‘They Mixed Up Muslims of Assam and Bangladesh’: Petitioner Looks Back at Decade-long NRC Exercise
Abhijit Sharma, the first petitioner in the case, says People of Assam fully supported the NRC process, right from arranging required documents to standing in long queues to submit them.
Guwahati: With the Supreme Court granting a month-long extension to the final NRC deadline, the state of Assam is witnessing a rush hour. Ahead of August 31, when the final list will be published, applicants to the NRC have been pushed to chaos with thousands attending court hearings to prove their citizenship.
On August 2, the process of re-summoning even led to a fatal accident when a bus carrying 55 people to their NRC hearing centre crashed into an oil tanker. Thirty people suffered burn injuries in the mishap. This comes after the BJP-led state government released district-wise data of people excluded from the NRC.
The government has argued that there is a higher inclusion rate in the Muslim-majority districts associated with migration and lower in other districts. They assume that areas close to the Bangladesh border are bound to have more illegal immigrants.
As the decade-long citizenship exercise draws to a close, News18 speaks to Abhijit Sharma of the Assam Public Works – the first petitioners in the NRC case in the Supreme Court in 2009. Sharma was persuaded by Pradeep and Banti Bhuyan, an octogenarian couple who are also pioneering educationists, to file their draft writ petition demanding the updation of the NRC in the apex court.
How has Assam faired through the 10 years of a unique citizenship exercise?
People of Assam have fully supported the NRC process. There was no objection to arranging documents and queuing up in long lines to submit them. The government is lucky that people supported the whole process.
The NRC is projected in two different ways: before and after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The previous Congress government was interested in updating the NRC. But when the BJP government came things took a turn around. The first thing that BJP's Sarbananda Sonowal did after taking over as Assam chief minister was to visit the NRC office. He has kept a check on the entire process since then. Sonowal's spirit has spread throughout the state.
Despite all forms of 'alleged' harassment like travelling long distances to submit applications, procuring documents and attending hearings, people have come out to support the exercise.
Locals have complained of a poorly implemented bureaucratic exercise. Did you see the NRC exercise unfold, the way it has today?
Whenever there is an enumerative exercise carried out by the government, agents of the state come to collect information from you. But in the case of Assam, there is Clause 4(A) of the Assam Accord. According to this clause, one has to go to the government and prove his/her citizenship. This is the trouble we chose for ourselves and we faced it.
Most of the locals don’t have their documents. We are not sincere about our documents. We don’t keep a pharmacy prescription either. So when documents from before 1951 and 1971 were asked for, everyone panicked. Due to this, the indigenous communities of Assam like the Gogois, Rabhas, etc. suffered.
In our petition to the Supreme Court, we stated that the tribes of Assam should be directly included in the NRC. But the apex court did not listen to us. The locals should not have had to face the burden of proving their citizenship.
Are their social and legal burdens of proving one’s citizenship in Assam?
Political parties have their own groups that have helped NRC applicants in the matters of law. The government and the NRC authority have also supported the people in every way possible. There is no doubt about the fact that a poor person cannot travel far off distances to tend to NRC matters.
However, for the safety of the people of Assam, for the safety of the country, we have to sacrifice a little. The NRC exercise is a sacrifice everyone has made for our land.
There is no mechanism for detention and deportation in the aftermath of the NRC. What are we going to do with the 41 lakh excluded off-the-lists?
In out petition, we have stated that there are 41 lakh illegal voters in the 2006 voter list. Whatever the final comes to be, we have said that upon detection as a foreigner, the person must be declared stateless. Their voting rights should be withdrawn. They can live here with work permits. But they will be regarded as second-class citizens.
We, the people of Assam, don’t work. Our survival is for easy money. We pick up guns. Then who are working in Assam? Most of the Bengali Muslim population, which allegedly includes a significant number of illegal immigrants, is the working class in Assam. As soon as they leave the state, we will face a big problem in terms of work culture. There will be no labourers, no rickshaw pullers, no vegetable vendors etc. Our petition has taken the social cost of exclusion into consideration.
The deportation treaty with Bangladesh is something the government has been working for a while, the outcomes of which is not very clear yet.
In the course of freeing Assam from illegal immigration, did the real guarantee of Assam Accord: protection of the locals, get sandwiched between politics, bureaucracy and the public?
This process is unable to identify indigenous Muslims of Assam from Bangladeshi Muslims. The NRC has mixed up one Ali from Bangladesh and one Ali from Assam. This is a serious issue. In out petition, we have written about these modalities. But we are unfortunate that the Supreme Court did not listen to us. The Congress government in 2009, when we submitted the petition, did not listen to us either.
In our petition, we have repeatedly stated that there should be a difference between a Bangladeshi Muslim and an Assamese Muslim. We suggested that all those indigenous to Assam should be assessed separately. The verification of their citizenship must not be mixed with those applicants who provide proves of documents from before 1971. This preliminary identification helps in distinguishing communities within the Muslim population. Messing this up is a dangerous sign for the future of Assam.
It has been 10 years since you filed the petition. Where does the NRC exercise stand today?
Being the petitioners of a landmark case, the last 10 years of the NRC hold a special significance in our lives. We don’t want these 10 years to go waste. But how conscious are we about it? Every wants the NRC, but is everyone concerned about getting it done in the right way? Where is the correct verification?
There is a Supreme Court observation dated August 28, 2018 on 10 per cent sample re-verification. That hasn’t discussed properly till now. A lot of illegal immigrants have been included in the NRC. Bangladeshis are working in the NRC offices across the state illegally.
Officials are taking bribe to register names in the NRC. Two officials in Guwahati were caught red-handed taking bribe. Unless and until this re-verification is completed, we don’t have a crystal clear NRC list.
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