NE Dispatch: Disagreements Over NRC Continue; Trouble for Congress in Mizoram, Meghalaya

A round-up of what’s happening in India’s Northeast.

Assam: NRC state coordinator’s proposal to SC to remove five of the 15 documents to prove citizenship of those left out of final draft irks state BJP

Even as the BJP national president Amit Shah is fast making the ongoing update process of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam a political tool to communally polarise voters in the run-up to the crucial 2019 elections, the party’s state unit has officially expressed its apprehensions on the fate of the applicants left out of the final draft.

As many as 40,07,007 out of 3.91 crore applicants were left out of the final draft, published by the Registrar General of India (RGI) in Guwahati on July 30. While the district-wise percentage of those left out has not been made public by the RGI and state coordinator Prateek Hajela has only submitted it to the Supreme Court in a sealed envelope on demand, BJP leaders of Assam, after the initial euphoria, have since maintained a studied silence officially on the issue.

Following up on a local media estimate of district-wise percentage of applicants left out of the final draft on August 3, The Wire reported on August 5 that a large number of those 40 lakh people must be from the Hindu community, as against Shah’s vociferous projection before the national media. As per the 2011 Census, Assam has nine Muslim-majority districts. However, the rough estimate broadcast by the Guwahati-based news channel Pratidin Time showed that only five of those districts featured among the top 16 districts with the largest number of applicants kept out of the final draft, a possible reason behind the state BJP unit’s cautious approach to the NRC final draft.

BJP Assam chief Ranjit Kumar Das. Credit: Twitter

The September 13 Guwahati press conference held by state BJP chief Ranjit Kumar Das confirmed this. Das lashed out at Hajela for submitting to the apex court, monitoring the update process, a suggestion on September 6 to drop five of the 15 documents from the list to be fixed for those left out of the draft to prove their citizenship during the claims process.

“Who gave him the authority to do this? Did he talk to stakeholders?” Das asked. He claimed that even chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal had “no knowledge” about it and was surprised by Hajela’s submission to the apex court. “Hajela is being self contradictory…the dropping of five documents is not justified, it is injustice,” he reportedly said.

Das felt the exclusion of the five key documents would make things difficult for the “genuine Indian citizens”, who are not in the final draft NRC in “lakhs” to prove their citizenship. Das and Sonowal also raised the issue both with Union home minister Rajnath Singh and party national president Amit Shah at the recent BJP national executive meeting in Delhi, besides sending a letter to Hajela objecting his suggestion.

On September 6, Hajela submitted to the Supreme Court that five documents – the 1951 NRC, electoral rolls up to March 1971, refugee certificate, migration certificate and ration cards – should not be included in the list of papers allowed for applicants filling up claims forms for their inclusion in the final NRC. The court thereafter asked all stakeholders to submit their thoughts on the suggestion.

Though at the behest of the BJP government in the state, the Centre, through the Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, submitted to the bench comprising Justices Ranjan Gogoi and R.F. Nariman that “the government is extremely interested” in knowing the contents of the report submitted by Hajela and sought access to it to “balance the interest of all stakeholders”, the court refused.

“At this stage we are of the view that what we have indicated in our order is sufficient,” the court said, asking all stakeholders to respond to Hajela’s suggestion within two weeks.

Not just the BJP, the state unit of the Congress too has expressed apprehension at Hajela’s suggestion. In a statement issued to local media early this week, Congress leader Debabrata Saikia said there “is a malafide motive” behind Hajela’s suggestion.

As per local news reports, the 40 lakh people left out of the final draft NRC includes a large number of Bengali Hindus besides Nepalis, Hindi speakers and people belonging to various tribes. Many among them are said to be BJP voters.

Meanwhile, Upamanyu Hazarika, a Supreme Court lawyer and head of Prabajan Virodhi Manch, an organisation batting for implementation of “constitutional safeguards” to the people of Assam as per the 1951 NRC, has written to the RGI on August 26 alleging “discrepancies” in the enumeration process of the NRC. On September 7, the RGI wrote to Hajela seeking a report on the allegations “on priority”.

The claims and objections process concerning the 40 lakh people, which was to begin on September 6, has since been deferred by the Supreme Court till the standard operating procedure is decided upon.

