New Delhi: When Union home minister Amit Shah declared that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise would be conducted across the country, he issued another significant statement. Assam, where the updated NRC was released on August 31, will also have another round of the exercise.
This is despite the fact that the protracted exercise cost Rs 1,600 crore of taxpayer money to be completed in the northeastern border state.
Although there is no formal communication, news reports quoted Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma as saying that the Assam government has asked the Centre to reject the recently updated NRC. Shah’s remarks on the floor of the parliament must then be read as the Narendra Modi government’s approval to Assam’s request.
How does one read these developments?
Legally speaking, it is not clear if the Centre has the power to conduct another round of NRC in Assam. On August 13, then-Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi categorically stated that the update of the NRC in the state would depend on the decision of a constitution bench, to which at least 13 questions have been set aside by the apex court.
The court had said:
“We make it clear that subject to orders as may be passed by the Constitution Bench in Writ Petition (C) No.562 of 2012 and Writ Petition (C) No.311 of 2015, National Register of Citizens (NRC) will be updated.”
Among the questions that the larger bench will have to decide is the validity of March 24, 1971 as the exclusive cut-off date in Assam for citizenship. If that bench, still unconstituted, passes an order for or against Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, exclusive to Assam, the apex court has stated that the present NRC will be updated.
From a judicial standpoint, it appears the Centre cannot bypass that order.
Not a bombshell
Then, should one read Shah’s announcement from a political viewpoint?
I would say yes. For those following the BJP’s reaction – both in Assam and at the national level – to the updated NRC, Shah’s declaration in the Rajya Sabha on November 20 will not come as a bombshell. In fact, Sarma, BJP’s go-to man in the northeast, endorsed Shah’s statement on Twitter, vindicating the latest stand taken by the state BJP on the updated NRC.
The Assam #NationalRegisterofCitizens has failed to address aspirations of people and therefore should be scrapped.
— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) November 21, 2019
The real reason behind the party’s rejection of the updated NRC likely has a lot to do with the Hindu Bengali community, a large number of whom were excluded. The Sarbananda Sonowal government has failed to offer any relief to the community, which has been a vote bank for the BJP in both the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys of the state. A large chunk has been loyal to the BJP since the 1990s. It was their support that propelled the party into the Assam assembly in 1991.
The majority Assamese community traditionally had an indifferent attitude towards the BJP. Though top leaders of the saffron party like Atal Bihari Vajpayee were deeply involved in the negotiations between the anti-foreigner agitation leaders and New Delhi in the early 1980s, the Assamese people rejected the BJP and instead voted for the AGP in the 1985 elections. Most BJP candidates lost their deposits in that election. Assamese voters also rejected iconic musician Bhupen Hazarika when he contested the elections from Guwahati on a BJP ticket.
Even before the updated NRC was released, BJP’s Hindu Bengali legislators like Shiladitya Deb from Hojai were vocal about the possible exclusion of a large number of people from the community. He was concerned that Hindu Bengali voters in various assembly constituencies where the BJP had won in 2016, including his own, would be excluded in the final draft. Deb told the local media repeatedly that they would most likely be excluded from the final NRC too. But the state BJP skirted the issue then, claiming that it was Deb’s personal comment.
The party did so simply because of its need to align with majoritarian politics. A large number of Assamese and other tribes in the plains had faith that the Supreme Court would deliver a ‘correct’ (xuddha) NRC.
The BJP couldn’t put its weight behind Deb’s stand then, lest it be perceived as a party backing only Hindu Bengalis. In the eyes of the Assamese, ‘illegal Bangladeshis’, irrespective of religion, had to be identified and deported. Naturally, the Assamese community reacted sharply to Deb’s pronouncements.
It was not lost on the BJP that after years of toil, it had finally gotten a foothold in the Assamese heartland. In the 2016 assembly polls, it won a large number of seats in the Brahmaputra valley. The party couldn’t risk toppling the applecart.
When the final NRC was released on August 31, the number of those excluded dropped to nearly 20 lakh. This was less than half of the more than 40 lakh who were excluded in the final draft, released in July 2018.
