The entire exercise of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was notified following an order of the Supreme Court in December 2013, is in limbo owing to political design. The exercise, which cost Rs 1,600 crore, as of now, is stalled because of the non-functioning of 200 existing and another newly sanctioned 200 foreigners’ tribunals (FT). The government had appointed 221 members (with judge-like status) for these FTs in August 2019 and they were all idle throughout their one-year term. The State government notified the 200 additional FTs after receiving approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in 2019. Following the nod from the MHA, the State government also selected 1,600 candidates for appointment in the 200 additional FTs.
The Assam government has extended the validity of the selection list of these 1,600 selected candidates for another year following the panel’s expiry in September 2020. Although the State government has taken up the matter of making the 200 additional FTs functional with the MHA again, it is yet to get the go-ahead from the Centre. Now if the Centre gives the nod and if the 200 additional FTs are made functional, the 1,600 selected candidates may get jobs. So the fate of these candidates is dependent on the decision of the Central government.
The complete NRC was published on August 31, 2019, after more than 55,000 officials examined the applications of 3.3 crore people on the basis of specified documents to establish them as residents of Assam before the midnight of March 24, 1971 — the cut-off date for determining citizenship according to the Assam Accord of 1985. The complete NRC retained the names of 3.11 crore of the 3.3 crore applicants after due verifications, leaving out names of 19,06,657 people from the list. A year after its publication, the fate of these 19.06 lakh people remains uncertain. People left out of the final NRC are not be detained under any circumstances till FTs declare their decisions. The Centre has clarified that the rejected people will remain Indian citizens until their cases are settled and they cannot be deprived of their voting and other rights.
Under the provisions of Foreigners Act, 1946, and Foreigners Tribunal Order, 1964, only FTs are empowered to declare a person as a foreigner. Thus, non-inclusion of a person’s name in the NRC does not by itself amount to her/him being declared a foreigner. These people can first approach the FTs and subsequently move higher courts if they are unsatisfied with the FT’s decisions. A rejected person would have 120 days from the date of receiving the rejection slip to approach an FT for judging their citizenship. The government has blamed the coronavirus crisis and the spate of floods in Assam for the delay in issuing rejection slips citing the reasons why they were left out to each of the excluded. However, some NRC officials shared on condition of anonymity that the NRC authorities may start issuing rejection slips to those left out of the final register published last year only after the NRC is notified by the Registrar General of India.
Neither this Rs 1,600-crore endeavour monitored by the apex court could ascertain who are genuine citizens and who are foreigners, nor it could make the FTs functional or ensure appointment of 1,600 selected candidates for various posts in the tribunals. The reason behind such a mess is alleged to be political as the Assembly elections are due in early 2021. Political exigencies always sometimes overtake all logic in India. The maximum number of people amongst the 19.06 lakh excluded are Hindu Bengalis, who entered Assam from Bangladesh after the cut-off date.
The recently enacted Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which has made provisions for granting of citizenship in India to all Hindus from three neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh, has made the main clause of the Assam Accord, irrelevant. This clause ensured identification and deportation of foreign nationals, who illegally infiltrated from Bangladesh after the cutoff date, irrespective of their religious identity. The demand for updating the NRC of 1951 was first raised in 1980 during the anti-foreigners Assam Agitation spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union. The apex court ordered the updating after hearing a petition of an NGO, Assam Public Works, in 2009. Therefore, the updating is part of the implementation process of the Assam Accord.
The inflated figure of foreign nationals from Bangladesh in Assam, as claimed during and after the Assam agitation by ultranationalist and pro-Hindu elements, was calculative propaganda. There was no serious study to find out the actual number and the issue remained alive as a political tool, especially during elections. The exclusion of 19.06 lakh people from the final NRC list and high number of Hindus among them has busted the myth. Therefore, the final list did not vindicate their assumption matching their ideology, and they have demanded re-verification of NRC, unmindful of the huge expenditure and involvement of manpower crippling the state administration.
Moreover, if the NRC updating exercise, which was done under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court and close observation of people of Assam, could not satisfy some people, who else would be able to do this job more efficiently? The Assam government has already rejected the NRC as it claimed many ineligible persons managed to include their names while genuine Indian citizens were left out. According to the Chief Minister of Assam, a correct NRC would have been possible if the State government had got the full responsibility of updating this historical document of citizens. The critics of the State BJP government say that the desired outcome of the NRC exercise could have been manipulated if the job had been entrusted solely to the State government.
Updating of the NRC in Assam has become meaningless after passing of the CAA last year. The enactment of CAA has also rendered the main clause of the Assam Accord null and void. This explains the government’s dillydallying on the NRC updating process and its notification. The NRC may, at best, remain a trillion-dollar abandoned political opportunism-driven document in the debris of political history of India.
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)
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