Bona Fide Citizens

After almost 40 years of long struggle on the issue of illegal immigrants, the much-awaited first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published on December 31, 2017 with the names of 1.9 crore people out of the 3.29 crore total applicants in Assam recognising them as legal citizens of India. But will the issue of illegal immigrants be solved now, it remains to be seen, writes MONALISA GOGOI

At the end of six years of Assam agitation which started in 1979 and ended in the year 1985, the Assam Accord was signed among the central government, state government and AASU leadership. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) was the result of that long agitation which was treated as the first longest and successful agitation led by students only. The NRC’s part draft was published on December 31, 2017 for which the indigenous people of Assam have been waiting for many decades. Although, as per the accord the NRC was to be prepared in 1990s, but due to the irresponsibility and neglecting attitude of different governments formed during the period it was not articulated. But finally due to the intervention of different organisations like the Assam Public Works (APW) and All Assam Students Union (AASU) the honourable Supreme Court directed the government of Assam and the respective authorities to speed up the process. Finally, the Supreme Court ordered the state government to prepare the NRC within a specified time limit and it was the midnight of December 31, 2017 which was treated as the historical moment in the history of Assam and also the most glorious moment for the people of Assam.
Background: After Independence, the first census was done in the whole country in 1951. And at that time the census was done in Assam also and simultaneously a Draft NRC was prepared in Assam. The total population of then Assam was 80,28,856, which included present Assam and other northeastern states. But for next two decades the population growth rate was unnatural. It was because of the illegal migration from then East Pakistan (present Bangladesh), causing threat to the indigenous inhabitants of Assam. The equation of indigenous people and the illegal immigrants has gone to an alarming position which resulted in Assam Movement. The movement reached its crescendo in 1979. Taking an organised lead the All Assam Students Union called Assam bandh on June 8, 1979. After this the agitation got boiling and day-to-day life of Assam was seriously affected because of bandh, curfew, boycott and blackout. The agitation drew the attention of national and international media.

Along with the foreigners’ deportAtion, the protesters hAd Another demAnd of correction And prepAre A foreigner-free voter list

