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Unearthing the history and myths surrounding NRC update

  • Published at 02:43 pm April 1st, 2018
Unearthing the history and myths surrounding NRC update
Assam is enduring the challenges thrown up by a long-standing issue which has resurfaced since the beginning of this year. Out of 3.29 crore applicants, 1.9 crore names were included in the draft update list of National Register of Citizens (NRC). The remaining names are still undergoing verification. A couple of days ago, India’s Supreme Court set a deadline of May 31, 2018 for the completion of the remaining verification work. The roots of this conundrum were not sown with the inking of the Assam Accord in 1985. Neither had it begun with the six-year agitation called for by the All Assam Student’s Union (AASU) in 1979. To delve into the crux of the matter, one must flip through the pages of history. ‘Strangers of the Mist’ Precisely, immigration from East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) began with the ascendancy of Syed Mohammad Sadullah as premier of Assam in 1942. According to veteran journalist, Sanjoy Hazarika, in “Strangers of the Mist”: “In a bid to strengthen his tenuous hold on Assam’s politics, he [Sadullah] openly encouraged immigration from East Bengal, helping Jinnah when he sought to claim Assam for East Pakistan.” In post-independent India, the roots of this imbroglio were sown following the death of Mangaldoi Lok Sabha MP, Hiralal Patwary, in 1979. He used to represent the Janata Party. Naturally, Patwary’s death was followed by a by-poll which required a revision of the voters’ list.
Also Read- India’s top court refuses to extend deadline for updating citizen database in Assam
As fate would have it, a huge bag of complaints reached the electoral officers that many illegal immigrants from Bangladesh were included within the electoral rolls. As many as 70,000 complaints were filed. This prompted the Assam Government to set up a tribunal. Ultimately, 45,000 complaints were upheld. The author of “Strangers of the Mist” makes another intriguing point in his book. It was in 1978, India’s then Chief Election Commissioner Sham Lal Shakdher had premonitions over this festering problem. At a conference of election commissioners across India, Shakdher made the following observation according to journalist Sanjoy Hazarika: “In one state [Assam], the population in 1971 recorded an increase as high as 34.98% over the 1961 figures and this increase was attributed to the influx of a very large number of persons from the neighbouring countries. This influx has become a regular feature. I think it may not be a wrong assessment to make, on the basis of the increase of 34.98% between the two censuses, the increase that is likely to be recorded in the 1991 census would be more than 100% over the 1961 census. In other words, a stage would be reached when the state would have to reckon with the foreign nationals who may probably constitute a sizeable percentage, if not the majority of the population, of the state.” Shakdher’s prescient forecasts turned into reality when the population of Assam stepped up to 22.3 million or about 120% over the 1961 figure. The revision of electoral rolls gave the All Assam Student’s Union (AASU), led by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and Bhrigu Kumar Phukan, a scope to agitate for six-long years to eliminate “immigrants” from Assam. Their slogan was: “Detect, delete and deport.” Twist in the tale Matters took a twist owing to the fall of the ephemeral Charan Singh Government in August, 1979. This political instability paved the way for a Lok Sabha poll. But AASU was not going to take it easy. On December 27, 1979, AASU supporters set the stage for confrontation by organizing pickets across Assam. AASU submitted a memorandum to India’s centre on January 18, 1980 – in which it strongly demanded to update the NRC, 1951. The following years witnessed unrest, violence and instability to greater heights in Assam. In 1985, the Government of India finally caved in and the Assam Accord was signed on August 15 – India’s Independence Day. The martinet Hiteshwar Saikia of Congress was removed as chief minister of Assam upon the vehement demands of AASU. Saikia attempted to crush the AASU movement with an iron fist. Naturally, the Assam CM and the AASU agitators made the worst of foes. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the vanguard of AASU, was elevated to the post of Assam’s chief minister from a student leader after the six-year agitation. This is a record in India’s political history till date. But though NRC update was a strict condition laid down by the Assam Accord, yet its implementation was never materialized for reasons still unknown.
Also Read- Will 1.6m ‘non-Indian migrants’ in Assam become the new Rohingyas?
Even the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta-led government of Assam seemed to have reneged on its commitment. But three separate writ petitions filed by the Assam Public Works (2009), Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha (2012) and All Assam Ahom Associations (2014) with India’s Supreme Court breathed new life into the issue. In a combined verdict, the Apex Court fundamentally dealt with Clause 6 of the Accord and NRC update. Clause 6 of the Assam Accord states: “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.” Of late, the buzz is doing the rounds that exclusion of names from the NRC update list would result in immediate deportation. But that is merely a myth. Myth surrounding deportation According to sources who spoke in condition of anonymity, those who would find their names excluded from the NRC update list won’t be deported immediately. They can apply for a second time and then if they fail to include themselves, they would be sent for a trial with the Foreigners Tribunal in Assam. If these excluded individuals are found to be guilty of living in India by illegal means, their cases would be referred to Assam’s Home Ministry as the tribunal is under its jurisdiction. The Assam Home Ministry would refer their cases to the India’s External Affairs Ministry. The concerned ministry would subsequently forward it to the Bangladesh Assistant High Commission in Guwahati. The Guwahati Bangladesh Mission would then refer the matter to the government of Bangladesh and seek deportation for the excluded group. The Bangladesh government would cross-check the list of those names excluded by the NRC. If the Bangladesh government feels that they are Bangladeshi citizens, only then they’ll be repatriated. During the trial, the “suspected immigrants” would be staying in detention camps. However, the excluded hordes won’t undergo an immediate pushback by any stretch of the imagination. Besides, the NRC update process – which is supervised by the Registrar General of India (RGI) – is not authorized to deport anybody. The RGI’s duty is to assess the population of India. On the other hand, confirmation has been coming in from sources (on strict conditions of anonymity) that BJP would keep the matter in abeyance till the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Nobody shall undergo deportation as BJP is not willing to lose Assam out of its hands of power. Therefore, it would be wrong to state that families excluded by the NRC update list would have to pack up for Bangladesh immediately. On the other hand, Bangladesh has no reasons to worry because the publication of the final NRC update list won’t amount to another influx resembling that of the Rohingyas.
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