New Delhi: Hours after the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published by the Registrar General of India in Assam, disappointment and displeasure reigned supreme across the entire political spectrum in the state.
Civil society groups and student bodies closely associated with the decision to revise the citizens’ register and filter Indian citizens residing in the state from immigrants who are supposed to have illegally crossed over from neighbouring Bangladesh, were, simply put, unhappy.
Barely an hour after the NRC authorities uploaded the supplementary list of inclusions and exclusions on August 31 as per a Supreme Court order, the main petitioners in the apex court, Assam Public Works (APW), expressed their unhappiness with it.
Aabhijeet Sarma, president of APW, the Guwahati-based civil society organisation, told The Wire, “In 2009, we approached the Supreme Court to solve this burning problem of Assam. It accepted our case. In the 2006 voter list, there were 41 lakh extra names. We urged the court to help us delete those names so that Indians can vote for Indians in Assam. Then the apex court suggested that the NRC be updated and the process was on since then.”
“On July 30, 2018, the final draft was released. On August 24, 2018, we requested the Supreme Court to do a 10% re-verification of all the districts because we suspected that names of various illegal immigrants had been included in it. We then filed five petitions at the court till August 1, 2019 seeking re-verification of the names in the final draft. But the state coordinator for NRC told the court that there was no need for it because he had done 27% re-verification already. The result of it is in front of us today.”
Sarma is clearly disappointed with the figure of 19,06,067, the number of people left out of the final NRC. He rolled out figures on the population excluded in the four districts of the state bordering Bangladesh to illustrate why APW would appeal to the court yet again for “100% re-verification” as it strongly felt “it [the list] has anomalies”.
“In the Cachar district, the state coordinator had done 29% re-verification. As many as 5,464 people were left out of the final NRC because of it. I demand to know that if the rest 71% was re-verified, how much would have been the figure of exclusion in that district? In the Dhubri district, 38% re-verification was done. As many as 4,096 people were excluded. What would have been the figure if 100% re-verification was conducted?”
In Karimganj district, Sarma said, 25% names were re-verified. “Out of them, 3,980 names were excluded in the district because of the process.” In South Salmara, the re-verification percentage stood at 41. “Due to that, 1,646 people were excluded from the final list.”
He said, “We also demand an audit of Rs 1,600 crores that was spent on the entire process.”
‘Unhappy with number’
Later in the day, facing local media at Swahid Bhavan, the headquarters of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the entire top leadership of the student body that spearheaded the anti-foreigner agitation between 1979-85, too presented the picture of a dejected lot.
Samujjal Bhattacharya, advisor to AASU, told this correspondent, “We concede that under the supervision of the Supreme Court, for the first time since the Assam Accord was signed in 1985, a serious effort was made to find illegal immigrants and spell out who is a citizen. But we are unhappy with the number we saw today.”
The former AASU general secretary said, “It is not that we were chasing a number. But since the past many years, various governments have been quoting figures of immigrants residing illegally in the state. The number we see today is nowhere near those numbers. But we still have trust in the apex court. So we plan to appeal to the court to give it a re-look.”
AASU too had petitioned the court on the NRC issue and is a party to it.
- In May 1997, former Union home minister Inderjit Gupta had told parliament that there were 10 million undocumented immigrants in India.
- In July 2004, former Union home minister Sriprakash Jaiswal told the Rajya Sabha that their were 12 million such immigrants in the country.
- In 2016, former Union home minister Kiren Rijiju told the Rajya Sabha that the figure was 20 million.
Bhattacharjee was admittedly referring to these numbers. AASU also often refers to the report of former state governor S.K. Sinha to the government in 1998, in which it is claimed that there are 50 lakh undocumented immigrants residing in the state.
In 2005, it was AASU which entered into a tripartite agreement with the then Tarun Gogoi government in the state and the Manmohan Singh government at the Centre to update the NRC, exclusively prepared for the state in 1951, as per the citizenship cut-off date set for Assam – March 24, 1971 – settled by the Assam Accord.
