NRC mess: The missing foreigners of Assam

Many are disappointed with a low headcount of illegal immigrants in Assam. And this could well lead to a re-evaluation.

 |  7-minute read |   04-09-2019
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On August 31, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published in Assam. A total of 3,30,27,661 people living within the geographical boundary of Assam had applied for inclusion in the register. Of them, 19,06,657 were excluded. In short, nearly two million people were found not to be citizens of India.

The number has made a lot of people unhappy in Assam. In fact, all those stakeholders who had demanded for an updated NRC have expressed anguish over such a low headcount of illegal immigrants in Assam. Abhijit Sarma, whose PIL in the Supreme Court in 2009 eventually led to this new NRC, has expressed dissatisfaction over the process. Sarma, in his PIL had claimed that 4.1 million illegal Bangladeshis had found their way into Assam’s voter list. Interestingly, the Election Commission of India did not dispute the figure in the court, which has been directly monitoring the NRC update since 2015.

hindu-690_090419104553.jpgThere number of illegal immigrants in Assam remains widely contested. (Photo: Reuters)

Sarma will now move the top court demanding a re-examination of the NRC. He is likely to be joined by Samujjal Bhattacharya, the patron of All Assam Students’ Union, which spearheaded the six-year-long Assam Agitation between 1979 and 1985 against illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh. The most vocal critic of the NRC has been Assam’s finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who has been the chief architect of BJP’s expansion in the Northeast. The Assam government is all set to move the Supreme Court seeking a review of the NRC data.

Ironically, the people who have expressed happiness over the NRC are mostly those who had till now either shown reservation about the process or aggressively campaigned against it. A very coordinated campaign had been going on to paint this process as an attempt to strip only Muslims of citizenship, even though they may have entered India illegally. “The myth of the illegal migrant is dispelled with the NRC. Will Amit Shah now explain how he came to know of 40 lakh infiltrators,” asked All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi. For record, 40 lakh people were excluded from the draft NRC published last year and the number has more than halved after appeals and claims.

And this number is much smaller than previous official and unofficial estimates. The NRC is the second such exercise in Assam, necessitated by widespread allegations of massive, unabated illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The general perception in Assam is that majority of these immigrants are Muslims, backed by the statistics on unnatural growth in Muslim population. The first NRC was published in 1951 by recording particulars of all the persons enumerated during that year’s census.

The 1951 census estimated the number of migrants from Bangladesh — then East Pakistan — at around one million to 1.5 million — between one-tenth to one-sixth of the total population of the state. That’s the main reason why NRC was first prepared in 1951. However, there is no account of what happened to those who were excluded from the 1951 NRC. Between 1951 and 1961, the state’s population leapt by 36 per cent, and by 35 per cent in the next decade as against national decadal growth of 22 and 25 per cent, respectively.

In his report of 1963, the Registrar General of Census said that 2,20,691 illegal immigrants infiltrated into Assam. The 1971 Census revealed an increase of 8,20,000 Muslims in Assam — 4,24,000 more than that could be accounted through natural increase. There was a big surge in this influx — primarily of Hindu immigrants — after the war between India and Pakistan in 1971, when Bangladesh was liberated. Between 2001 and 2011, India’s Muslims grew from 13.4 per cent to 14.2 per cent while in Assam they grew from 30.9 per cent to 34.2 per cent. Fourteen of Assam’s 27 districts have shown higher population growth than the state’s average of 16 per cent; Muslims are a majority in nine of them.

nr-690_090419104615.jpgAt a time when India’s Muslims grew from 13.4 per cent to 14.2 per cent, in Assam they grew from 30.9 per cent to 34.2 per cent. (Photo: Reuters)

Just one statistic — voter numbers in Assam grew by more than 50 per cent in less than a decade — from 5,701,805 in 1970 to 8,537,493 in 1979 — triggered a six-year-long agitation, popularly known as Assam Agitation, against illegal infiltrators. The immediate trigger was the discovery of more than 45,000 illegal names in the electoral roles of the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha constituency. The agitation, which saw the death of nearly 900 Assamese youngsters, started in 1979 and ended in 1985, when the Assam Accord was signed.

It was decided that the 1951 NRC would be updated to detect the illegal foreigners residing in Assam. While the existing rules, applicable across the country, provide for preparation of the NRC strictly through house-to-house enumeration, the Citizenship Act rules have been amended exclusively for Assam to enable updating of its NRC by inviting claims from direct descendants of those figuring in the 1951 NRC or 1971 electoral rolls for Assam.

But nothing happened over the next three decades though several reports recorded the steady growth of illegal immigrants in Assam. Indrajit Gupta, former home minister of India, said in Parliament in 1997, that there were 10 million illegal migrants in India. In 2004, the then Union minister of state for home affairs Sriprakash Jaiswal told the Rajya Sabha that there were 1,20,53,950 illegal Bangladeshis in India. Assam accounted for 5 million of them. In 2005, a three-judge bench of Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice RC Lahoti, Justice GP Mathur and Justice PK Balasubramanyan, observed: “The presence of such a large number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, which runs into millions, is in fact an aggression on the state of Assam and has also contributed significantly in causing serious internal disturbances in the shape of insurgency of alarming proportions.”

In 2017, the interim report of a six-member committee for protection of land rights of indigenous people of Assam, headed by former chief election commissioner HS Brahma, said that illegal Bangladeshis dominated in as many as 15 of the 33 districts of Assam. “Illegal Bangladeshis descend on the land like an army of marauding invaders armed with dangerous weapons, set up illegal villages, mostly on the char lands overnight, in the full view and with the tacit, if not active, connivance and encouragement of the corrupt government officers as also with abetment of communal political leaders,” read the report.

Yet, the exclusion rate in the Muslim majority districts has been much lower than those dominated by Hindus or tribals. Several political observers in Assam say that the low exclusion rate is not surprising as most immigrants, with help from corrupt officials and patronage from previous political regimes, who saw them as vote banks, got their paperwork done within days of their arrival in India. In contrast, the indigenous people rarely care about paperwork to prove national identity. “The low numbers of exclusion in NRC is also attributed to the ‘manipulation of legacy data’ as the family tree is not biometric based and there is no mechanism to verify the authenticity of such claim and documents,” says Professor Nani Gopal Mahanta of Gauhati University.

Whether the previous estimates were exaggerated or data manipulation allowed large number of illegal immigrants sneak into the NRC, the entire exercise, which cost the public exchequer Rs 1,200 crore and involved the services of 52,000 workers, turned out to be a damp squib, raising more questions than bringing an end to a 40-year-long contentious issue.

The next course of action will be decided by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, who may accept or reject the NRC in totality or may accept it with partial modification. And if all the stakeholders get united to demand a re-examination — as proposed by Himanta Biswa Sarma — the headcount may start all over again.

Also read: Assam NRC: Identity politics can put Mamata Banerjee and Bengal’s Right on the same boat


Kaushik Deka Kaushik Deka @kdscribe

Associate Editor, India Today

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