New Delhi: Among the multiple narratives circulating in the national and regional media on the ongoing update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) 1951 in Assam, there is also a general feeling going around that the NRC has nothing to do with the Assam Accord, based on which it is being updated.
The feeling is based on the premise that the Accord doesn’t mention the basis for “detection and deletion” of the names of those found to be “foreigners” residing in the state as per the new cut-off date of March 25, 1971, would be through an update of the 1951 NRC.
However, those who have followed the long trajectory of talks between the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Central government which led to the Accord in 1985, and Assam’s fraught history of unauthorised immigration leading to formulation of special laws, would know why the NRC of 1951 became the medium of updating the state’s residents list in consonance with the Accord.
It is true that the “Memorandum of Settlement”, signed between Assam, the Central government and the AASU and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), doesn’t spell out that the 1951 NRC would be updated as per its cut-off date. In fact, it only says the “foreigners shall be detected in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Foreigners Tribunals order, 1964”.
The Accord thereafter says, “Names of foreigners so detected will be deleted from the electoral rolls in force.”
So, this can be understood as those who fail the citizenship test as per the Foreigners Act, the norm across the country, and as per the Foreigners Tribunal order, exclusive to the state, would automatically cease to be on Assam’s electoral rolls.
However, one vital change in this line had to be taken into cognisance due to a Supreme Court verdict. In December 2006, the Tribunal order of 1964, which was amended in early 2006 after the Illegal Migration (Determination) Act, 1983 was scrapped by the apex court, was also set aside by SC, calling it “unconstitutional”. So what was left of it to determine who is a non-citizen in Assam rested – like in the rest of India – primarily on the provisions of the Foreigners’ Act.
What the NRC authorities said soon after the publication of the final draft this past July 30, also tallies with it. NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela clarified that the updated NRC would only decide who is a permanent resident of the state; not decide who is an “illegal immigrant”. Those who fail to find their names in it would have to undergo the judicial procedure of the Tribunals, set up exclusively for Assam, to establish their citizenship. They can go to the higher courts if they feel they didn’t get justice in the Tribunals.
The answer to why the NRC of 1951 has been updated as per the Accord lies in the genesis of that document itself.
The 1951 NRC, not a public document, was created in the state from the census slips of 1951. To quote the then census superintendent of Assam, R.B. Vaghaiwalla, “An important innovation of this census was the preparation of a National Register of Citizens in which all important census data was transcribed from the census slips with the exception of census question No 6 (displaced persons), No 8 (bilingualism) and No 13 (indigenous persons)”. He said, “It will be maintained as a permanent record and kept up to date by collecting information through village officials.”
The reason why the office of the RGI felt the need to have an exclusive NRC for Assam was because of the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 implemented in the state in the initial years of Independence to check undocumented immigration from across the open border with East Pakistan. Enacted by the Parliament on February 13, 1950, though it was extended to whole of India, was only about Assam.
As per the Act, which regularised a January 1950 ordinance promulgated by the government, the Centre, either through the state authorities or through any Central government designated officer, could remove a person from Assam if it was of the opinion that the person had entered the state from outside India and was “detrimental” to the interests of the general public or any section of people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes. Such person or persons could be sent back through a route the removal order would mention.
Protecting Bengali Hindus
Significantly, the wording of the Act was such that it was meant to protect the Bengali Hindu migrants who entered the state from East Pakistan. It said the law would not apply “to any person who on account of civil disturbances or the fear of such disturbances in any area now forming part of Pakistan has been displaced from or has left his place of residence in such area and who has subsequently been residing in Assam.”
Effectively, it was a legal mechanism set in place by the Nehru Administration to stop the flow of Bengali Muslim immigrants from East Pakistan to Assam. So it was as per this Act that a number of Bengali Muslim families were sent to today’s Bangladesh in 1950, when the Hindu-Muslim riots took place in East Pakistan, triggering a huge influx of Hindu Bengalis to Assam, particularly to Barak Valley.
With the coming and going of many migrants from East Pakistan then, the decision to bring about the NRC exclusive to Assam was arrived upon in 1951 to have a “permanent record” of who all were residing in the state. It was nearly a year after the implementation of the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act.
