Much has been written about the institutional and bureaucratic lapses in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) updation process in Assam. Even the most ardent supporters of the exercise, most prominently Assamese intellectuals, have noted the technical flaws in the headcount project.
For instance, a renowned intellectual from Assam, Hiren Gohain acknowledged that the NRC process was ridden with “errors and lapses” while arguing that it was unbiased.
These faults, often minute in nature, have had drastic consequences on the lives of real people, particularly the most vulnerable. A missing name here, a misplaced document there, and people found themselves stripped off their Indian citizenship. The latest of such administrative mishaps is the sudden disappearance of the NRC data from the official website before the start of the appeal process.
The key thrust of this bureaucratic critique of the NRC is that the process itself was necessary, but it wasn’t implemented well. In many ways, this mirrors the liberal criticism of the current government’s Jammu and Kashmir move – that scrapping Article 370 was much-needed, but not in the way it was done.
It is, however, important to move beyond a limited critique of the NRC.
It is absolutely crucial for us to question the very premise of the exercise. This entails three things – historical premise, judicial premise, and moral premise. It is only through a foundational and total critique of the NRC that one can step out of the core justificatory discourse around the exercise and see it for what it is – a majoritarian, xenophobic, counter-pluralistic project to forge a culturally and ethnically homogenous Assam.
The NRC has a fairly broad historical premise, going back to the immediate post-Independence years that saw the emergence of a popular nativist movement amongst the dominant caste Hindu Assamese groups in the Brahmaputra Valley.
But for all practical purposes, the core historical plank of the NRC is the Assam Movement (1979-85). It was during these five years of agitational anti-immigrant politics that the Axomiya ethno-nationalist civil society pioneered the very concept of identifying the so-called ‘bidexis’ (foreigners) from Bangladesh and disenfranchising, and even deporting, them.
The Assam Accord, which unambiguously lays down this segregationist agenda, forms the bedrock of the exercise as we see it today.
It is, thus, crucial to challenge the discourse around the movement while criticising the NRC. This is even more imperative because, in the eyes of the Axomiya nationalists and their allies, the NRC gains de facto legitimacy from the movement. They argue that since the demand for its updation was raised during the agitation and then woven into the Accord, it is a valid exercise. Both the movement and the Accord are widely deemed as sacrosanct and non-negotiable reference points in history from which the present derives all its legitimacy.
This framing needs to be critiqued.
We need to see the movement outside of the Axomiya nationalist rubric and call a spade a spade. The agitation and the Accord played pivotal roles in embedding anti-immigrant propaganda, chauvinism and xenophobia into popular culture and state institutions in Assam. Both precipitated the abstract concept of the “indigenous Assamese” within policy and legal discourses. Both also successfully transferred the ethno-nationalist anxieties of the Axomiya to the power corridors of New Delhi, spawning a toxic anti-immigrant policy discourse that lingers on till this date.
It is, after all, no surprise that the post-movement decades are littered with parliamentary debates, official reports, memorandums, and apex court judgments that employ the anti-immigrant language of the Axomiya nationalists to justify the unjust citizenship determination system operational in Assam since the 1960s and make a case for hardening the India-Bangladesh border. The oft-quoted 1997 report by the then governor of Assam, Lt Gen S.K. Sinha, is one glaring example.
Not just that, Assamese politics continues to be defined till date by discursive parameters set by the movement and accord. For instance, Clause 6 of the Accord, which demands “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards” to “protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”, continues to feed into the Axomiya nationalist project to erect walls around the Assamese identity. This critical clause also continues to define the state’s approach to Assamese nationalism.
Following the final NRC’s publication and passage of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the Axomiya have been up in arms against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for ignoring their concerns. Many of them see the final NRC exclusion figure of 1.9 million as lesser than the actual number of “illegal immigrants” living in Assam, and the CAA as a ploy to settle Bengali Hindus in Assam.
In response, the government appointed a ‘high-level committee’ in January 2019 to assess the implementation of Clause 6 while also defining “Assamese people”. The 14-member committee, largely represented by members of the dominant Assamese-speaking demographic, recently submitted its final report to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.
But it is crucial to question the very legitimacy of a provision like Clause 6 which encourages an exclusivist interpretation of the otherwise pluralistic Assamese identity. It is important to understand that the Accord not only fosters a majoritarian consensus that is designed to give preferential treatment to only one set of people in Assam, but also forms the cornerstone of demographic cleansing projects like the NRC. A critique of the NRC without a critique of the Accord, thus, is like draining out rain water from a house without fixing the leaking roof.
It is also absolutely critical to question the legal basis of the NRC. It doesn’t suffice to say that the NRC is legitimate because the Supreme Court ordered it. One has to apprehend the court’s 2014 judgment. Noted legal scholar, Madhav Khosla, has pointed out how the two-member NRC bench, consisting of the former Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, sanctioned the register’s updation without resolving key questions about Section 6A, the 1971 cut-off date and protection of the “Assamese” identity.
“After recognising the importance of the questions involved, the court rightly referred the matter to a larger constitutional bench. Yet, oddly enough, it proceeded to provide a remedy that was far-reaching and had serious implications. It did not merely assume Section 6A to be valid until the larger constitutional bench determined matters. Rather, it issued directions ranging from border guarding to establishing tribunals to the NRC being completed, all within a specific timeline,” writes Khosla.
The legal critique must also cover the Supreme Court’s role in monitoring the whole process. Several deliberations and exchanges between the bench and the NRC coordinator took place behind closed doors and through sealed envelopes. This kept the whole process opaque. The bench also failed to intervene during critical stages of the process that led to great miseries.
For instance, it stayed silent when, last August, the NRC authority sent last-minute reverification notices to hundreds of poor Bengal-origin Muslims in lower Assam for fresh hearings in upper Assam, despite the fact that this violated an earlier court order and the NRC’s own Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). The court failed to establish a uniform, mandatory system of state-sponsored legal aid to the applicants, especially the poor who incurred great financial losses during the process.
Besides, the court has stayed persistently shut on the gravely unjust modus operandi of the Foreigner Tribunals (FTs) in Assam that have stripped thousands of people in the state of their Indian citizenship and ordered their detention, many times in an arbitrary way. It continues to turn its gaze away from the practice of FTs delivering ex-parte verdicts or disenfranchising “suspected illegals” in their absence. In fact, last month, the Guwahati high court had to pull up one of these FTs for serious misconduct.
Lastly, it is important to call out the twisted morality of the whole exercise.
One must ask whether it is fair or humane to ask an individual, who might have crossed the border decades ago due to economic or social compulsions and set up a family in Assam, to suddenly get up and leave? How can the Indian state ask some of the most pauperised people within its borders to prove their Indianness by furnishing archaic documents and pauperise them further? Why should people have a devious Hobson’s choice of proving their antecedents or be detained? How does that bode for the collective conscience of Assamese society?
What does it all tell us about Indian democracy?
Hence, while institutional criticisms of the NRC process are necessary to keep the misery and hardships to a bare minimum, we must take a far more holistic approach so as to permanently dismantle the very foundations of that misery. In that sense, we must cut through the noise and get down to the question:
“Is an NRC even needed?”
Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, and former GIBSA Visiting Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.