Many pro-NRC civil society groups like the All Assam Students Union (AASU), Assam Public Works, Prabajan Virodhi Manch began expressing doubts on the accuracy of the NRC update process. Most demanded a re-check in districts with large Bengali speaking population or people of East Bengal origin. The opinion that many must have slipped into the document with ‘fake documents’ began to be bandied about by these groups.
BJP sees an opportunity
Hindu Bengali groups in the state claimed that most of those who had been excluded from the final NRC belonged to their community. This was a view echoed by Nepali organisations, another community which votes heavily in favour of the BJP in the state. These developments helped fortify the narrative that only the Muslims of East Bengal origin “benefitted” from the NRC process.
It gave the BJP the leeway that it needed to reject the updated NRC. No wonder then, Sarma in a response to his tweet on November 21, said, “Many names have been wrongly included too”.
Many names have been wrongly included too https://t.co/EBlxBcm8s1
— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) November 21, 2019
Attempts were also made to malign NRC state coordinator Prateek Hajela. The party’s state unit insinuated that Hajela “facilitated” the inclusion of ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ (read Muslims) in the final document.
Curiously, the Supreme Court, on October 18, relieved him of his NRC duty and transferred him out of the state, citing ‘threat perceptions’. Sources close to Hajela told this correspondent that he himself sought to be transferred to his home state of Madhya Pradesh. On November 10, Hitesh Dev Sharma was named as Hajela’s replacement, but news reports said he hadn’t joined yet.
And, herein lies the finer point behind the Assam government’s rejection of the NRC and how it will help push further the party’s political game in the state. One clear advantage is that it will give the state government the ability to buy time, which it desperately needs.
Those who have been left out of the final NRC – Hindus and Muslims – are for all practical purposes, suspected foreigners. The rules dictate that within 120 days of receiving the rejection slip from the authorities, those excluded are to approach the Foreigners’ Tribunal to appeal and decide their citizenship status. The period was extended from 60 days to 120 days by Amit Shah, just before the final NRC was published.
Reports suggest that the authorities are yet to issue rejection slips. But the government can only stall that for so long. Once the slips are issued, the tribunal process will soon begin, again for both Hindus and Muslims.
By rejecting the updated NRC, the state government and the BJP want to help avoid those Hindu Bengalis who have been excluded going through the tribunal process.
In September, Nepali organisations had declared that members of the community who have been excluded from the final NRC wouldn’t approach the tribunals. They cited various India-Nepal treaties and a 2018 executive order from the Ministry of Home Affairs recommending their exemption from the tribunals as relief. A Gauhati high court order in favour of the community prevents the state border police from declaring them as D or doubtful voters.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill
However, there is no such cushion for Hindu Bengalis who have been excluded from the final NRC. The only straw they have been holding on to is the amendment promised by the BJP to the Citizenship Act to provide relief to Hindus from Bangladesh.
The Assam government’s rejection of the NRC has meant a delay in starting the tribunal process. This will give the Modi government time to try and pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the ongoing parliament session.
It is crucial for the Hindu Bengalis to avoid going through the tribunal process. This is because, if the Amendment Bill is passed after they approach the tribunals, granting them relieft may not be smooth. The same lot of people, having applied for inclusion in the NRC on the ground that they had settled in the state before Bangladesh was created, will then have to officially state that they came to Assam due to religious persecution in that country.
That would also raise another question: Were the documents they supplied to the NRC authorities ‘fake’?
It is within these paradigms that Shah’s political message, sent from the floor of parliament to the Hindu Bengalis of Assam, must be placed. Though, only time can tell whether he will be able to smooth-land those Hindu Bengalis, currently excluded from the NRC, from the realm of ‘suspected foreigners’ to Indian citizens.
Shah’s statement may also serve a second purpose. It is possible for the BJP to shape the narrative – held by many among the majority Assamese voters and peddled by Sarma on Twitter – that “many names have been wrongly included too” in its favour.