However, the issue got complicated when the Nehru-Liaquat pact was signed in April, 1950, as per which both India and Pakistan agreed to allow the return of the people belonging to the minority communities to both the countries and protect their rights. Well-known Assam writer, Hem Barua records that as many as 53,000 families who left Assam, most likely under the 1950 Act, returned because of the pact.
By the time they returned, the NRC of 1951 and the Census was completed. They not only found themselves out of the NRC, but many had not likely voted in the first general elections held in the state in 1952.
Meanwhile, the issue of immigration from East Pakistan was a highly sensitive and emotive one among the indigenous population of Assam, even pre-Partition. The return of so many immigrant families to the state in the early 1950s due to the pact was widely viewed as an injustice done to them by New Delhi. This came soon after scant help provided by the national Congress leaders, barring Gandhi, to the state party to keep Assam out of the Grouping System supported by the Muslim League. The ‘tyranny of distance’ began to develop firm roots among the majority community in regard to New Delhi. And that was the reason why nearly 30 years later, the Assam agitation leaders chose to demand expulsion of foreigners as per the NRC 1951. It can also be seen as an opposition to the Nehru-Liaquat pact.
Indira Gandhi’s discussions with AASU leaders
Those who are of the opinion that the NRC is not linked to the Accord may not know the February 2, 1980 meeting between then prime minister Indira Gandhi and AASU leaders. This was the beginning of talks on the Assam problem. The student body’s only demand was expulsion of foreigners as per the 1951 NRC.
The 75 minute meeting couldn’t reach a solution only because the Gandhi regime wanted the AASU team, led by its president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, to accept March 25, 1971 as the cut-off date to verify foreigners and not the 1951 NRC. The Hindu then reported that while Mrs Gandhi and her home minister Giani Zail Singh wanted 1971 to be the basis to identify foreigners in the state, the students insisted on 1951 NRC and the Census of 1952. A news report in Amrita Bazar Patrika said the government wanted 1971 to be the cut-off only because people across the country had already accepted those who had arrived from Pakistan as per the Nehru-Liaquat pact as Indian citizens, along with those who had arrived as per the Indira-Mujib agreement of March 19, 1972.
When Zail Singh did a follow-up meeting with the AASU leaders in Guwahati on February 23 that year, they yet again insisted on the 1951 NRC.
At another meeting on April 1 in Shillong with the then governor L.P. Singh, the government, informally, tried to bring the AASU leadership to agree to 1967 as a possible cut-off year.
“The suggestion regarding 1967 was made seeing that 1964 and 1965 were peak years for the refugee influx (from East Pakistan) and the Centre had issued instructions to register them as citizens. The electoral rolls of 1967 should therefore provide the nearest definite document which can be drawn upon to determine citizenship,” wrote T.S. Murty in his 1983 book Assam The Difficult Years. Though Mahanta then felt that he would have to place the proposal before the Executive Committee (of AASU) and that AASU might be agreeable to it, he later announced its rejection and went back to 1951, based on the NRC.
Murty wrote that after the rejection of 1967, the prime minister, in a statement in the Rajya Sabha, said she “was not insisting on 1971 as the base year and regarded it as a starting point for identification. She had an open mind on the problem”.
By then, the AASU leaders came up with a “seven point solution” based on the 1951 NRC and welcomed the PM’s statement in parliament. The AASU solution said, “The National Register of Citizens to be completed after detection of foreign nationals and updated after every five years.” It also provided a possible solution, stating, “Foreigners who cannot be deported may be distributed in other states and union territories and not permitted to reside in Assam”.
Some written communication was exchanged thereafter between AASU and the Central government about the demand for 1951 as the cut-off date. Mrs Gandhi also held meetings with opposition leaders on the issue.
In September 1980, when talks resumed in New Delhi, the AASU and AAGSP team once again asserted that 1951 should be the cut-off year. In the October meeting with the home minister too, the disagreement over 1951 as the base year surfaced, leading to a stalemate. A member of the then AAGSP team told this correspondent recently that after the meeting, “Mahanta distributed a pamphlet which underlined the validity of the NRC of 1951.”
Talks keep hitting a wall
Throughout the time that Indira Gandhi remained PM, a group of ministers held various meetings with the AASU-AAGSP members and most of them hit a wall only because of the agitators’ insistence on making 1951 the base year for foreigner identification based on the NRC. In the meetings that took place between the agitators, the Central government and opposition leaders since January 1982, it was Janata Party leader Ravindra Varma’s formula that for the first time included the 1951 NRC as one of the tools to detect foreigners in Assam. Both the AASU and the Centre thought it could provide the basis for a solution and engaged with it for a couple of tripartite meetings before all hell broke loose, once the Gandhi regime decided to go ahead with the assembly elections in 1983, triggering the Nellie massacre.
