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Sushanta Talukdar
Date of Publish: 2017-12-04

BJP in Assam walks a tightrope after SC rejects Centre's plea for extension of NRC deadline

 

The Supreme Court's rejection of the Central government's plea for extension of deadline to publish the draft of the updated National Register of Citizens for Assam has put the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – led governments in Dispur and at the Centre on sticky wickets. The Centre had sought the extension till 31 July, 2018 to complete the task. The office of the State Coordinator, NRC will now be required to publish the first draft after midnight on 31 December, 2017 as directed by the apex court earlier.

The apex court did not accept Attorney General KK Venugopal's submission that part publication of the draft NRC could result in a law and order situation because a large segment of the people would think that their names have been excluded from the draft.

"We do not see how the aforesaid situation can even remotely arise as we have already indicated in the earlier part of the present order that claims of 47 lakh persons and 29 lakh persons are still pending and would be subject to verification and covered by publication of another draft NRC at a subsequent point of time," the Supreme Court bench, comprising Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice RF Nariman, said in an order issued on 30 November. The court passed the order while hearing a writ petition filed by Assam Public Works (APW) and several other petitions clubbed with it.

NRC verification work in progress: photograph courtesy nrcassam facebook page

The court also said that the exercise of preparation of the upgradation of the draft NRC has been presently going on for the last three years and the time schedule was first laid by the court through its order passed on 17 December, 2014. The final time frame laid down by an order passed on 13 July, 2017 contemplates publication of the draft NRC latest by 31 December, 2017.

The state coordinator of NRC, Prateek Hajela, told the court that scrutiny of about two crore cases or claims is likely to be completed by 31 December and instructions have been issued to complete the process of verification of 38 lakh persons, where doubts have arisen over documents and particulars by 15 January, 2018.

The apex court bench directed Hajela to complete this process on or before 31 December by deploying additional man-power and resources. It also directed the NRC state coordinator to publish, on the expiry of midnight on 31 December, the first draft of the citizens' register, pertaining to the 2.38 crore claims which have been verified or likely to be verified by this date.

In the application filed for extension of deadline, the Registrar General of Citizen Registration said the rest 76 lakh claims to be verified have been divided into two categories – 47 lakh persons where doubts have arisen over parental linkage after undertaking matching of family tree of an applicant, and 29 lakh cases kept in abeyance of married women who have submitted Gaon Panchayat Secretary Certificate. The court said that publication of another draft would cover these claims pending for verification.

The Supreme Court has fixed 20 February for further orders.

NRC verification work in progress: photograph courtesy nrcassam facebook page

Desperation of the Central government for extension of the time frame was evident in the Attorney General's contention that fixing a date for publication of the draft NRC is an executive function and an order to the aforesaid effect by the apex court would be an encroachment on the executive domain and violation of doctrine of separation of powers.

The Supreme Court rejected this argument saying, "The aforesaid contention advanced before the court for the first time overlooks the fact that over a period of three years, the court has been monitoring the matter and fixing appropriate timelines for the completion of different phases of the exercise of updating the NRC. Even on the last date ie 13 July, 2017, when 31 December, 2017 was fixed for publication of the draft NRC, the contentions now advanced were not made before the court.

That apart, it is the sheer inaction on the part of the executive in dragging the matter for a period of over three years and the absence of any justifiable cause to hold back even a partial publication that has led the court to direct publication of the draft NRC on or before 31 December, 2017."

The bench wrote in the order that when asked if a request for further extension would be made if this one is granted, Venugopal said that such a possibility cannot be ruled out and, if required, further time will be sought.

NRC verification work in progress: photograph courtesy nrcassam facebook page

Political parties in Assam – ruling BJP, Opposition Congress, All India United Democratic Front and other student and youth bodies including the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) – have hailed the Supreme Court directive for publication of the first NRC draft on 31 December.

However, the Opposition parties and the student bodies have accused the BJP-led government of seeking to delay the work of updating the NRC. Hailing the Supreme Court directive, AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharjya, president Dipanka Kumar Nath and general secretary Lurin Jyoti Gogoi went on record alleging that the stand of the Central government seeking to delay the NRC work was deplorable and cautioned that the Centre would be held responsible if any unwarranted situation arises in Assam due to some submissions made by the Attorney General before the court pertaining to law and order situation over the NRC process. The student leaders alleged that Venugopal's submissions were "provocative", and would encourage "forces which are conspiring to sabotage process of updating the NRC."

APW chief Abhjit Sarma said that after a long struggle, the people of Assam would get the first draft of an updated NRC. This, he said, has become possible only because of the Supreme Court's intervention and constant monitoring. He alleged the extension of the time frame sought by the government only revealed lack of required will on its part on the matter.

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal also welcomed the Supreme Court directive and said his government would extend full cooperation for implementation of the directive of the apex court. However, the ruling BJP has found itself in a tight spot having to explain as to why the government headed by the party in Delhi sought an extension of time when it had used the delay in NRC work by the previous Congress-led governments at the Centre and in Assam as a major poll plank. The BJP had also promised to expedite the publication of an updated NRC.

Opposition political parties and the student youth bodies, including the AASU, Asom Jatiayatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad, alleged that the Registrar General, through the Centre, had sought extension of time as the BJP-led government wanted to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) bill, 2016 in the Parliament ahead of the publication of the NRC.

Photograph courtesy : AASU facebook page

The BJP faces another challenge of rearticulating its position on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 which is now pending before the Parliament, with respect to Assam. After the NRC, 1951 is updated with the cut off date of 24 March, 1971 and published, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 and granting citizenships to Hindu Bangladeshis in accordance with the new citizenship law would lead to creation of two types of Indian citizens in the North Eastern state – persons having Indian citizenship with their names in the updated NRC and persons with Indian citizenship excluded from it.

There has been a consensus in Assam that the updated NRC would help find a permanent solution to vexed foreigners' problem as it would help identify all migrants from Bangladesh, who entered Assam illegally after 24 March, 1971. It would help in deletion of their names from voters' list and their expulsion from India in accordance with the Assam Accord.

Thus passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill might give rise to critical legal question of whether a person who fails to make it to the updated NRC is to be granted citizenship in accordance with the new citizenship law that might come into force if the BJP pushes for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and if the person should be included in the voters' list or not. The BJP appears to be looking for an exit route towards a gradual shift in its position. The ruling party has started evading direct response to questions asked by media persons regarding its stand on opposition to Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 by its coalition partner Asom Gana Parishad. BJP leaders now describe it as a hypothetical question.

However, for the BJP, any softening of the party's position on the Citizenship (Amendment) bill and putting the bill on the back burner may not be easy and runs the risk of antagonising a large section of its support base among Bengali Hindu voters not just in Assam but also in West Bengal and Tripura. The NRC issue is hanging like a Damocles' sword over the BJP leaders in Assam.

Sushanta Talukdar

( This article was first published in http://www.firstpost.com/ on 02-12-2017. The original article can be accessed at the following link: http://www.firstpost.com/india/bjp-in-assam-walks-a-tightrope-after-sc-rejects-centres-plea-for-extension-of-nrc-deadline-4238217.html )

 

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