New Delhi: Nineteen months after the final updated version of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published in Assam, the Ministry of Home Affairs has instructed the state government to “immediately” issue rejection slips to applicants who had failed to enter their names in the residents’ list.
As per an earlier MHA notification, the time limit granted to an applicant to respond to the rejection slip was increased from 60 days to 120 days. The rejected applicant, on receiving the slips, will have to prove their case at the Foreigners’ Tribunals, the quasi-judicial bodies in existence in Assam to decide on a person’s citizenship status. Those rejected by the Tribunals can approach the higher courts.
The latest MHA instruction to the state government has come in the middle of a three-phase assembly election. With the citizenship of over 19 lakh residents of the state bordering Bangladesh clouded in uncertainty since August 2019, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sunil Arora had, however, clarified in January that those outside of the citizenship register would be able to cast their votes in the assembly polls if their names are there in the voters’ list.
The manifesto of the ruling BJP for the Assam polls, released by party national president J.P. Nadda last week in Guwahati, had categorically promised a ‘corrected NRC’ if elected to power.
The BJP had rejected the present NRC which, as per their senior party leaders, comprises more of Bengali Hindus than Muslims of Bengali origin, though the applications for the updated NRC hadn’t sought the religion of the applicants. Several BJP leaders have publicly stated that only Muslims of Bengali origin in Assam are the ‘illegal immigrants’.
The BJP has a strong voter base within the Bengali Hindus of the state. While the party has brought in the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to grant Indian citizenship to the non-Muslim citizens of Bangladesh residing in the state and elsewhere in India, thus raising hope among the Bengali Hindus left out of the NRC, that those who had applied to be part of the official list by supplying documents supporting their entry into Assam prior to formation of Bangladesh, has made the matter complicated. As per an exclusive citizenship cut-off date for Assam, anyone who had entered the state by March 24, 1971, which meant prior to the formation of Bangladesh, can claim Indian citizenship.
While the process after the final NRC was published in 2019 had slowed down, the MHA’s letter issued to the state government on March 23 shows that the Narendra Modi government is proceeding towards completing the process of the present updated NRC monitored by the Supreme Court. As per a news report in The Hindu, the letter issued to Assam chief secretary S.R. Bhuyan by the office of the Registrar General of India under the ministry had said, “In a meeting held under the chairmanship of the Union Home Secretary on February 22, 2020 it was decided that the rejection slip for the cases which are correct may be issued to the persons left out of the supplementary list of inclusion and exclusion immediately and cases where mismatch in results recorded in hard copy and entered in computer has been found by the SCNR [State coordinator, National Registration] may be referred to the concerned deputy commissioners for clarifications.”
According to the news report, the letter, written by joint director at the office of the RGI Jaspal Singh, had said that the NRC coordination committee, in the meetings held on January 30, 2020 and July 2, 2020, “has been insisting” to “complete the activities within the limit of approved budget of Rs 1602 crore”. In the July 2 meeting, the state coordinator of the NRC had stated that the rejection slips would be issued to the applicants by December 2020.
The RGI’s office has also asked the state government to not only evaluate the software used for managing the register but also instructed it to “discontinue the ones not required”.
“The letter said the state government’s requirement of Rs 3.22 crore per month for the upkeep of records appeared to be ‘too high’ and also asked to discontinue the additional staff.”
Soon after the updated NRC was published, the MHA had clarified that mere exclusion of an applicant’s name from the NRC – so far exclusive to the state of Assam – wouldn’t mean denial of Indian citizenship.
As many as 3.29 crore residents of the northeastern state had applied to be included in the NRC which was updated for the first time after 1951. When the final updated NRC was made public by the RGI in Guwahati, as many as 19, 06,657 people were left out of the official record.