Assam’s Unwanted

The updation of National Register of Citizens against the backdrop of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and fears of religious bias has the State on tenterhooks

By Author  |  Shruthi B Shetty  |  Published: 4th Aug 2018  11:57 pm

We are citizens of the world. The tragedy of our times is that we do not know this – Woodrow Wilson

The issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh has been a sensitive one, being at the centre of Assam’s political discourse for decades. The updated draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) published on July 30, which left out names of approximately 40 lakh residents of Assam, has triggered a crisis in the State.

Since Independence till 1971, when Bangladesh was created, Assam witnessed large-scale migration from East Pakistan that became Bangladesh after the war. Soon after the war on March 19, 1972, a treaty for friendship, cooperation and peace was signed between India and Bangladesh. The migration of Bangladeshis into Assam continued.

In order to bring this regular influx of immigrants to the notice of the then Prime Minister, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) submitted a memorandum to Indira Gandhi in 1980 seeking her intervention in the matter.

Subsequently, Parliament enacted the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983. This Act, applicable only to Assam, was expected to identify and deport illegal migrants from the State.

Birth of Assam Accord

People were not satisfied with the government’s measures and a massive State-level student agitation started, spearheaded by the AASU and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP). This movement resulted in the Assam Accord, which was signed on August 15, 1985, between AASU, AAGSP, Central and State governments. The Accord listed a number measures to be taken for the State to deal with immigration.

It has taken 33 years for this crucial part of the Assam Accord to start falling in place. Last Monday, when the final draft of the NRC was released, close to 40 lakh residents of Assam were disappointed to find their names missing from the list.

The opposition, especially West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, slammed the move terming the situation in the State as ‘super emergency’, but BJP president Amit Shah reminded everyone that the Accord was signed in 1985 during the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government.

Key Provisions

As per the Accord, all people who came to Assam prior to January 1, 1966, would be given citizenship. Those who moved in between January 1, 1966, and March 24, 1971, would be detected in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order 1964 and their names deleted from the electoral rolls.

Further, foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971, shall continue to be detected and practical steps taken to expel such foreigners. However, several clauses of the Accord are yet to be implemented, and that in turn has kept the issue burning for the last three decades.

Assam Movement

In fact, the issue of immigration continued to aggravate ethnic relations in Assam since the years preceding Independence. However, after Independence, the issue was brushed under the carpet until 1979, when the Assam Movement began. It was only in 1979 that the issue shook the State, defining the contours of ethnic and religious relations in the years to come. Even though the Assam Movement had sufficient support, there were many against it as well, considering the size of the immigrant population and the political cost of agreeing to the demands of the movement.

However, by the end of 1992, an agreement was reached between the Centre and the movement’s leaders that all those who made it within the Indian borders between 1951 and 1961 would be given citizenship status, while those who came after 1971 would be deported. But the status of those who entered between 1961 and 1971 was not resolved.

Citizenship (Amendment Bill)

The fact that the NRC issue comes amid fears among many owing to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, first tabled in the Lower House of Parliament in 2016, has added to the worries and put people on the tenterhooks. Citizens of the northeastern States have been protesting vigorously against the proposed citizenship regime.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill proposes to change the Citizenship Act of 1955, which has formed the basis of India’s citizenship regime since it gained Independence. The amendment seeks to grant select ‘persecuted minorities’ (Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains) from the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan citizenship status in India after six years of residency. Other groups must wait 11 years to become naturalised citizens.

Problems in the Process

A first draft published in December 2017 included only 1.9 crore names as citizens, but mass panic was averted with a promise that more names were to come. The procedure being adopted to decide whose claims are legitimate and whose are not has been dodgy, to say the least.

Some exclusions in the final draft of the NRC defied an explanation. Among the 40,07,707 people dropped allegedly for lack of proper documents were former President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed’s nephew Ziauddin Ali Ahmed and his family. Some political parties have attributed the exclusion of names to biased NRC officials.

Meanwhile, the All Assam Transgender Association said its members had not been included. The register, it seems, mentions only male and female gender. Their case is likely to be heard on August 16.

Another contentious issue has been the exclusion of D-voters from the NRC list. Referred to as doubtful voters, this category of voters in Assam have been disenfranchised on the account of their alleged lack of proper citizenship credentials.

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s political journey began with the AASU. He is hailed for single-handedly getting the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act repealed in Supreme Court in 2005. He will now have to ensure that no mishaps happen and harmony is maintained.

Role of Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s decision to judicially oversee the process of updating the NRC is expected to erase biases and help identify Indian citizens residing in Assam in accordance with the Citizenship Act, 1955 and the Assam Accord. The litigation, which began in 2009 as a PIL filed by Assam Public Works, has, since December 2014, morphed into a court-monitored process of creating NRC that is trying to verify how many of Assam’s 3.29 crore residents are legitimate citizens and how many are illegal migrants.

But doubts regarding the procedure being adopted have led to concerns that the NRC exercise may cause grievous injury to communities and diminish the Supreme Court’s credibility as well.
The Supreme Court, in its latest hearing on July 31, stated that the exercise of verifying citizenship will be taken to its logical conclusion and asked the Centre to frame a ‘fair and equitable’ standard operating procedure to adjudicate claims for Indian citizenship.

What Next?

There still remains the question as to what happens to those who are declared illegal migrants in accordance with law after all judicial remedies are exhausted. Resolving an issue hanging fire for over three decades isn’t going to be easy, especially when many of them have lived here for the better part of their lives. The undercurrent of a religious bias adds to mistrust and aggravates an already tense situation.

The onus is on the Supreme Court to create an orderly and transparent mechanism for those aggrieved by exclusion to exhaust judicial remedies in accordance with law, without prejudicing their rights.