Amidst heightened security, the final National Register of Citizenship (NRC) in Assam is set to be made public on Saturday capping a four-year-old process, monitored by the Supreme Court, of weeding out ‘illegal immigrants’ from the state. Both the Indian and Assam governments have sought to calm anxieties of those who will be excluded from the final NRC that they will not automatically be declared foreigners and that people should not pay heed to rumours.
The administration in Assam stepped up security and issued orders banning large assemblies and use of public address systems in some areas considered prone to violence, including parts of Assam’s capital city Guwahati. The Indian government has rushed 20,000 additional paramilitary personnel to maintain law and order in Assam.
The NRC is crucial for Assam that borders Bangladesh and where migration has been a sensitive issue that had led to violence between ethnic groups in 1980s.
The process to update the register began following a Supreme Court order in 2013, with the state’s nearly 33 million people having to prove that they were Indian nationals prior to March 24, 1971.
A draft of the final NRC made public in July 2018 left out 4.1 million from among these applicants and another about one lakh people were added to the list of the excluded in June this year. The Indian Home Ministry had said last week that those out of the NRC would not automatically become foreigners and “every individual left out of can appeal to the Foreigners Tribunals.”
On August 20, the Home Ministry extended the deadline to appeal against exclusion from the NRC from 60 to 120 days and that the government will help the poor among the excluded with legal assistance to fight their cases. Those left out of the NRC will be able to present their cases before the Foreigners Tribunal. The state government has said those left out of the NRC will not be detained under any circumstances until the Tribunal declares them foreigners.
The Home Ministry has set up at least 1,000 Foreigners’ Tribunals to hear disputed cases. If one loses the case in the Tribunal, one can approach the High Court and then the Supreme Court. No one will be sent to detention centres until all legal options are exhausted, the government has said. However, despite the assurances, there is palpable anxiety among those who would be excluded that they will be left stateless, especially Muslim applicants since the government separately plans a law to give citizenship to people belonging to other religions which are minorities in Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The final NRC is expected to show the status of the people who were left out in the draft final NRC released in July last year. Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had on August 19 indicated that the state government could explore legislative options to deal with “wrongful” exclusion and inclusion of some names after publication of the final NRC.
Major political parties in Assam, including ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), opposition Congress and All India United Democratic Front, have expressed fears that names of many genuine Indian citizens might be left out while those of the illegal foreigners may be included. In fact, the BJP has been the most vociferous about the “irregularities and errors” in the NRC and had moved the Supreme Court with a demand for re-verification of 20 per cent of the names included in districts bordering Bangladesh and ten percent in other areas. But the apex court rejected the plea in July.
However, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which had waged a long and violent street agitation against illegal immigrants in 1970s and 1980s, supported the NRC. “It is a legal process being monitored by the Supreme Court to ensure the publication of an illegal foreigners-free register and we have full faith it is going to be free and fair,” AASU chief advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya has said.
Assam is the only Indian state which has NRC introduced way back in 1951. The overriding concern is over the future of the status of those kept out of the final NRC , their rights and if they would be incarcerated in the detention centres.