The Supreme Court, responding to the APW petition in 2009, agreed to use the NRC as the tool for sieving citizens from non-citizens because the process was set in motion already through a tripartite agreement between AASU and the government.
‘Names of genuine citizens missing’
In another part of the city, at the headquarters of the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU), the leaders told local reporters that they too were disappointed with the final NRC. AAMSU, together with AASU and the Assam government, had arrived at a consensus to update the NRC and were consulted by the state government to fix the modalities for its update, which were later approved by the apex court.
“Since morning, all the organisations have been talking about how many illegal immigrants were included in the final list. But the NRC was not to find illegal immigrants but to ensure that genuine citizens find their name in the list. We have been getting so many calls and messages from genuine citizens saying that their names are missing. So we are unhappy,” Azizur Rahman, adviser, AAMSU, told The Wire.
He said, “We hear that people are quoting various numbers said by ministers earlier about illegal immigrants residing in India. But those numbers had no scientific basis. Those were mere political statements. If Governor Sinha’s report is quoted, it should also be mentioned that he claimed in his report that everyday, 6,000 persons were crossing over from Bangladesh to Assam alone.”
He added, “Even if we count it from 1998 onwards, the number should have been in crores today. I ask, where are those people whom the NRC couldn’t find? If you look at the total number of Muslims in the state, then you know that he was incorrect.”
Seated next to him, AAMSU president Rezaul Sarkar, said, “Even my mother’s name is not in the list. How can we accept it? We have been getting calls relentlessly from families living in different parts of the state saying while parents’ names are there, the children’s names are missing. In some cases, the entire family’s names are there but only one son or daughter is out of it. More such cases will come forward in the next few days.”
Interestingly, political parties too expressed disappointment at the outcome of the final NRC. BJP minister Himanta Biswa Sarma took to Twitter
Names of many Indian citizens who migrated from Bangladesh as refugees prior to 1971 have not been included in the NRC because authorities refused to accept refugee certificates. Many names got included because of manipulation of legacy data as alleged by many 1/2
— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) August 31, 2019
He also repeated the demand for 20% re-verification of border districts and 10% of the remaining 29 districts.
I reiterate that as requested by Central and State governments at least 20% reverification (bordering districts) and 10% re-verification(remaining districts) should be allowed by Honble Apex court for a correct and fair NRC. 2/2
— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) August 31, 2019
However, if we go by the figure stated by Aabhijit Sarma of APW, the NRC authorities had already conducted over 20% re-verification in the four border districts.
Reacting to the NRC list, former chief minister and Congress leader Tarun Gogoi too took the line that many “genuine citizens”, particularly Bengali Hindus, were excluded from the list while several foreigners have been included. He told NDTV, “The BJP has to explain what went wrong with the NRC.”
Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which was born of the Assam Accord, found the number “ridiculously small.” Party president and state minister Atul Bora told reporters, “The people of Assam had hoped for a free and fair NRC but it now seems that the very existence of the Assamese will be further threatened.”
Senior Guwahati-based journalist Sushanta Talukdar said the decision to update the NRC was a social consensus between various stakeholder communities to solve the issue once and for all. “But the outright rejection of the NRC by the important civil society and student bodies will make it difficult to ensure its social acceptance. With so many numbers already having been circulated by various governments, a perception had been created in the state that there were a lot of undocumented immigrants. So when the number of 19 lakhs came, it looked unbelievable,” he said.
“Also,” he added, “Towards the end of the NRC update, there was increased talk in the media that names of genuine Indian citizens were being left out.”
“Some political parties like the BJP said the names of foreigners had been included but that of citizens had been excluded. It created another perception among people, that this will not be a correct one. The structural problems within the system also helped in creating that perception. So the consensus about having an NRC between different communities was weakened.”
Talukdar expressed his feeling that nationally, BJP would probably refrain from promoting the figure of the final NRC. This was something it could do with the final draft NRC as the number of people excluded was considerably higher. He admits that in Assam, however, “the growing perception among the people that it is not an error-free NRC will help it politically.”