An exercise in a hurry

Rushing through the updation of National Register of Citizens in Assam will lead to a flawed document that fuels social tension

By Author Geetartha Pathak   |   Published: 30th Dec 2017   12:03 am Updated: 29th Dec 2017   10:58 pm

The functioning of government offices during the year-end generally slows down due to a large number of employees proceeding on leave. However, in Assam, most of the employees this year-end are working overtime at the direction of the Supreme Court to publish the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

As per the directions of the Supreme Court, the first draft of the updated NRC is to be made public at midnight of December 31, 2017. Persons who can prove links with family members whose names appeared in the 1951 NRC or subsequent electoral rolls till March 25, 1971, will be included in the updated NRC. While tension prevails among the minority communities across religious groups, a section of indigenous people believes that millions of illegal Bangladeshi citizens will easily be identified and deported.

It’s not an easy task to compile and verify millions of documents and establish parental linkages. The magnitude of the work is evident from the fact that there are 32.8 million individuals involved, there are about 6.8 million applications and over 60 million documents that need to be verified. The Supreme Court is hearing a writ petition filed by Assam Public Works (APW) in July 2009 for identification of Bangladeshi foreign nationals in Assam and deletion of their names from the voters’ list.

People Under Scrutiny

The NRC is being updated after over six decades, only in Assam, to weed out illegal immigrants, especially from Bangladesh. No other State — West Bengal, Tripura or Meghalaya — has felt it necessary to update the NRC, though migration from erstwhile East Pakistan or present Bangladesh strained the demography in these States too. But here this is thanks to the six-year-long Assam Agitation that culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. The Registrar General of Citizens Registration had informed the Supreme Court that 3.8 million people were under scrutiny in the State after their documents appeared doubtful. The parental linkage of another 4.7 million people was in doubt after the authorities matched their family trees. Therefore, the Registrar General of Citizens Registration wanted more time for updation of the NRC.

However, the court was reluctant and asked the government to publish the draft by December 31, 2017, though the SC has allowed the government to update the NRC thereafter as an ongoing process. If it is an ongoing process what was the urgency of publishing the NRC by December-end, especially when it may end in the publication of an erroneous document that would create lots of social tension?

Cut-off Year

The Citizenship Act is uniform across India. A citizen of India can freely roam, stay, make business or acquire property throughout India barring some selected areas governed by special law. However, section 6A of the Citizenship Act – introduced through an amendment in 1985 – was the legislative enactment of the legal part of the Assam Accord. Section 6A virtually made the cut-off year for illegal immigrants coming to Assam from Bangladesh as March 25, 1971.

The cut- off year for granting citizenship to migrants who came to India was July 1, 1948. Now those who migrated to Assam before March 25, 1971, will be treated as citizens of India while the same set of people will be foreign nationals in other States as section 6A of the Citizenship Act is applicable for only Assam. The Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha, an umbrella organisation of several nationalist bodies, recently challenged section 6A in the SC.

Another puzzling issue is entangled with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 1986. Any person born in India on or after January 26, 1950, but prior to the commencement of the 1986 Act on 1 July 1987, is a citizen of India by birth. A person born in India on or after July 1, 1987, is a citizen of India if either parent was a citizen of India at the time of the birth. Therefore, the offspring of those illegal migrants who came to India after March 25, 1971, who were born before July 1, 1987, will be a citizen of India by birth though their parents are illegal migrants. Their name will not appear in the NRC as they do not have a parental legacy.

Comparing Statistics

The BJP’s State election manifesto promised that it would implement the Assam Accord in letter and spirit. The Assam Accord does not distinguish illegal migrants on religious lines. Now pursuing its Hindutva policy, the BJP has brought a fresh amendment to the Citizenship Act to grant citizenship to religiously persecuted Hindus, Sikhs, Jain, Buddhists and even Christians from certain neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh. The AGP, the ruling coalition partner of the BJP in Assam, has already threatened to withdraw from the coalition if the proposed Bill is passed.

In such a complex and confusing situation, publishing an authentic NRC in Assam is an uphill task. And whether this expensive exercise both in terms of money and labour will help the administration in identifying the illegal migrants is a matter to be keenly observed.

A simple comparison of statistics provided by the Census of India may give us a hint on whether the issue of illegal migrant in Assam is a real threat or just a myth. The number of Muslims in the 1971 Census was 3,594,006. The decadal growth of Muslims in Assam in 1971 was 29.96%. If we assume that this decadal growth remained constant at around 30%, the Muslim population in Assam will be around 10,500,000. The Muslim population in the
1971 census was 10,679,345. Therefore, infiltration of Bangladeshi migrants after the cut-off year 1971 is nominal.

The rate of increase of Muslim population is higher than that of Hindu population since independence, owing to higher fertility, lower education level, poor healthcare, among others. However, Muslim fertility rates in India are falling faster than among Hindus. If the statistics published by the Census of India is indicative of population behaviour in the country, the entire issue of illegal migration in Assam has to be relooked in a realistic perspective.
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)