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Homeless In Assam: NRC — by Prashant Umrao

Prashant Umrao

Advocate, The Supreme Court of India

Community Legal-Advisor, Ground Report India

On the last day of last month August, a very controversial document, the final register of citizens, was released in Guwahati, Assam. It is important to have basic knowledge and background of NRC before proceeding further. NRC is The National Register Of Citizens maintained by the Government of India containing names and relevant information of all genuine Indian citizens. The register was first prepared in 1951 after the first Census of independent India and since then it has not been updated till recently.

The North-East Indian state of Assam becomes the first state in India where the tedious task of updating of the NRC was carried out. This move was very much awaited as the issue of identity has been a heated and central one in Assam. Assam had had a long-standing problem of illegal foreigners.

The Assamese had a coveted dream of living in an illegal foreigner free land. Natives have been strongly demanding ouster of outsiders since long. Assam has witnessed peaceful processions as well as terrible violence over this issue. Before the release of final register of citizens, there has never been a satisfactory answer to the problem of massive number of illegal immigrants residing in Assam. The state has suffered economically, culturally and politically due to the presence of massive number of illegal migrants. Assam has been a land of shifting borders. Even after independence states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland were carved out of greater Assam. Major trouble started after creation of Bangladesh in 1971 when a massive number of refugees entered Assam illegally, straining the natural resources, creating law and order problem and attacking the indigenous culture of Assam.

The final register of citizens published on August 31 is technically an updation of 1951 Assam NRC which was prepared on census of that year. Every person included in that census was also included in NRC. Since then demand for its updation was on rises. The current updation takes the cut off date to determine citizenship as March 24 (Midnight) 1971 (The start of Bangladesh war) set by Assam Accord of 1985. This is the cut off date agreed upon by centre, state and All Assam students' union after end of six-year movement against migration from Bangladesh. Those who came to Assam before this date, they are recognised as citizens.

A person residing in the present state of Assam is also eligible to get his or her name entered the register, if he submits to the registering authority any of the documents issued up to midnight on 24 March 1971 against his name or for his ancestor. In case of descendants, they further have to submit to the registering authority another document proving his blood relationship with a person whose name did appear in NRC, 1951 or in any of the Electoral Rolls.

The decision to fulfil the long awaited demand of updating of Assam NRC was taken at a tripartite meeting between the Centre, Assam government and AASU (All Assam state union) in May 2005. The Supreme Court got involved in 2009 after an NGO, Assam Public Works, filed a writ petition for the deletion of illegal migrants' names from voter lists. In June 2010, a pilot project was started in two blocks in Barpeta and Kamrup districts to fulfil the purpose but had to be abandoned due to large scale violence, law and order problem and political reasons.

Finally, the process of updating of NRC in the Assam started in full swing the year 2013, when the Supreme Court of India passed an order for its updation. Since then, the Supreme Court (bench of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Rohintan Fali Nariman) has been monitoring it continuously. Supreme Court of India has been holding time to time hearing on representations made to it by various interested parties & stakeholders.

The purpose of NRC update in Assam is to identify the illegal migrants residing in the state, who entered into it after midnight on 24 March 1971. A total of 3,30,27,661 (Around 33 million) people had applied to be included in NRC and out of this 19,06,657 people have been excluded. So around 2 million people are currently living in a state of fear because of lack of documents. Many of them have homes there in Assam, but they don't find their names on NRC as they couldn't submit relevant documents, proving their citizenship.

These 1.906 million people have been given 120 days to challenge the exclusion and to submit the documentary proof to foreign tribunals. If the person loses his case before foreign tribunal, they can appeal in the High Court and then supreme court.  Someone who loses the case faces the possible arrest and prospect of being sent to detention centre. The Assam movement was for deportation of illegal migrants but Bangladesh never acknowledged officially that any of their citizens moved illegally to Assam. Assam currently has six detention camps for illegal migrants within existing jails. These however cannot accommodate all those excluded.

Even if not deported or detained in a camp, life won't be the same  for the finally excluded individuals. They would officially be non-citizens, but India has no fixed policy for “stateless” persons. The only aspect that is clear is that a “stateless” person will not have voting rights. Nothing is clear about their rights to work, housing and government healthcare and education. 

There is a difference between “stateless” and "refugee." India has been hosting refugees from Tibet, Sri Lanka (Tamils) and West Pakistan. Refugees from west Pakistan even have the right to vote -in Lok Sabha elections but not in Assembly polls. For Tibetans there are certain benefits under government schemes for labour, rations, housing and loans. But the stateless people have a totally uncertain future. However, On 3rd September 2019, a major opposition party in Bangladesh namely Bangladesh Nationalist Party expressed its view that the people excluded from the National Register of Citizens in Assam might be sent back to Bangladesh.

