OPINION | Filing Papers, Travelling, Going for Verification: After Tedious NRC Task, Another Exercise is Betrayal to Assam
The NRC process was indeed largely fair and transparent, it was a scientific process. The process itself was not discriminatory against anyone, but there were room for discrimination as verification officers had arbitrary power.
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In last five years, NRC dominated every walk of life in Assam. A total of 3.29 crore residents of Assam applied for the citizenship register, 55,000 state govt employees worked for it. More than 1,600 crore of state exchequer money was spent, there is no empirical data on the amount of money the resident of Assam spent in the entire process of NRC, the number would be mind boggling. There was huge loss productivity for working class; it almost paralyzed a section of society. But NRC is not just about these numbers. It was about hope to get rid of a decade-long problem. It was also about fear of losing citizenship, so much that some even committed suicide.
NRC was a statutory and legal process mandated by the Supreme Court of India as per The Citizenship Act, 1955 and The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003. The entire exercise was very complex.
Searching for documents, filling up the application forms was not easy for common man. The verification process was even tedious. Applicants were called for verification multiple times to distant places. The final draft of the NRC published on 31st December 2017 excluded around 4 million people.
All had to file claims stating grounds why they should be included in the final NRC. There were again various rounds of verification, people had to travel with entire families to different districts, at least 4 people died because of accident while travelling for hearings in the last month alone before final list was published.
Along with claims there was also a provision to file objection against those whose names were included in the Final Draft of the NRC. Before the last day, only around 700 such objections were filed, but on the last day i.e. 31st December 2018 the number of objection increased to around 2 lakhs, but many suspect that the number of objections were way more than what was officially stated by the NRC authorities.
Most of these objections were filed by 30 organizations, led by AASU, targeting a particular community. Even children, old and ailing, and son of freedom fighter were not spared. To make things more worse, these hearings were in the month of fasting. This was the most difficult phase to travel with entire family to attend hearings.
After the publication of final draft of the NRC, the state unit of BJP, some vested interested groups and individuals started discrediting the NRC as it excluded “only 4 millions” people, way less than they propagated all these years.
Just because the reality didn’t match their propaganda, they refused to accept the NRC. With time it became clear that the Final NRC list would include most people who filed claims and against whom objections were filed. The clamour to discredit the NRC only grew stronger. Before the publication of the draft, anyone who spoke out against harassment and arbitrariness in the NRC process were branded as “anti NRC” and “anti Assam”. After its publication these very people started discrediting the NRC.
On 20th November, The Union Home Minister told the Rajya Sabha that, “the NRC process will be done across the country. At that time, in the natural course of events, the NRC will be redone in Assam.”
Immediately Himanta Biswa Sarma, the face of BJP in North East, told media that both the state unit of the party and the Assam government are of the opinion that the NRC prepared under the supervision of Supreme Court of India by State Coordinator Prateek Hajela in Assam has failed to fulfill the aspirations the people of Assam. He said, “we are of the view that the present NRC process should be scrapped and we should be part of the national NRC process.”
After the publication of Final List on 31st August 2019, it became clear that many genuine citizens have been excluded from the final list. Parents included/children excluded, half of the siblings included/other half excluded are a phenomenon. Despite excluding genuine citizens, unimaginable suffering and scores suicides and deaths, if this NRC has really failed to fulfill aspirations of some people then what exactly will it take to fulfill their aspirations?
Some prominent organizations have also stated that they are not satisfied with lesser exclusion, some ran a hashtag on social that they are “not satisfied” with “only” 1.9.million exclusions. What will it take to satisfy them? More suffering and humiliation of a section of society? In a Constitutional democracy, can the state violate fundamental rights of a group of people to satisfy and fulfill aspiration of other groups? To scrap the present NRC in Assam, the state will have to nullify orders of Supreme Court, which mandated the NRC process. The State will also have to betray the faith that people imposed on the Supreme Court-monitored NRC.
On 2nd September, 2019 The Ministry of External Affairs in a statement on NRC stated that, “Updating of NRC is a statutory, transparent, legal process mandated by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India...NRC is a fair process based on scientific methods...It is a non-discriminatory process, which leaves no room for bias and injustice.”
On 23rd August 2019, the permanent mission of India to the United Mission at Geneva in a statement also defended the NRC by stating that the “The entire process is comprehensive, fair, objective and inclusive.” If the government itself told the world that the NRC is fair, scientific, just and transparent; why exactly does it wants to scrap it and do it again?
The NRC process was indeed largely fair and transparent, it was a scientific process. The process itself was not discriminatory against anyone, but there were room for discrimination as verification officers had arbitrary power. In places where the Officers were biased and unfair, the exclusion rate is higher, it is apparent that the number of exclusion was deliberately inflated at the last moment. Many were excluded for minor variations in name and age.
But there is no doubt that the entire process was very stringent and harsh, it is exclusionary by its nature. NRC has the potential to exclude genuine citizens and render them stateless because of arbitrary powers of officers.
Despite the grave risk of losing citizenship there was widespread support for NRC by all section of society, including those who were always abused as “illegal migrant”. They derived their confidence from their documents, and thought that as the Supreme Court is monitoring the entire process, their documents will be appreciated judiciously unlike the arbitrary parallel process of “detection of illegal migrants” by Assam Border Police Organisation, Election Commission and Foreigners Tribunal.
They supported free and fair NRC as they wanted to get rid of decades of harassment and persecution in the name of illegal migrants, they wanted to get rid of this stigma of being perpetually treated as “foreigners” in their own country. They wanted a closure and live dignified life after the NRC. The news of another round of NRC and demand of scrapping of the recently published Final list is a betrayal of the faith people imposed on the Supreme Court and the rule of law.
(The author is a Guwahati-based Human Rights Lawyer. Views expressed are personal)
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