History was made in Assam when Sarbananda Sonowal took oath as the state’s first BJP chief minister on May 24. The question now is whether history would repeat itself: In 1985, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta of the Asom Gana Parishad had come to power riding on the buoyant mood after the signing of the Assam Accord ended the agitation against illegal immigrants in the state. The accord, however, fell through a few months later. Whether Sonowal, too, would falter in finding a lasting solution to the illegal migration issue remains to be seen.
For his part, Sonowal has rekindled hopes of resolving the issue. Soon after taking charge as chief minister, he visited the office of the coordinator of the National Register of Citizens and called for speedy updating of the NRC database, which has never been updated since its creation in 1951 (see box).
Prateek Hajela, the state coordinator who is heading the mammoth exercise of updating the database, said the process involved scrutinising 68.23 lakh applications and more than 6.7 crore documents submitted by the people of Assam. The process of verifying applications is in itself a one-of-its-kind project. The difficulty of the task can be gauged from the fact that the number of applications is 7 per cent higher than the number of households in Assam as per the 2011 census.
“A large number of errors are likely to creep in before the final NRC is drafted,” Hajela told THE WEEK. “We have found erroneous applications, while, in other cases, some people have fled. Since we are going to build an accurate, digitised database, the degree of error has to come down to zero.”
Updating NRC has numerous challenges. Officials say the task is not just detecting illegal Bangladeshi migrants and their deportation, but also preventing the creation of a new set of ‘homeless’ people in the state. “Disenfranchisement, or taking away the right to vote of non-Indians in Assam, will be the first step,” said Hajela.
NRC would be updated to include the names of those persons (or their descendants) who appear in the 1951 database. Those who have admissible documents that show their presence in the state on or before the midnight of March 24, 1971 (the day before the Bangladesh liberation war started) will also be part of the new database.
“As per statutory provisions, once we identify the persons who are not part of the updated NRC, they will be part of the negative list,” said Hajela. “Anyone who figures on the negative list cannot be allowed to vote. Beyond that, whether they need to be deported… [would be decided by] the foreigners tribunal. Final decision rests with the appellate authority.”
In an RTI response to THE WEEK, the state government revealed that the verification of applications had already started and that “97.33 per cent of field verification and 61 per cent of office verification have already been done.” It said it would publish the draft NRC by August. The final NRC would be published two or three months later.
“Illegal migration is a serious issue,” Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary, minister of state for home, told THE WEEK. “It [updating NRC] has for long been hanging fire. Now it is under way and various agencies are involved in the process.”
Bijoya Chakravarty, the BJP MP from Guwahati, praised the Modi government for trying to tackle the migrant issue head on. “The Congress rule in Assam allowed the Bangladeshi people inside Indian territory, and it was during that time that Bangladeshi migrants spread in a way that the entire demography of Assam changed. It is the Congress vote bank. But now, several steps are being taken to seal the border, update the NRC and correct the voters list,” she said.
Government officials in Delhi, however, have questioned the haste being shown by the Centre in fulfilling its Assam promise, even as it is neglecting the real issue. “If NRC in Assam is being completed on a war footing, why is there no hurry to implement the National Register of Indian Citizens, aimed at identifying Indian citizens across the country by issuing them national identity cards?” asked an official. “Why is Assam being singled out?”
According to the official, Bangladeshi migrants who crossed over to other states to avoid deportation have ended up creating a category of homeless persons working and residing in India sans citizenship. “The problem of Bangladeshi migrants is not limited to Assam alone,” he said. “What is the mechanism to be followed in other states?
The National Register of Citizens, 1951, was prepared after the 1951 census, showing the houses (or holdings) in each village in a serial order and indicating against each house (or holding) the number and names of persons residing in it.
Updating NRC involves enlisting the names of those persons (or their descendants) whose names appear in the 1951 database, or any of the electoral rolls up to 1971.
The Assam government is currently verifying applications to enlist in the NRC; 97.33 per cent of field verification and 61 per cent of office verification have been completed.
Field verification involves door-to-door checking of applicants by verification teams in each district. Their findings are recorded in a form called the verification team report.
In office verification, supporting documents submitted by applicants are sent to issuing authorities for backend verification. Documents issued by other states are sent to the respective chief secretaries for verification.
The combined verification report will have the results of both field and office verifications. The next step is the publication of a draft NRC.
Draft NRC is due in July/August.
Final NRC to be published in September/October.