Assam braces for fresh ordeal as government pushes for NRC repeat
Photograph: Sandipan Chatterjee/Outlook
NRC In Numbers
- Rs 1,600 cr Amount spent
- 1.9 million People left out
- 52,000 Govt employees involved in exercise
For the ruling BJP, the NRC is unfinished business. And Assam is only a job half done. The right wing claims that nothing short of “homecoming” of persecuted Hindus from neighbouring countries will ensure closure of a story with roots in the tumultuous Partition on the eastern front. And therein lies the story of the second—and perhaps more controversial—chapter of the NRC. The BJP believes that the names of genuine Indian citizens—most of them Hindus—have been excluded from the NRC.
Union home minister Amit Shah has set the cat among the pigeons by asserting the government’s plans for a pan-India citizenship document and making a second push for the citizenship amendment bill (CAB), which aims to ease the process of getting Indian citizenship for non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has added fuel to the fire by claiming, barely a few months after the 1951 NRC was updated to exclude 1.9 million people, that the state will have to go through the process again.
For lakhs of people in Assam, this could mean another long haul—going through the painful, frustrating process of proving their citizenship all over again. Only, this time around, it could become even more difficult as they might have to prove their Indian roots way back to 1951, that is, 20 years earlier than in the last NRC exercise. Ask the people who have gone through ordeal.
Manju Devi, 54, spent several years hunting for official documents that would confirm her Indian citizenship. But she failed. When the updated NRC was published earlier this year, the name of the Tezpur resident was not in the list, though her husband’s citizenship has been confirmed.
“I have already lived more than five decades, but what will happen to my son and daughter who have also been excluded from the list? I feel worried for them,” says Devi, a Gorkha and granddaughter of freedom fighter Chabilal Upadhyay.
Beyond the immediate concerns of large scale demographic change in Assam due to influx of undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, the BJP is citing security threats from Muslims who are allegedly flooding Assam and the rest of the country. But there is no way of knowing the number of such “illegal migrants”—it has always been a matter of conjecture, ranging from a few thousand to more than one crore. Many believe that pushing the cut-off year to 1951 from 1971 could create more problems for the entire region.
Nabarun Guha, a 31-year-old Guwahati-based professional, spent sleepless nights before finding his name in the final list in August.
“First of all, what is the point of doing it again?” he asks. “How can they (government) reject a SC-monitored process? If the new NRC also doesn’t turn up to their liking, will they reject it as well?” Activists working in Assam say Shah and Sarma’s announcements have created a sense of fear among the people in rural areas, especially among Muslims.
“These families had to spend money, including on traveling to attend hearings. I can see the trauma of the people,” says activist Shajahan Ali Ahmed.
Gajibor Rahman, 55, of Barpeta district’s Pampara village is sick of running to NRC seva kendras and hearing centres to prove his citizenship. A father of five, Gajibor hasn’t found his and his family members’ names in the final list.
“Now, I’m in deep trouble. It seems that the sky has fallen on me. We submitted all the necessary documents but that was not enough to get our names in the NRC. Being a citizen of this country we have faced enormous harassment. I’m scared to hear that there will be a new NRC,” he says. “We are poor people and have already spent several thousand rupees in the process. If the new NRC is brought, we will just die. How do we arrange the money again? We are broken. This is the place where we belong and we have nowhere to go.”
The only person in the family who is officially Indian is his wife, Manjan Nessa.
Even those involved in the NRC update process are skeptical. Around 52,000 government employees were deployed across the state for more than five years to complete the mammoth exercise.
“I have been working with the NRC update process since 2015. We did our best. It has been very hectic and it hampered our regular work. But if the process is done again, it will be tiresome. I don’t see any meaning in it,” says a local officer at an NRC seva kendra on the condition of anonymity.
For the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which led the six-year-long anti-foreigners agitation between 1979-85, the NRC exercise has turned out to be dud with names of “illegal Bangladeshis” included in the updated list. AASU leaders, however, say they have not rejected the updated NRC, but they want it to be re-examined and rectified. “The AASU has not rejected the updated NRC. We want a reverification so that no genuine Indians are left out and no foreigners are included. Who gave Himanta Biswa Sarma the right to reject the NRC? Who has taken the decision in this regard? And in what capacity has he rejected the updated NRC. It was the Supreme Court which ordered the process. Sarma is simply politicising the issue,” says AASU president Dipanka Kumar Nath.
There are others, however, who believe that reviving the NRC debate is just an election plank of the BJP as it no longer has the Ram temple issue to “polarise voters”.
This story first appeared on OutlookIndia.com on 28 November 2019 here.