re-verification of the list, which has no legal validity until the Registrar General of India issues a notification recognising it.
Non-citizens or “illegal migrants” in Assam usually mean Bangladeshis.
Anti-CAA regional parties such as Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal and Assam Jatiya Parishad believe the government has taken the re-verification line to keep delaying the process so that a set of refugees can be granted citizenship under the amended Act.
Detention centres renamed ‘transit camps’
Apart from going slow on the NRC, the government showed signs of softening its stand on the Bangladeshi issue by ‘humanising’ the detention centres for declared foreigners (Bangladeshi immigrants) by renaming them as “transit camps”.
Assam has six such camps functioning within as many central jails, currently housing 181 inmates.
A few days ago, the government asked the FT members (judge-like status) to make observations on cases referred by Assam police’s border wing and not pronounce “consequential orders”. The State has 100 FTs.
“The government has actually asked the members not to exceed their mandate. An FT member can make observations, not give judgment,” H.R.A. Choudhury, a senior advocate at the Gauhati High Court said, adding that the member of a Karimganj FT had erred by pronouncing the NRC as ‘final’.
But he underlined the uncertainty dogging millions of people, mostly the rural poor who went from pillar to post and used up their resources to get into the NRC. “It will not be out of place to say the NRC is being dragged to keep the rejected people under pressure since it would be difficult for the government to drive them out,” he said.
He did not rule out the possibility of the CAA being a factor in the government’s stance.
“Various figures of so-called Bangladeshis had been doing the rounds before the NRC exercise was taken up. From 80 lakh it came down to 60 lakh and rested on 40 lakh when the first complete NRC draft was published in December 2018. The 19 lakh people got excluded from NRC is too less a figure for the government to believe; hence the demand for re-verification,” Mr. Choudhury said.
“Even among the 19.06 lakh excluded, maybe around 5-6 lakh are Muslims. This is not a narrative that suits the government, which could be diluting the process keeping CAA in mind.”
The Assam Public Works (APW), an NGO based on whose petition in 2009 the NRC was updated in the State, agreed the government has softened its stand on the issue. “Every party wants this [Bangladeshi] problem to remain alive for political mileage. People have lost faith in the system,” NGO’s chief Aabhijeet Sarma said.
“But we have faith in the SC, which we believe will facilitate a re-verification process for identifying the illegal immigrants living in Assam,” he said.