Unfinished task

BJP has several concerns to address before making any electoral gains from the NRC

India Citizens Or Illegal Migrants? Uncertain future: People collect forms to file appeals near an NRC centre in Guwahati | AP

ASSAM REMAINED SILENT, while the rest of India shouted itself hoarse about the exclusion of more than 40 lakh people from the draft National Register of Citizens. The political parties were the loudest. While the Trinamool Congress and the other opposition parties lambasted the BJP for using the NRC for electoral gains, the saffron party has already made it an issue in the Rajasthan assembly election.

In Assam, however, the BJP is in two minds. It did not expect the list to exclude so many Hindus. Himanta Biswa Sarma, health and finance minister, echoed the concern. “It’s a computer-generated figure,” he told THE WEEK. “Many people’s roots were not established in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal or Bhutan, or any other parts of India. So, their names did not figure in. Even many local Assamese people’s roots could not be established. Does that mean that we will brand them as foreigners?”

Not all of them, apparently. “No, I am not batting for 40 lakh people,” said Sarma. “I am neither in favour of them nor against them. Our endeavour is to trace the true foreigners in Assam as asked by the Supreme Court of India.”

The Supreme Court, however, was not impressed. It criticised the NRC officials—Registrar General Sailesh and NRC coordinator in Assam Prateek Hajela—for publishing the details before submitting it to the court. “Both of you committed contempt of court. Should we send you to the jail? You should both be punished,” said the division bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton Nariman.

Any correction in the list will be done according to the standard operating procedure laid down by the Supreme Court. “The NRC officials will investigate the cases of the people who did not find their place in the list. So the final list would change a lot,” said Sarma. He said Bengalis in Assam would be given priority. “I am very disturbed to see that some people in West Bengal are ill-informed,” he said.

Sarma can only blame his government for that—it allowed the issue to be politicised, as the crackdown on alleged illegal immigrants and the NRC survey went together. People started questioning the validity of the NRC, rather than the massive crackdown. Then the Election Commission joined the game, saying a large number of people could be doubtful voters.

“If you check the list thoroughly you would find that no doubtful voter made it to the NRC list,” said Aminul Islam, state secretary of the All India United Democratic Front. “The Election Commission can make someone a doubtful voter even if he changes residence. But how can you do that with the citizenship issue?”

While the NRC did not disclose any district-wise data, research by NGOs and civil organisations says the number of voters has come down significantly in ten Muslim-dominated districts in Assam. “Muslims from certain pockets in Assam have been targeted,” said AIUDF president Badruddin Ajmal. “I don’t know why they did it. But it’s the worst kind of human rights violation. If someone has entered Assam illegally then we would help the government to detect him. But what’s the point in harassing innocents?”

Take, for instance, Darrang. Around 60 per cent of the district’s population is Muslim. According to the figures by some NGOs, about three lakh people have been removed from the list—that is 30 per cent of the total Muslim population. In Nagaon, where Ajmal lives, around 55 per cent of the population is Muslim. More than six lakh people have been removed from the list here. “We are not afraid of being delisted in the NRC because we know we all would find place in the list one day. But it was disheartening that all these people have been made disputed voters before the NRC list was made. Their names were struck off the voters list,” said Hussein Ahmad Madani, executive member of Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti, a students’ organisation.

Madani, who also runs an NGO, said that in nine districts where Muslims were majority, they would become a minority, and in four districts they would become negligible. “That will clearly change the equation in ten of 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam,” he said.

Unofficial estimates say around 15 lakh non-Muslims did not make the cut in the draft NRC. Bengali Hindus are the biggest non-Muslim group in the list. Said Tapas Sen, a teacher in Silchar, “My name is there in the voters list, but it is missing from the NRC list. My legacy data is in West Bengal, as my parents and relatives stay there. But I have been staying with my brothers for decades in Silchar.”

BJP leader Bijoya Chakravarty, MP, blames the West Bengal government for the mess, saying that around 1.17 lakh Bengali names were sent to West Bengal for identification of their legacy in the state. “But only 20,000 replies came till date,” she said. “I am sorry to say that Mamata Banerjee did nothing for Bengalis, other than playing politics over the sentiments. Banerjee, however, said she had no information about the legacy list.

Though the Central government is pushing for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which seeks to make non-Muslim illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship, it is not acceptable to many pressure groups in Assam. Samujjal Bhattacharya, chief of the All Assam Students Union, which spearheaded the movement that led to the Assam Accord in 1985, said the AASU would not allow any dilution of the accord. “Assam Accord does not differentiate between Hindus and Muslims while deporting people. We will oppose the new citizenship amendment bill,” he said.

Former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who was a signatory in the Assam Accord, however, has a softer stand on the issue. He said it should be open for discussion. (See interview on page 26)

The controversy over the NRC is unlikely to die down soon. Sarma said he would leave the matter to the Central government. “Such a situation would arise after three to four years, I guess,” he said. “Of course, it is up to the central government to decide on the fate of these people.”