The next hearing is slated for September 19.

Meghalaya/Mizoram: Two senior Congress leaders quit party, posts

In a span of 24 hours, the Congress in the Northeast has received a considerable jolt after a senior leader from Meghalaya quit the party and another is most likely to follow in poll-bound Mizoram.

While veteran Congressman and four time chief minister of Meghalaya, D.D. Lapang, quit the party on September 13 in a letter addressed to party president Rahul Gandhi expressing displeasure at the party high command “ignoring seniors and elderly” leaders for young blood, Lalzirliana, the home minister in the Lal Thanhawla government in Mizoram and state party vice president, has quit the cabinet and will most likely leave the party too.

Lapang, who till December 2017 was the head of the Meghalaya Pradesh Congress Committee, had to step down after five party MLAs switched over to the National People’s Party (NPP) prior to the crucial assembly elections held early this year. The action taken by the party reportedly didn’t go down well with Lapang. A visit to 84-year-old Lapang made by Congress president Rahul Gandhi at the Meghalaya House in Delhi days before the polls had somewhat calmed the situation and stopped him from quitting the party before voting.

D.D. Lapang. Credit: PTI

Though Lapang hasn’t yet spoken publicly about joining any other party, state chief minister and NPP chief Conrad Sangma has said that the doors of his party are open for him.

Meanwhile, Lalzirliani, in a letter sent to the Mizoram chief minister on September 14, said he has put in his papers for not being able to fulfil the people’s demand for making the Saitual areas of the state a district, which falls within his constituency, Tawi, near Aizawl. Both Lal Thanhawla and Rahul Gandhi reportedly promised to make Saitual a district. Lalzirliana has been representing the constituency since 1998.

Speaking to local reporters, Lalzirliana said, “I have quit from the state cabinet and not from the party.”

However, news is abuzz in Aizawl that Lalzirliani is likely to join the main opposition party, Mizo National Front (MNF), an ally of the BJP. Former state chief minister and MNF chief Zoramthanga has told the local media that he has had a few round of talks with him already about joining the party. After some unconfirmed reports spread in the last few days that Lalzirliana was listed as one of MNF’s candidates for the coming assembly polls, the disciplinary committee of the state Congress issued a show cause notice to him on September 12 seeking an explanation, which Lalzirliani said had “pained” him. The notice asked him to respond to it before 3 pm on September 14. However, the home minister chose to resign from his post and not appear before the committee, stating to reporters, “I no longer need to meet the disciplinary committee as I am no longer the home minister.”

Political observers in the state are of the opinion that he would lose his seat if he quit the party on his own and if the Congress expels him from the party instead, which it is likely to do, then he can join any other party.

Mizoram is going to polls this year end.

Assam: Gauhati high court terms commission looking into allegations of extra-judicial killings during AGP govt “unconstitutional”

The Gauhati high court has called the K.N. Saikia Commission, instituted by the former Tarun Gogoi government to probe allegations of extra-judicial killing of many family members of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) during the Prafulla Mahanta government between 1996 and 2001, “unconstitutional”.

The Saikia Commission, which submitted its report in August 2007 – two years after it was set up by the Congress government – indicted, for the first time, the Mahanta regime, particularly its home ministry headed by the chief minister, in the killings, for which none till date have been punished. Stating the motive behind the killings, the Commission’s report, which was tabled in the state assembly in November 2007, said that it was the “perpetuation of the AGP rule by villainy, treachery and monstrous cruelty and dangerous propensity”.

The decision to form the commission was due to the hue and cry in the state over what was termed as ‘secret killings’ and became the prime reason for the voters’ rejection of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in the 2001 assembly elections.

AGP leader and former Assam chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Prior to the Saikia Commission, three other commissions were set up, one of them during the Mahanta government. While the first commission was headed by retired Gauhati high court judge Safiful Haque, the second one was by former Gauhati high court chief justice Meera Sarma. She, though, failed to submit a report and abruptly resigned from the commission two years later owing “personal reasons”. Yet another commission was instituted thereafter, headed by yet another retired judge J.N. Sarma, who put up an interim report in 2005. The interim report failed to clamp responsibility on anyone for the brutal killings that took place between 1996 and 2001.

