Citizen count: on Assam's draft NRC

Prodded by an unrelenting Supreme Court Bench, Assam met its December 31 deadline for publication of the first draft of the updated National Register of Citizens. In the event, the list proved to be a draft of a draft, with 13.9 million cases remaining under scrutiny and names of only 19 million of the 32.9 million applicants making the cut. It is to the government’s credit that its repeated clarifications that missing out on the list is no reason to panic kept people’s anxieties in check. The bigger challenge lies ahead when the contours of the draft assume a firmer shape, and there is a clearer sense of the numbers that do not make it to the Draft Consolidated List of the NRC — by implication, people who are illegal immigrants in Assam. The process will be protracted, with claims and contestations even after the final draft. But, when completed, one can only hope the exercise will bring some closure to the vexed issue of foreigners in the State, one that had triggered the six-year-long Assam Agitation that ended in the mid-1980s but has continued to roil its politics. The promise of detection and expulsion of aliens has propelled two parties to power 31 years apart, the Asom Gana Parishad in 1985 and the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2016.

While the scale is debatable, border crossings into Assam and West Bengal are a reality, and political parties are to blame for turning a blind eye to the situation over the decades in order to cultivate vote banks. The issue has, however, become much larger than a cut-and-dried question of who is an Indian citizen and who is not. There are important humanitarian concerns at play, concerns that go beyond identification and numbers. Nearly five decades have elapsed since the cut-off date of March 25, 1971, and individuals who have sneaked in illegally have children and grandchildren by now. Since India is the only country they have ever known, where are they expected to go? The conditions under which some 20,000-odd doubtful, or ‘D’, voters have been confined in Assam do not inspire confidence. That the list of aliens will only increase is daunting given the absence of a deportation treaty with Bangladesh. The situation has been muddied with the Centre’s intent to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and make Hindu illegal migrants and those from certain other minority communities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship. Part of the BJP’s manifesto for the 2014 general election, the Bill, with a cut-off date of December 31, 2014, undermines the process of the NRC, which is denominationally agnostic. The BJP would do better to focus on its campaign promise of sealing the India-Bangladesh border and explore the possibility of provisions such as transparent work permits for foreigners, rather than push for this politically contentious legislation.

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Printable version | Jun 11, 2021 7:21:14 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/citizen-count/article22360934.ece

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