Also, it is important to know that as long as a person's claim is pending at a foreign tribunal, he won't be treated as a foreign illegal immigrant. Government has promised all help, including legal help as we cannot take a chance to exclude the genuine citizens of our nation. 

However, the final register of citizens includes just half of the number of people who have been excluded from the final draft of NRC that was released last year. The draft rolls of NRC released in 2018 had excluded around 4 million people while the final register excludes just 1.9 million people. This number is not acceptable to many parties, though the reasons are different for each party. There are apprehensions that this NRC data is not genuine and accurate. According to various estimates a total of 5 million illegal immigrants are residing in Assam. In 1991, former Assam Chief Minister Hiteshwar Saikia had said that there are around 5 million illegal Bangladeshis residing in Assam.

Although NRC Assam has been meticulously planned but since it is an extremely sensitive, time-consuming, expensive and humongous complex task, certain loopholes cannot be denied in it. Strange instances have been reported in the media such that one sibling appears on NRC while other is missing. Name of soldiers serving out of Assam is missing. State machinery needs to fix it as soon as possible. Only a valid and accurate NRC will serve the purpose else it would be a harsh brutality towards sons  of soil.

For this, purpose the porous border of Assam with neighbouring countries needs to be sealed. Borders are difficult to be sealed in Assam. One of the reasons is people lining in makeshift homes. Riveraine islands of Assam's Brahmaputra valley are inhabited by these people. After few years, when they are washed away by the river, they move to newer place. These people have been living like this for decades but it is difficult for them to produce documents.  

NRC has a Hindu-Muslim angle too. Muslims of Bengali origin can be visibly identified from their looks. They are bearded and lungi clad. They are commonly known as Bangladeshis. There are migrants from Nepal too. But they don't have any visible identity markers. So they aren't perceived as forefingers by natives, but they too don't hail from the state of Assam. So NRC updation is a complex task and performing it in an objective and transparent manner is the need of the hour.

There is a set of people making a hue and cry over NRC, labelling it as a product of Xenophobia. They are trying to misguide people. Truth is that the exclusion rate in Muslim dominated areas is lessees. The demographic or district wise breakup of NRC Assam data shows that in districts close to the Bangladesh border, where share of Muslims in the population is high, the exclusion percentage was lower while in other areas it was comparatively higher. More exclusions have been reported from districts not on border but in Hojai and Darrang in central Assam. These areas are dominated by indigenous tribes and Bengali-speaking Hindus. So the allegations of "NRC out of Xenophobia" are baseless.

Updation of Assam NRC which forms a part of national NRC is a great move. It will form the basis for the detection of illegal immigrants, inclusion will be acted as a shield against harassment and a ticket to enjoying all the constitutional rights and the benefits of government schemes.

After release of Assam NRC, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh governments too, have pitched for implementation of National register of citizens in a phased manner. It would prove as a great move to secure the rights of natives and will reduce the unnecessary burden on our natural resources. It should be carried out in an objective and transparent manner.

Prashant Umrao

Prashant Umrao is an advocate practising at Supreme Court and Delhi High Court. He is a public speaker, writer and a Social Activist. He has been fighting against corruption and is instrumental in raising various social issues that have an impact on society through legal ways.

  • Petition against 21 AAP* MLA’s* holding an 'Office of Profit':

    Prashant had filed a petition to President of India, requesting him to disqualify 21 Aam Aadmi Party MLA’s as they were appointed Parliamentary Secretaries. After this Delhi Government had passed a bill in assembly to keep away Parliamentary Secretary post from Office of Profit, but Lt. Governor refused to sign the bill as it was unconstitutional. Election Commission of India had issued a notice to the accused MLA’s on 16th March 2016 for holding OoP. After three long years of hearing at Election Commission where Prashant Patel argued against these MLAs, and rejoinders were filed. After the completion of the entire procedure, a recommendation to disqualify these AAP MLAs was sent to the President on 19th January 2018. The President accepted the recommendation & ordered to invalidate all these 20 MLAs on 21st January 2018.
    It got published in the Gazette of India. 

    (AAP*- Aam Aadmi Party. The ruling party of the Delhi State Government, 2015-20)
    (MLA*- Member of Legislative Assembly)

  • AMU* Food Matter For Non-Muslim Students:

    There was 96 year old tradition in Aligarh Muslim University of not serving breakfast and lunch to non-muslims during Ramadan. Prashant Patel raised his voice against this tradition through social media and media, after this AMU was forced to stop this tradition, and now, food is served to non-Muslim students.

    (AMU*- Aligarh Muslim University)

Awards:

Prashant is accorded with National Changemakers Award 2018, ‘The Hero’s Award’ and ‘Swarajya Rakshak Samman’ for his exemplary services to the society and nation.

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