The Assam Registry or the National Registry of Citizens for Assam (NRC) is a compilation of all bona fide citizens of India. It is a list created in Assam to distinguish between the citizens of Indian and those foreign nationals who have immigrated to Assam. The NRC was initially created in 1951, and was long due for an update. In 2014, the Supreme Court prompted an updation of the registry in accordance with the Assam Accord. The second draft of the Assam registry was released on the 31st of July 2018. This list decides who is and who is not a legitimate citizen of India.
History of the Registry
A great many immigrants have been entering India through the Northeastern states since the 20th century. Being a strip of Indian land surrounded by neighbouring countries, Assam’s indigenous population has now been turned into a minority.
In 1978, a by-election was conducted in Assam after the death of their previous Chief Minister. At this elections, observers noticed a huge increase in the voters list in each of the districts. This lead to huge agitations claiming that there were large numbers of illegal immigrants, especially Bangladeshis settled in Assam who have been receiving the rights of citizenship, such as voting. Much agitations among the indigenous populations in Assam lead to huge insurgencies in the state.
Led by the All Assam Students Union and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad, the Assam Movement shook the state. They demanded that the government take census of all legitimate Indian citizens in Assam, and make a list of all illegal immigrants, mostly Bangladeshis, in order to separate them in terms and in rights. They demanded that these immigrants be identified and deported from the country. They were seen as a threat over populating and over powering the indigenous Assamese people. Though most of these protests were nonviolent in nature, the Nellie massacre in 1983 where more than 2000 of Bangladeshi immigrants were massacred over a 6 hour period was an instance of extreme violence.
After this, the Rajiv Gandhi government signed the Assam Accord with the two leading groups of the Assam agitations in 1985. Though this Accord did not agree to the expulsion of the immigrants, it promised to weed them out of the voters list, thus stripping them of their ultimate and most powerful right as a citizen.
Nothing of significance happened for decades until in 2014 the Supreme Court ordered the NRC to be prepared and created a timeline for it. The first was released on 1st January 2018, the second draft of the 31st July 2018 and the final list is set to be published on Independence Day, August 15th, 2018.
The Disputed Base Year
One of the biggest points of contention in building such a list was to decide which year must be used as the base year. From what point in history onwards should incomers be considered illegal? According to the Assam Accord, all those who entered the country between 1951 to 1961 would be given full citizenship, where as those who entered between 1961 to 1971 would be given other rights, but the right to vote, which would reevaluated in a period of 10 years. All others would be deported. After the Supreme Court directive, the Assamese government lead by Tarun Gogoi of the Congress party fixed the base date at midnight, 24th March, 1971. All those who entered after this date would be rendered illegal.
However, there is a huge mismatch between the base year of the NRC and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which promises citizenship for all Hindus entering Indian within 6 years of naturalisation. This bill, championed by the BJP, completely undermines the base year set by Gogoi. A year later, when BJP gained power in Assam, they attempted to change the base year from 1971 to 2014 for special cases, as pertaining to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2016. In such case, all Hindus, despite their illegitimacy, would be excluded from the consequences of the NRC.
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This then divided the citizenship of India along religious lines. The Bill recognized Hindus as Indian without question, whatever their ethnicity or nationality, while Muslims and non-Hindus had to work to prove their nationality.
The Missing Names
3.29 crore people applied to include their names on the Registry. Of this a total of 1.39 crore applicants found their names missing from the list when the second draft was released. These were the people who had submitted all proofs of verification and legitimacy of having been an Indian since before 1971. Many discrepancies and mistakes have been spotted, where several individuals from the same family, with the same legitimising documents have been missing from the list, though others from the same family had been included. Several important names of political party members and government officials too have been found missing from the list.
The promise of an accurate list has clearly not been fulfilled. This has left many Assamese who have lived their entire life in this country insecure about their future and their present. If the final list, to be released on the Independence Day does not include their names, will they be deported? If they are, will these new countries accept them? Would clerical errors and administrative mistakes create a huge demographic of stateless population?
The Assam Registry is touted by some as a much-needed count of the refugees in the country, but is poorly veiled symbol of India’s xenophobia. There is not much information as to what the government will be doing with those deemed illegal in the country they have lived in for generations.
Though two thirds of the process has been completed without the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, what would be the changes made to the NRC if it was approved? India becoming a refuge for all neighbouring Hindus would undermine the integrity of the NRC completely, dividing it on the basis of religion. Since most of the targeted immigrants are the Bangladeshi Muslims, this would further endanger them.
This would strengthen the narrative that India is a state for Hindus – where all others must prove their nationality and patriotism, whether by publishing their names in the NRC or by converting. In the time where we condemn America’s zero tolerance policy towards refugees, we must look at what our response has been to those who need refuge.
India, more than any other nation knows that it is our diversity that unites us and makes us stronger. By rejecting immigrants who have lived for generations in these lands, or by selecting immigrants based on their religion would contradict our long history of inclusivity and respect.
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Featured Image Credit: Deccan Chronicle