The National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Supreme Court-monitored humongous exercise, has raked up old wounds and reignited ethnic passions in Assam. While the complicated exercise was aimed at taking a count of Indian citizens in a State of 3.30 crore population that had witnessed prolonged strife and agitations over fears of demographic invasion, the end result has, unfortunately, left bitterness among the key stakeholders. With nearly 19 lakh people, accounting for 6% of the State’s population, being left out of the final list, it turns out that neither the indigenous impulse of the ethnic Assamese nor the nationalist impulse of certain dominant political groups has been answered by the elaborate exercise. Since a majority of those excluded from the NRC happens to be Hindu migrants from Bangladesh or erstwhile East Pakistan, the outcome has become unpalatable for the BJP and its affiliates. The NRC also busts several myths surrounding illegal migration of Bangladeshi Muslims into the country and their disproportionate influence on Assam elections. It has now emerged that Bangladeshi Muslims account for a relatively smaller number among those who do not figure in the final list. People’s representatives of all political hues in Assam agree that genuine Indian citizens have been left out of the final list and their grievances need to be addressed with sensitivity and fairness by the tribunals in the days ahead. Though the NRC has turned out to be a mixed bag, the painstaking work is undoubtedly a tribute to the country’s robust judicial and constitutional system.
There is also a compelling argument being made in certain quarters that the process of citizenship verification had failed to take into account the crucial difference between those who fled East Pakistan/Bangladesh to escape religious persecution and those who settled in Assam in search of better livelihoods. One of the key lapses of the process, it is argued, was that the NRC state coordinator did not allow refugee certificates and citizenship cards issued mainly to Hindu Bengalis fleeing East Pakistan during a civil war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Though the apex court had allowed the use of these documents, the state coordinator had argued that they could not be verified since the issuing authorities no longer exist. While one can take a lenient approach in deserving cases, any attempt to approach the issue from the prism of religion would further muddy the waters. Tremendous hard work has gone into the NRC, which is an update on the citizens’ register published in 1951, and it must bring closure to the citizenship debate. Assam must now reconcile to its ethnic diversity. Any attempt to tweak the process will flare up ethnic tensions.