The AASU and AAGSP finally had to relent to 1971 as the cut-off year in the Rajiv Gandhi regime for the same reasons cited earlier – the Nehru-Liaquat pact and the Indira-Mujib pact. Though 1971 became the citizenship cut-off year for Assam, many also overlook the fact that the base date and year for citizenship in Assam is January 1, 1966. The reason is, those who entered the state between January 1 1966 and March 24, 1971, would not be expelled from the state and that their names would only be taken off the electoral rolls for a period of ten years and thereafter they would regain their citizenship.
So, in 2005, when the AASU leadership entered into a tripartite agreement with Tarun Gogoi’s state government and Manmohan Singh’s Central government to update the 1951 NRC as per the Accord’s cut-off date, it was not out of the blue. Besides, the 1951 NRC being part of formal talks with the Centre, the abiding reason for choosing to update it as per the Accord’s new cut-off date was because already a permanent record of the state’s residents existed. It had to be updated to include all those who remained out of it by using the March 25, 1971 date.
That All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) objected to the 2010 pilot project of NRC carried out in two areas of Assam by the Gogoi government was not because of updating the NRC, but for not providing enough documents as options for applicants to prove their permanent residency in the state.
The Supreme Court too, in December 2014, gave the nod for updating the NRC to verify who is a legitimate resident of the state as per the Accord in response to a petition, keeping in mind the existing precedence of a mechanism already in place. Recognising the sensitivity of the festering issue involving 3.29 crore people, it took it upon itself to monitor the update process.
Doubts over accuracy of 1951 NRC
The update of the 1951 NRC should also be a welcome move considering there were complaints in the Assam Movement days that the document was not complete and as it was a secret administrative document, people could not verify it. Many Bengali Muslims also opposed the AASU’s demand for 1951 NRC to be the basis of verifying permanent residents was because they were not included in it. That it was completed within 20 days was also a reason for many to doubt its accuracy.
In an article in the Economic and Political Weekly in February 21, 1981 opposing the AASU’s demand to make the 1951 NRC the base to identify ‘foreigners’ in the state, Anil Roychoudhury wrote, “… the authors of the NRC were the enumerators by whom the Census was done. Its basis was the information collected during the census. The enumerators had to complete the work of enumeration in only 20 days. If due to under-enumeration in an area or otherwise the name of a person was omitted in the census, then his name was automatically excluded from the NRC also, and if a person was accidently not enlisted, he had no opportunity to get enlisted in the NRC subsequently. He could also not file objections. As the NRC was not publicly exhibited and was not a public document, a person could not even know if his name was at all included. The whole matter rested on the whims of the enumerators or their supervisors, a completely one-sided affair. No indication was given to the people of the terrible consequences which might overtake them at some future date if their names were not included in the National Register of Citizens, 1951. Nobody knew at that time due to the mistake or inefficiency or worse, of an ‘unqualified’ or ‘ill-qualified’ enumerator, he and his descendants would be declared to be foreigners at some future date and face deportation.”
In order to update the 1951 NRC, the authorities finally decided one of the 14 documents could be submitted to prove an applicant or her family’s presence in the state before March 25, 1971. Importantly, those whose families’ names don’t feature in the 1951 NRC were given the option of citing their names from the subsequent electoral rolls till the cut-off date among other documents, thus negating that old fear of “terrible consequences” of not having an accurate NRC and thereby facing the danger of being declared a ‘foreigner’.
But to contend that the NRC has nothing to do with the Accord is not only reflective of not knowing enough of the background of talks leading to the signing of the Accord, but also not recognising an official procedure in place, however faulty it might be, to decide who is a permanent resident of the state. Importantly, it had to be updated as per the new cut-off date agreed upon by the Central government through the Accord to include all genuine residents.
Having suffered the tag of “illegal Bangladeshis” for a long time at the hands of a section of chauvinistic forces, it was precisely this reason that the Muslims of East Bengal origin, among others, reached a political consensus to update the NRC as per the Accord.