In Assam, basic dignity at stake

There are concerns over how the State government plans to solve the issue of stateless citizens after the NRC exercise

Updated - July 30, 2019 12:18 am IST

Published - July 30, 2019 12:02 am IST

In the past months, not less than 36 lakh or 3.6 million counter claims seeking inclusion were filed. File

In the past months, not less than 36 lakh or 3.6 million counter claims seeking inclusion were filed. File

The Supreme Court has extended the day of reckoning for the controversial exercise known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam from July 31 to August 31, giving a month’s relief or another opportunity to those who are off the list to scramble and get into it. Thus, it has provided an equal time frame for those who say that many on the list shouldn’t be there because they are not actually ‘foreigners’.

With this extension, the Court rejected demands by both the Central and State governments which, concerned about the nationwide controversy about the drive, had said they wanted to re-verify 10% to 20% of those on the list. In making such a request, the governments were expressing a degree of anxiety about the data quality of a process for which they themselves have pressed strongly since 2014.

The Court’s decision was based on a declaration by the State Coordinator of the NRC, the officer whom it has mandated to run the NRC, that such a review was not necessary: his team had already re-verified 27% of the list. This again has roiled the waters — the local unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) says the officer, Prateek Hajela, had no business to do so. The State unit’s president asserted that the party stood by its demand for a 20% re-verification: “Even if some more time is taken, we want a correct NRC.”

The concern here is that many Hindu Bengalis will be left out of the NRC and hence also get disenfranchised in the process. This has happened numerous times in the ongoing exercise as also with members of traditional tribal groups in the State.

Identifying Indians

The goal of the gargantuan effort of the NRC appears simple: identify Indians living in Assam and by exclusion pick out the ‘foreigners’ or Bangladeshis. In this case, some 40 lakh people were left out of the NRC when the draft list was published last July. This led to an outcry by civil society groups, and media accounts showed how citizens had been left out, reportedly on religious and ethnic grounds, and due to bad data collection. In the past months, not less than 36 lakh or 3.6 million counter claims seeking inclusion were filed.

That is nearly 90% of those who were left out. In the last storm of data-driven efforts, the country’s highest court allowed not less than two lakh complaints against people alleged to be “foreigners” by others whose identity was kept secret. Unknown entities tossed vague charges against people who had lived in India for generations.

The overall effort is to untangle what appears to be nothing short of a Gordian knot — to resolve the issue of illegal immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh into the region over decades. But each stage and layer appear to underline how challenging the problems remain, with issues of legal redress being acute.

The plight of the stateless

Concerns in Assam have been high over the purported influx post-1971 after the creation of Bangladesh. The effort is to calm local anxieties and also cater to a political agenda. Yet the question that is often asked but rarely answered is what happens to those individuals (and their dependents) who are deemed stateless after they find themselves off the list.

I have two questions: What becomes of them while applying to tribunals and courts for relief — all the way to the Supreme Court, a detailed, drawn-out process? How will the government deal with those who are declared non-citizens and if Bangladesh refuses to take them, saying they are not its nationals, as it has consistently held for decades?

In this context, the recent remarks of a senior BJP leader from Assam on the issue are important. For they outline a process which the government believes can help resolve the situation. In a recent television panel discussion, the BJP leader underlined his non-acceptance of the Assam Accord, which has been the madhyam (medium) for the issue of alleged migrants, and which enabled the conferring of citizenship on a distinct group of people after a cooling off period of 10 years.

About 75,000 persons who benefited from this process had migrated from then East Pakistan between 1966 and 1971; most of them were Hindus. The BJP leader said that such a cooling off period was unacceptable, that “there should be” push back” but “push back with dignity”.

But it is significant, however, that what appears to be emerging is that until such expulsion, alleged foreigners must have access to rights that will enable their survival. These would include the right to education and health. But it would exclude the right to vote or to acquire property so that they did not have a role in political processes.

Is this an indication of how the governments, in Assam and the Centre, are thinking of resolving the issue? Could the “suspected” perhaps not be displaced from their locations but deprived of the right to vote and acquisition of property? As has been mentioned earlier, what also needs to be clarified is the status of lands on which they are living or have acquired. Will they be deprived of those? Would this amount to creating an enduring phenomena since Bangladesh refuses to take alleged illegals back?

Many of those who are off the list are poor, cannot afford lawyers and may not even know of their right to legal aid. At stake is the basic dignity of the weak, voiceless and vulnerable. The next few months will see how many of them will receive succour and how many will need to carry their bundles of documents from court to court in an unending and perhaps desperate search for hope.

Sanjoy Hazarika is International Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. The views expressed are personal

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