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Sunday, April 11, 2021

A year after NRC, where does Assam stand now?

Assam uploaded its National Register of Citizens (NRC) online on August 31, 2019. The list had the names of both the parties — those included and excluded from the list. A total of 3,30,27,661 people applied and 3,11,21,004 were considered eligible. But that meant that the NRC left 19,06,657 people in Assam without a state. This accounts for around 6 per cent of Assam’s total population. The officials were supposed to issue rejection slips with which the stateless people can approach the Foreigners’ Tribunal for their claims. But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened followed by a devastating flood — the officials got busy with managing the natural calamities and relief work while 19 lakh people remain stateless. A year after the NRC list came out the lives of 19 lakh people still hang in the balance. Where does Assam stand now?

The NRC was first published in 1951 but NRC was something Assam and its people wanted 3 to protect their native land from being overrun by ‘outsiders’ unlike the situation in the other parts of the country when the Home Minister spoke of implementing it across India. The first list was later updated to exclude those who may have illegally entered Assam via Bangladesh after March 25, 1971, as well. One thing that needs to be made clear is that NRC meant something very different to the people of Assam when it was introduced. They simply wanted to stop insurgents to settle in the state and take away their jobs. But when one magnifies it and applies it to the entire country it sparks protests. That’s what we saw in the latter months of 2019 and early 2020.

The officials said that it is not as easy to start working on the rejection slips as there are anomalies as pointed out by NRC authorities themselves. “As there is an irregularity, there has to be a quality check. We have to give a speaking order to the person concerned with a rejection slip. However, in several cases it has been seen that the names of people cleared by the officer on the ground were later rejected,” an NRC official told The Economic Times this week. “The process is caught in a stalemate. There is a section which wants to start rejection slip issuance without checking the irregularities concerned. However, without removing the discrepancies, it is not possible to issue a rejection slip,” he added.

D-voters

A huge chunk of these left out 19 lakh people are D-voters — a term neologised in 1997. The Election Commission of India had issued a circular to the Government of Assam ordering it to remove non-citizens from the electoral list — these non-citizens won’t be able to participate in the election procedure in any way. They won’t be able to vote or contest in elections because if their legitimacy of being a citizen is questioned, then it is doubtful that they are fit to be voters.

The D stands for nothing but Dubious or Doubtful — whose citizenship cannot be confirmed by the Government of India. But what seemed bizarre to many social scientists and activists is the particular process followed to delist the voters. Some of the D-voters have voter ids and passports as well. The process to determine whether an individual is Indian or not is also conflicting. “My father and mother are Indians – my who family belongs to this place. I have all the documents with me. But no one even wants to see those documents. They say such documents are available at any paan shop,” Bassu Ali (39) of Lakhipur, Parsim Kataudi, told a survey team of journalists and activists, associated with the United Against Hate. Their report, Democracy under detention: the horrors of NRC from Assam, documents the testimonies of many like Bassu.

“I have been declared as D-voter despite having all documents with me. We are three brothers and four sisters and I am the lone D-voter in the family. There is no D-voter in my husband’s family either – then why was I singled out?” asked Prutima Banai, a 27-year-old from Goalpara adding that her case has been going on in foreigners’ Tribunal. “I have no idea how or why this happened to me. In my village, 12 people have been declared as D-voters of them 10 are women,” she added.

What has the NRC done?

Married women have a hard time proving their nationality as they do not have either property papers or documents to prove any connection to India. Once someone is declared a D-voter they are sent to detention centres across the state. “On January 26, 2014, the police picked me up from my home. After a day at the police station, I was sent to jail. Once I appeared in court, my lawyer told me to be there and go inside when someone calls me and then disappeared. An officer called me in and asked as to where I lived. I told him that I live in Karbala. He said that he had heard that I came from Bangladesh. I was directly sent to jail after that. I was kept in a small cell with 50 people where each of us had only two feet of space to sleep. I will die, I will commit suicide but will never go there,” said Bassu.

Political parties, including the Bhartiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress, have criticised the NRC in Assam at various points in history. But that might have been aligned with the party’s the then political agenda and concerns. The Bengali-speaking Hindus of the state, who comprise of a lions’ share of the people who reside there, were kept out of the list. these people also form a chunk of the BJP vote bank here. “Tension is palpable on the faces of those Muslims who have been left out from the final list of the NRC but no such anxiety is discernible among Hindus because they feel that the government will bail them out,” reads the report published last year. People feel that the Supreme Court’s verdict had raised important constitutional concerns, more than anything. A people’s tribunal, who met in Delhi a year back, said that the SC judgement that made way for the NRC exercise had relied upon “unverified, and now disproved, data to hold that migration amounted to ‘external aggression’ upon India”. In doing so, the court “in effect, dehumanised migrants and infringed their rights to liberty and dignity”.

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