Citizenship is a basic political status an individual enjoys which carries bundle of essential rights, including social, political and economic rights. To determine the citizenship of the people of Assam — a state that is affected with unending debates on citizenship for decades — the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has been in the making since 2015. This register is the upgraded version of the NRC 1951, which itself was a reflection of the voter list of that period. The final NRC list was published on August 31.
Now, observing the developments after the list was published, the question is: Will the citizenship debate ever come to an end?
The publication of the register became possible after the concerted effort of thousands of government employees and politically coerced participation of millions of people. The final NRC draft was published on July 30, 2018 and 4 million people were excluded from it. It was then that the rest of India and the world noticed the magnitude of the exercise being carried out. In the final list that number has come down to 1,906,657.
Two millions is an astonishingly huge number, and these excluded people from various secondary social groups, to use a term coined by American sociologist CH Cooley). The Bengali Hindus and the Muslims constitute the largest number of the excluded people. More than a 100,000 Gorkhas have also faced exclusion from the list. Likewise, a small number of the tribal population, and people having roots in the mainland India have faced the brunt of exclusion.
Many cases have been reported where some members of a family have made it into the list while the others have been are omitted. Women and children belonging to the vulnerable communities remain the worst sufferer throughout the citizenship test.
Cases of serving and retired Indian military personnel being excluded from the final NRC have been reported. The most distinct case in this line is that of Mohammad Sanaullah, a retired officer of the Indian Army who served in the Kargil War. Also the family members of many political leaders and statesmen belonging to linguistic and religious minority communities in the state have been excluded.
The government has declared that the mere exclusion from the list will not make one an “illegal immigrant” or for that matter the citizenship of the excluded people will not be scrapped forthwith. The excluded multitudes will be given an ‘opportunity’ to appeal at the Foreigner Tribunals (FT) to uphold their citizenship. Many in the state decline to term this as an ‘opportunity’ but as coercion since the FTs have emerged as a brutal State apparatus to exercise the hegemony of the ruling class over the vulnerable and marginalised masses. The burden of proof has been left on the individuals and their families, and not on the State.
The FTs will decide citizenship of the thousands of people who are outside the final list. One can only hope that in the post-NRC period free and fair judgments will be delivered. Justice (Retd) AP Shah in an event on the NRC and citizenship issue in Delhi said, “the overriding concern must be fairness, not quickness or efficiency”.
Since the publication of the list, sharp reactions are surfacing from different stakeholders. Many of the political parties, student organisations and civil society organisations have expressed their discontent vis-à-vis the NRC. However, the reasons of their unhappiness are different.
When 4 million people were excluded in the July 2018 list, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) along with ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) seemed to agree with the procedure. At the same time a narrative was constructed that those who oppose the NRC are the enemies of Assam.
Now, after the final list, the same groups have changed their stand. This shift is because initial reports suggest that the list excludes more Bengali Hindus than Muslims. The relatively lesser exclusions of Muslims from Assam’s border districts have countered the counterfactual narrative that the border districts are overrun by “illegal Muslim migrants” from Bangladesh.
The political groups not happy with the NRC final list intend to approach the Supreme Court — under whose the supervision the entire register was prepared — and seek selective re-verification of all the applications in the Muslim-majority districts. The Supreme Court’s response to this will be closely watched.
Assam has remained disturbed for decades on issues concomitant to citizenship. Undoubtedly, the NRC is fraught with stereotypes and biases against minorities, but now is the time to conclude Assam’s citizenship conundrum with the acceptance of the final list.
The present NRC carries huge anomalies, and these should be rectified in order to include genuine Indian citizens in the register. The BJP-led state government might put in place a mechanism to provide citizenship to the undocumented Hindu migrants. It is expected that the remaining undocumented migrants are also treated in a humanitarian manner.Nazimuddin Siddique is an Assam-based independent researcher. Views are personal.