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Sushanta Talukdar
Date of Publish: 2018-08-06

Opposition’s hullabaloo over NRC draft gives BJP the leverage of using citizens’ register as smokescreen over citizenship amendment bill

 

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was on a sticky wicket over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 in Assam and other North-eastern states when waves of protests swept the region. For, the bill was viewed as a move by the ruling party to make the process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC), 1951 in Assam infructuous. However, the hullabaloo by the opposition in the parliament over exclusion of over 40 lakh applicants from the complete draft of the NRC appears to have put them on Boot Hill.

The opposition parties’ positions unlinked from ground realities in Assam appears to have given the BJP an opportunity to leverage the NRC in Assam to showcase it as a major achievement for protection of country’s sovereignty and push the slogan for compiling NRC across the country. BJP expects to use this smokescreen of NRC to camouflage the fact that the citizenship amendment bill, if passed would dilute the very purpose of updating the citizenship register for identification, deletion of names from voters’ list and expulsion of all post-1971 undocumented migrants from the north-eastern state.

Of the total 3.29 Crore applicants, 2.89 crore applicants have made it to the complete draft published on July 30. Among the 40,70,070 names lakh excluded from the complete draft, applications of 37.52 lakh have been rejected while applications of 2.48 lakh who include “D” (Doubtful/disputed) voters and their descendants and those whose names have been referred to foreigners’ tribunals and their descendants, have been kept on hold.

Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee alleged that the NRC was “a BJP game plan to throw out Bengalis and Biharis from Assam” and a result of “vote bank and divide and rule policy”. TMC’s hue and cry over the NRC is seen by people in Assam as an attempt by the ruling party in West Bengal to stoke Bengali sentiment in a desperate bid to reap electoral dividends. Top leaders of TMC in Assam quit to protest party leadership’s position on NRC draft. Assam Pradesh Congress Committee rushed to clarify that party’s national leaders had made certain statement over NRC out of ignorance but rectified later.

No information of applicant’s religion or language was sought in the application for inclusion of names for updating the citizenship register in Assam. Hence, there is no scope for categorising 40 lakh excluded from the complete draft or those included in the draft on basis of religion or language. Likewise, the final updated NRC list to be published after disposal of all claims and objection will also not have any data based on religion or language of those to be included or excluded. Any conclusion that Muslims or Bengali speakers being the majority among those excluded from the complete draft, therefore, is speculative and based on perception and generalisation of examples of exclusion. To the contrary, media reports in local dailies, as well as post on social media timelines have stories of exclusion of different linguistic groups of people including indigenous Assamese and other ethnic communities, Bengalis, Hindi speakers belonging different religious communities.

The NRC has been updated on basis of the Assam Accord which makes no distinction among the undocumented migrants on basis of religion or language. The Assam Accord stipulates identification, deletion of names from voters’ list and expulsion of all undocumented migrants, irrespective of Hindus and Muslims, who came to Assam from Bangladesh after the cut-off date of March 25, 1971 either without valid travel documents or overstaying even after the expiry of their travel documents.

The Citizenship (Amendment) bill, on the other hand, proposes to grant Indian citizenship to six non-Muslim communities- Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Christian, Buddhists and Parsis from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan and not to treat them as “illegal migrants.”

The BJP tabled the bill on the floor of the parliament in 2016, while submission of application came to close on August 31, 2015 verification process began in September 2015. This triggered widespread protests in the state and later spread to neighbouring north-eastern states. Opposition parties including the Congress joined the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 bandwagon to mount pressure on the BJP to withdraw the controversial bill and make public its stand on the bill. People in Assam and NE states were opposed to granting of citizenship as well as identification of undocumented migrants on basis of religion. They also expressed apprehension that that the bill, if passed would facilitate largescale migration of non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh which would pose grave threat to existence and identity of Assamese and other ethnic communities of the region.

Pushed to the corner, the BJP-led coalition government in Assam headed by Sarbananda Sonowal Assam and the state unit of the BJP announced that it would spell out its position on the bill after publication of the complete draft of the updated NRC.

Instead of asking the BJP to come out with its stand on the bill now that compete draft of the NRC has already been published, the opposition parties raised a hue and cry over the draft. The opposition’s position on the complete draft of NRC could be viewed as attempt not just to negate the process of updating the citizenship register but also deny the existence of problem of “demographic threat” in Assam and other North-eastern states due to unabated migration from across the international border.

Even though examples of erroneous exclusion of names from the complete draft galore, there has not been any hue and cry in Assam. The entire process being monitored by the Supreme Court, those excluded have also expressed faith in the process, modalities of which are in the public domain. The process of claims and objection will allow those excluded to submit claim for inclusion in the final NRC and those having objection to inclusion of certain names to submit objection. The Final NRC list will be published only after disposal of all claims and objections by the NRC authorities. The Supreme Court has also directed the Centre to submit by August 16 the Standard Operating Procedure for dealing with the claims and objections for its approval.

It was the apprehension of loss of identity markers such as language, culture among the speakers of Assamese and other ethnic languages which were primary reasons that shaped the movement against Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which saw a decline the BJP’s popularity graph in the state. However, failure of opposition parties at the national level to read the writings on the wall in Assam over NRC draft has allowed the BJP to get a grip on the slippery ground and rebrand itself as the messiah of Assamese and other ethnic identities by pushing the NRC in across the country. This sends across a message that the NRC is the most effective means of identification of “illegal migrants” and their expulsion from the country in the back drop of campaign that crores of undocumented Bangladeshis are in India. Assam being the first state in the country not just to get its first NRC in 1951 but also first state to get the complete draft of the updated NRC, none but the people of the state will be the happiest among all if NRC is compiled and updated across the country.

The BJP, however, has kept a mum on the Citizenship amendment bill which it hopes to showcase in time to as the protection mechanism for Hindu Bangladeshis when demand for expulsion of “foreigners” grows after NRC final list is published.

The writings on the wall is clear. Unlike the political parties, people in Assam are not rushing to any conclusion or speculation either about the citizenship of those excluded or those included as the final process of claims and objections is yet to be completed. Besides, the NRC authorities are not mandated to declare any applicant as “foreigner” which is a responsibility entrusted to Foreigners’ Tribunals. Therefore, those whose claims are rejected and fail to make it to the final list will be able to appeal before the Foreigners’ Tribunals the verdict of which can be challenged in the Gauhati High Court and the Supreme Court.

Consensus opinion expressed in the state post publication of the complete draft is that names of no genuine Indian citizens should be excluded, and no name of non-citizens should be included to ensure that the final NRC list is “error free.”

Sushanta Talukdar

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