The contentious National Register of Citizens (NRC) has occupied the center-stage in Assam from the publication of its first draft over a year and half ago and the major political parties in the state have repeatedly changed their positions on it.
The NRC is touted as the proof of Assamese identity and it is hoped that it will filter illegal foreign nationals, an issue that has affected the state for decades.
When the updation of the National Register of Citizens began in 2015 the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress was in power in the state. The political scenario had changed by the time its first draft was published on January 1, 2018 as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Sarbananda Sonowal had come to power in Assam in 2016.
BJP president Amit Shah had batted aggressively for implementing NRC not only in Assam but throughout the country to identify illegal immigrants.
He had even compared the situation in the state due to infiltration with that of Jammu and Kashmir.
Claiming that BJP had initiated the updation, he had told a public rally in the state in February “We (BJP) will not allow Assam to become second Kashmir. We will deport each and every infiltrator with the help of NRC.”
The BJP, he had asserted, is committed to the people to bring in NRC across the country to “chuck out” all infiltrators.
But after becoming the union home minister in the Narendra Modi II government, Shah has not publicly spoken on the issue yet.
Instead, the union home ministry in a statement on August 20 said that non-inclusion of a person’s name in the final NRC list does not by itself amount to him or her being declared a foreigner. It also assured that adequate arrangements have been made to appeal against it.
At a high-level meeting chaired by Amit Shah and attended by Sarbananda Sonowal, the ministry had decided to amend the rules to increase the time limit of filing of appeals in Foreigners Tribunals from 60 days to 120 days for those whose names do not figure in the NRC.
“It has been decided that state government would also make arrangements to provide legal aid to the needy people amongst those excluded from NRC,” the statement said.
Sources in the BJP said that the change in strategy was necessitated after it came to be known that many suspected illegal immigrants were able to include their names in the citizens register by forging documents and that almost half of the named excluded in the complete draft of NRC were those of Hindus.
“As per the available information, the final list will not be very different from the complete draft of the NRC. Only 20-25 per cent of the total excluded names will find place in it. This means that a huge number of Hindus will again be excluded from the list,” the sources told PTI on condition of anonymity.
In fact, the BJP governments both at the Centre and the state seemed to have apprehensions about the updation under the supervision of the Supreme Court. It had appealed twice to the Supreme Court for sample re-verification to find out wrongful inclusions, especially in districts bordering Bangladesh, and exclusions of persons in the NRC.
The state government may explore legislative options to deal with the wrongful inclusion or exclusion of some names in the NRC after its final publication tomorrow, Sarbananda Sonowal said.
The BJP had shifted stands on the NRC earlier too. It had expressed apprehensions about the efficacy of the NRC process when it had begun during Gogoi’s tenure, but Sarbananda Sonowal had claimed this year that it was done by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 as per his election commitment to the people of Assam.
Sarbananda Sonowal had even visited the NRC headquarter on his first day in office as chief minister and promised help from the state authorities indicating the importance that his government accorded to it.
Hoisting the National Flag on Independence Day in 2018, he had iterated his commitment to the NRC by saying “We will keep a strong eye so that no name of any foreigner is included in the NRC … The government is committed to ensure that no Indian citizen living in Assam is excluded from the NRC.”
Sarbananda Sonowal was the president of All Assam Students Union (AASU), which had spearheaded the six-year-long Assam Agitation in 1979-85 to detect and deport illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, before joining the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and then shifting to the BJP.
The BJP Assam unit chief Ranjeet Kumar Dass has attacked NRC state coordinator Prateek Hajela of undertaking the revision process unilaterally.
“Many have told us their names appeared in the first NRC draft list, but went missing from the final draft … Also there are reports that people who have been declared foreigners were engaged for the NRC citizenship verification work … It seems we will get an NRC which will include the names of illegal foreigners and exclude genuine Indian citizens,” Dass told newsmen earlier this week.
Assam is the only state in the country where the NRC updation has been undertaken since 1951 under the supervision of the Supreme Court. The final NRC will be published on Saturday.
For inclusion of their names in the NRC an applicant can submit a host of documents. On compilation of six crucial documents it was found that around two lakh people out of one crore submitted forged papers.
In July last year, 40,07,707 names of people were excluded from the complete draft of NRC, which contained 2,89,83,677 eligible persons out of a total 3,29,91,384 applicants. An additional 1,02,462 names were added in the list of excluded persons in June this year taking the total ineligible persons to 41,10,169 in the complete draft.
The cut-off date for legitimate claim to citizenship in Assam, which had faced influx of people from erstwhile undivided Bengal and East Pakistan since the early 20th century, is March 24, 1971.
The erstwhile Gogoi government had initiated NRC updation out of compulsion after the Supreme Court intervened and began monitoring it as the Congress allegedly has a soft corner for the minority community.
Not willing to let go of the opportunity, Gogoi had claimed the credit for beginning the NRC updation during his tenure and boasted that he had appointed Hajela.
He changed his stand after losing power and now vehemently criticises the entire process.
“Neither the Assam government nor the Centre is serious about NRC … It (the NRC) is going to be a waste paper. The work is not going on as per the Supreme Court’S instructions. If lakhs of genuine Indian citizens are left out then what is the point of such an NRC?” the Congress veteran had said in June this year.