Along with the foreigners’ deportation, the protesters had another demand of correction and prepare a foreigner-free voter list, who were included in the voter list of 1966. The movement got accelerated from 1979 to 1985, when many discussions took place between AASU and the government.
If 1951 NRC had been updated regularly, this situation would not have arisen. So, AASU sent the first memorandum raising the demand of updating of NRC on January 18, 1980. After a few days, January 26, 1980, AASU formally demanded the updating of NRC in a meeting with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Later, when the violence spread all over the Brahmaputra valley, 855 people had died and thousands of Assamese girls got raped. Finally, on August 15, 1985 the AASU signed an accord with the central government. Although the NRC updating was decided but due to lack of proper modality, the execution got postponed. In 1990, the AASU submitted the modality, but due to the negligence of the government, the subject went in vain. As a result, AASU again started protests along with 26 other indigenous organisations of the state. After which, on September 17, 1999, a tripartite talk between the central government, state government and AASU decided to preserve the 1951 NRC and to update the same based on that. But, the modality submitted by AASU caused a difference between many organisations in Assam. Later, on May 5, 2005, a tripartite discussion took place based on the modality. This discussion led to speeding up of the NRC. And a pilot project was initiated in Barpeta and Chaygaon revenue circles. But, due to opposition from some suspected citizens at Barpeta, the process again got stopped.
Finally, the APW submitted a petition opposing the foreigner voters’ inclusion in the voter list. The AASU became a party through an intervention petition. The apex court admitted the petition.
The Supreme Court finally ordered both central and state governments to prepare the NRC. The state government formed a commission with Prateek Hajela, IAS, as the state coordinator.
The process: After appointing Deepak Sharma as director, the government of Assam formed a separate directorate in 2005, for preparing the Draft NRC within the stipulated time frame as per the directive of the honourable Supreme Court. During the period, the process of preparing the NRC got delayed and simultaneously the Barpeta incident took place while undertaking the Pilot Project of NRC in Barpeta district. After the Barpeta incident the process had come to a complete halt. The government came under tremendous pressure as several organisations especially AASU and other like-minded organisations had vehemently protested against the action of the government. Eventually APW and other organisations approached the apex court and the court ordered the central and state governments to carry out the process. Admitting the responsibility the Registrar General of India had taken up the matter seriously and accordingly the central government provided the required fund for it. The matter took its momentum only after appointing Prateek Hajela, IAS, as the state coordinator in 2013. As per the modality set by AASU, i.e., midnight of March 24, 1971, based on the data of NRC 1951, the preparation of the Draft NRC had been mooted. The Supreme Court of India had appointed Justice Ranjan Gogoi to lead the separate constitutional bench to handle all the NRC related cases. Then the court had ordered Prateek Hajela to complete the NRC process within 18 months, i.e., by September 23, 2014. Further it was extended up to January 1, 2016. Although the extension had been granted the process could not be completed for which on the plea of the government the court had further extended the date up to December 31, 2017.
In between the Legacy Data verification process was completed and a step was put forward to publish the Draft NRC, by setting up 100 NRC Service Centres and 2,500 of NRC Seva Kendras (NSKs) all over the state. The distribution of forms had started from June 15, 2015 fixing the last date of submission by August 31, 2015. The verification process of the data was started from January 1, 2016. During the time 3.29 crore of citizens had submitted their Legacy Data for verification to the various NSKs.
Out of the 3.29 crore, 47.9 lakh citizens had submitted panchayat documents in support of their claim which had been turned down by the NRC Authority initially but the Supreme Court had overruled the decision later. Some minority organisations created turmoil by taking up this issue in Assam as a result the whole process got affected. Going through such adversities finally the part Draft NRC has been published on the midnight of December 31, 2017, wherein 1.9 crore of citizens out of 3.29 crore applicants have been enlisted in the NRC.
Festive-like situation occurred on the first day of 2018 as people thronged around the NSKs to find their names in the part Draft NRC. After almost 40 years of long struggle the people of Assam have been able to get a legal document to prove their citizenship. A foreigner-free Assam can now be expected after the publication of NRC.
A huge number of military and paramilitary forces had been deployed in the state after receiving high alert from Intelligence Bureau and other intelligence agencies apprehending violence, but despite all the apprehensions the situation was by and large peaceful.
Strong repercussions were seen in the neighbouring states including Bangladesh who were closely monitoring the process. In fact, around 5.50 lakh of NRC-related documents were sent to 28 Indian states including Bihar, UP, Rajasthan etc. out of which only 1.60 lakh were returned after verification of the legacy data submitted in various NSKs.
Ironically enough the political parties in Assam shamefully raised the issue of illegal immigrants and played their political cards during the last six decades thus taking the socio-political and economic status of the state to an all-time low. Had there been a strong political will to update the NRC which was last updated in 1951, the state of Assam would not have suffered such an adversity.
Reactions: Avijit Sharma, chairman, Assam Public Works – ‘A typical shop has been run by most of the organisations and political parties in the name of illegal foreigners. No one willingly tried to conclude the issue of illegal immigrants. As a result, the whole demography has changed. We have seen and realised that as we have no other option to solve this issue, only judicial system can help us in this regard. So, we informed honourable Supreme Court that in the voter list of 2006, more than 41 lakh voters’ names were included which were illegal immigrants. In the beginning of the New Year 2018 the people of Assam have received this great reward, i.e., updated NRC and three persons had contributed their own money to fight this case in the Supreme Court. I must mention their names – Pradip Bhuyan, the founder of Faculty School, his wife Banti Bhuyan and the owner of a leading daily, Jayanta Bhuyan.’
Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, ex-CM – ‘A part of Draft NRC has been published but final register should be on war footing and I strongly oppose the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 which aims to grant citizenship to people belonging to religious and linguistic minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I am very clear and sentimental about the violation of the very cause for which the deportation of illegal foreigners in Assam agitation led by AASU done and as a result the central government budged to sign the Assam Accord, a memorandum of settlement signed between representatives of the government of India and the leaders of the Assam movement in the presence of Rajiv G.’
Samudrajit Gohain, a columnist and NRI from Dubai – ‘I have doubts whether NRC will help to deport illegal foreigners from Assam or India. Suppose some illegal foreigner’s name is not there in the NRC as prepared in Assam. Will he not go then to say West Bengal or other parts of India and obtain some document to prove his Indian citizenship? As we know, by paying bribes, lots of documents can be procured in many parts of the country. Once such illegal foreigner obtains documents outside by paying bribes etc. will he then not come back to Assam as legal Indian citizen? Will the Assam government or law be able to deport him just because his name is not there in the NRC of Assam? My point is unless there is an all-India database like the NRC for Assam, illegal foreigner deportation may not be that easy. I have come to know that documents of citizens of Assam who have resided in different countries of the world had been sent for verification. Out of the 402 documents sent only 52 documents had returned after verification. Even my name is not there in this draft.’
Lurinjyoti Gogoi, president, AASU – ‘The NRC is bringing a ray of hope to the people of Assam. It becomes a constitutional safeguard for the original people of Assam. We will never compromise with the issue of illegal immigrants. Those who came after March 24, 1971 must leave Assam. Unlike some political parties, we do not consider their citizenship on the basis of religion. No compromise with illegal immigrants, we cannot consider our state as the grazing field for illegal immigrants.’

strong repercussions were seen in the neighbouring stAtes including bAnglAdesh who were closely monitoring the process

Sarbananda Sonowal, chief minister of Assam – ‘The people of Assam have been waiting for this moment for the last 40 years. Our government is determined to give a correct NRC to its people so that our citizens can live a happy and peaceful life. We are also determined to protect the right of our local people by providing them the right to land.’
Aminul Islam, MLA, AIDUF – ‘As it was declared as part draft so we cannot say anything now, people are assured by the authority that most of the names are excluded because the verification of their documents is going on. We will wait and see till the second draft. But we have seen some names were intentionally dropped because their verification had already completed, it might be a conspiracy. Let’s hope for the best.’
Tarun Gogoi, ex-chief minister of Assam – ‘My government had started the NRC first and now this government is trying to take the credit. It tries to make it lengthy but due to the interference of honourable Supreme Court, the government was compelled to publish the first draft. But the government of Assam failed to ensure the people of Barak valley so the protest started in Barak. I have doubt that the government will complete the final NRC soon. Because they have a hidden intention to distinguish illegal immigrants in the name of religion.’