Is there a solution to the NRC imbroglio in Assam?
The Assamese would like to protect their ancestral land, culture and identity, as well as a political majority in the state.
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The first National Register of Citizens (NRC) of Assam was prepared in 1951, by recording details of people included in that year’s Census. The original NRC was a register prepared after the 1951 Census, which recorded the particulars of those who belonged to Assam.
It was exclusively prepared for Assam only on the basis of the fear expressed by the Assamese.
Is there a colution: India needs to find a way out to the issue keeping in mind the human rights dimensions. (Photo: PTI)
To apply for inclusion in the present NRC of Assam, one’s name or the name of one’s ancestor must be in the NRC of 1951, or in any voters' list up to the midnight of March 24, 1971, the cut-off date agreed upon in the Assam Accord. If the applicant’s name is not on any of these lists, he can produce any of the 12 other documents dated up to March 24, 1971, like land or tenancy record, citizenship certificate or permanent residential certificate or passport or court records or refugee registration certificate.
As per the Assam Accord, anyone residing in Assam who can’t prove citizenship or family lineage in the state prior to the midnight of March 24, 1971, would lose their Indian citizenship.
What took place since independence?
What would happen to those found to be non-citizens?
1) In 2014, the Supreme Court had asked the Central government to enter into necessary discussions with the government of Bangladesh to streamline the process of deporting illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Although India and Bangladesh entered into an extradition treaty during the UPA II regime in 2013, the expulsion of undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh allegedly residing in Assam, a sensitive issue that led to a six-year-long students’ agitation.
The bi-annual talks between the Border Security Force (BSF) and Border Guards Bangladesh have not flagged the issue of undocumented migration from across the border beyond the angle of narcotics and cattle smuggling.
After the 2014 general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went silent on his promise to “send these Bangladeshis beyond the border bag and baggage”. Because when it comes to diplomacy, India is not confident that “she not would want to lose a friend like Bangladesh”.
Who's guarding it, anyway? The India-Bangladesh border. (Credit: PTI photo)
This possible solution will lead to a diplomatic crisis, not just with Bangladesh, but with other nations too. It also questions India’s moral authority on the international arena.
2) Some experts and political scientists suggest issuing work permits to those who are proved non-citizens as a solution to the problem. The idea, first proposed by Sanjoy Hazarika, is based on the notion that the most undocumented migration has happened from across the border for economic reasons only. In his book, Rites of Passage: Border Crossings, Imagined Homelands, India’s East and Bangladesh (2000), Hazarika proposed work permits for groups of 15-20 persons rather than to individuals. The permits, which, according to him, might “create a sense of space and tolerance” towards the migrants, should be issued for a limited time period, depending upon the nature of the work.
It would be like passports with the details of individuals, their employers and the length of stay of the group in India. The validity of the permits could be extended for a period of two years. The workers will not enjoy any political rights such as the right to vote, buy property or settle in India, but will have human rights and can approach courts and labour commissions in case their rights are violated.
He also suggested debarring a politician for 10 years if he/she allows “illegal immigration”, besides advocating for legalising illegal border trade.
According to Pushpita Das of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, the idea of work permit can be traced back to 1965 when the government considered issuing identity cards to people residing along the India-Bangladesh border belt.
She writes: “The purpose was to identify and differentiate Indian citizens from foreigners. Persons who were issued identity cards were required to carry the cards voluntarily so that they could be easily identified as genuine citizens and not harassed by the police checking people against illegal migration. Incidentally, the proposal of issuing identity cards to border people was cancelled a year later after it was found that the proposal was not feasible.”
While the process of upadating the NRC goes on, millions of people are living in uncertainty. (Photo credit: PTI)
In 1991, the central government revived the plan in specified areas in the states of Assam, Mizoram, Tripura and West Bengal to check illegal migration. However, according to the government’s annual report (1999-2000), the project failed to take off because the administration concluded that “creating a database of one billion people is a gigantic exercise”. Though between 2003 and 2009, the central government carried out a pilot project of granting multipurpose identity cards “in a few selected sub-districts of 13 states and Union territories”, Assam was kept out of it as the verification of citizens in the state was not completed.
This possible solution was tried and tested on many occasions, without any success.
3) The Assam Accord provides for granting citizenship to ‘foreigners’ through naturalisation. As per its Clause 5(4), names of foreigners so detected will be deleted from the electoral rolls in force. Such persons will be required to register themselves before the registration officers of the respective districts in accordance with the provisions of the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939, and the Registration of Foreigners Rules, 1939.”
Clause 5(6) says, “On the expiry of a period of ten years following the date of detection, the names of all such persons which have been deleted from the electoral rolls shall be restored.”
The two recommended provisions, which can come close to solving the problem, after the publication of the final NRC, are: The right to buy, sell, own or possess property in the state of Assam shall be barred for the non-citizens or naturalised citizens, permanently. Separate electorates for the non-citizens or naturalised citizens may solve the electro-political problem, as well. The indigenous people have become a minority in the state of Assam in the last five-six decades.
The Clause 6 of the Assam Accord promises "constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate” to “protect, preserve and promote the culture, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people".
The Assamese would like to protect their ancestral land, culture and identity, and a political majority in the state. This possible solution may solve these two major issues before the government.
On the other hand, the people who are non-citizens or naturalised citizens will be legally second-class citizens, right under the Constitution of India.
There is still hope that it might work for the next generation of the naturalised citizens, as they will be citizens by birth, and not naturalisation.