Three weeks after the submission of the Sarma report, the Congress government set up the Saikia Commission, which gave enough hints to suggest the involvement of the state police under Mahanta in collusion with some surrendered members of the armed outfit in gunning down the family members of some of the top leaders of ULFA fighting the state. It said no chargesheet was filed in any of the cases. A book titled Secret Killings of Assam, penned by three journalists in 2008, said the killings would take place in the dead of night. The standard modus operandi would be that prior to and after the killings, the police would patrol the spots of the murders. One such target miraculously survived an attempt on his life and related his story to the press, creating a huge sensation in the state.

In the run-up to the assembly elections, Gogoi’s campaign had promised voters he would bring the killers to book. The government had also tabled the interim report of the J.N. Sarma Commission in the assembly along with the Saikia commission report.

However, on September 3, the high court, hearing the petition filed by Mahanta in 2008 challenging the formation of the Saikia Commission, said it was set up by violating various sections of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952. The court said the Saikia Commission was formed even though the Sarma Commission was yet to be formally disbanded through a formal gazette notification, in violation of Section 3 of the Act. It also pointed out that while the Gogoi government first gave 11 cases to the commission to probe, it thereafter expanded its scope by stating that would probe all other killings of similar nature, which was a violation of Section 7 of the Act.

Though the high court has termed the Saikia Commission illegal for violating the Act and has not gone into the veracity of the report, the judgement has come as a huge relief to Mahanta to counter allegations of his government’s involvement in the killings from his political opponents.

Justice Saikia passed away in December 2016.

Manipur: KNO chief threatens to “go back to jungles” if the Centre fails to respond to its demands in the next round of peace talks

The Kuki National Organisation (KNO), one of the two umbrella groups of armed outfits demanding political rights for the various Kuki tribes residing in Manipur’s Churachandpur area, has threatened to “go back to the jungles” if the Central government fails to respond to its demands in the next round of peace talks.

Since 2016, the KNO, along with United People’s Front (UPF), another umbrella group of Kuki-Zomi militant outfits of the region, have been in talks with the Narendra Modi government on their demands for granting more political rights to the Kukis. While the KNO’s original demand was for a “separate Kuki state”, the two umbrella groups have now shown interest in having an autonomous territorial council for the Kuki-Zomi tribes on the lines of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) in Assam. While the talks began in New Delhi in June 2016 with former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief Dineshwar Sharma as the Centre’s interlocutor, he was replaced by A.B. Mathur in October last year after Sharma was named the government’s interlocutor for Kashmir. Recently, Mathur visited Churachandpur for the first time as the Centre’s interlocutor to meet a number of people and discuss the KNO and UPF’s demands.

The KNO and UPF have been under suspension of operations (SOO) since August 2005 after a truce agreement was signed with the Manipur and Central governments. On August 18, the time of the agreement with both the umbrella groups was extended up to August 17, 2019.

On September 13, speaking at a function in Churachandpur to mark the 25th anniversary of “Kuki Black day” at Kuki Inpi, the community’s highest body, KNO president K.S. Haokip said, “We will not hesitate to go back to the jungle if no concrete response is received from the government of India regarding our demands in the next round of peace talks.” He said the KNO, in the last round of talks in Delhi, had submitted a “45-point charter of demands” to the Central government besides adding that the organisation still supported the original demand of formation of a separate state for the Kukis even though idea of a territorial council was discussed in the talks.

Many civil society organisations urged both KNO and UPF to “stand firm” on their demand for a Kuki state in 2017. The Kuki National Assembly, a community pressure group, reportedly had submitted a memorandum way back in 1964 to the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru demanding a Kuki state.

Unlike earlier years, the Kukis observed the annual ‘Black Day’, held to remember those allegedly killed by the NSCN (Isac-Muivah) during 1992-1997, for three days this year. Haokip reportedly told the large crowd that assembled at the function held in the Kuki Inpi office campus at Churachandpur’s Tuibong area, “Government of India was considering their (NSCN -IM)’s demands. At this stage, why should Centre not come up with a positive response on our demands.” He also expressed anger at the government not paying compensation to the victims of the 1990s attack.