02, Aug 2018 | Teesta Setalvad
To dub the process of collating the final draft of the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC), released on July 30, as bizarre, haphazard, or just plain bureaucratic and insensate is simply not enough. The very fact that 4 million plus of residents of the state did not make the list is surely indication enough of a process gone seriously awry. There have been not just small margins of error; it is the large scale exclusion that speaks.
This portends ill for the future as the nightmarish process of poor and marginalised persons, from far-flung areas of Assam, who are now expected by a lofty process, to file Claims and Objections against their exclusion. How fair is that? No wonder then that many from the Barak Valley and Lower Assam speak in low and hushed monotones of a simmering anger, an anger caused by this exclusion. How did the NRC process go so seriously wrong, is a question that begs serious examination.
The whole demand for an NRC – a process that enjoys a wide support from different sections of the Assamese population—has been mired in a web of complexities, political not legal, powered by a strong regional sentiment, bordering on hysteria. The NRC is, by definition, a list of citizens. The inherent problem with the process for the preparation of NRC in Assam comes from its use as a device to detect illegal immigrants from among the legalised immigrants under a presumption that people with a particular cultural, ethnic and linguistic identity are immigrants (both illegal and legalised) without a rational basis. This is contrary to both Constitutional provisions and to Citizenship Law as it shifts the burden of proof. It makes vulnerable those sections that have little or no access to documentation and record, worse still, are poor and otherwise marginalised anyway, everyday victims of a state and a bureaucracy. Such a presumption –about immigrants — has subjected roughly 12 per cent of the population of the state, to such an arbitrary procedure which is designed to exclude, rather than include, them.
Four days after the release of the controversial NRC final draft, we are being told that 55 per cent of those callously dis-enfrancished, are women, over 1 lakh belong to the Gorkha tribe, and that neighbouring Bengal state did not respond to over 1,00,000 queries sent by the NRC. It will be a while before any rational segregation of the exclusionary date can take place. Some stories of exclusion, however history will record, as symptomatic of this flawed process: a Freedom Fighter, a Man and his family who fought the British in 1857, the nephew of India’s fifth President, the deputy speaker of Assam’s state assembly, a Hindu Bengali labourer, a pregnant woman… all these and 40 lakh more are out of the NRC. Some of course will find it harder than others to get back on. Which is why, we at CJP, have taken upon ourselves to intervene in this daunting humanitarian task. Of providing legal aid to file claims and approach Foreigner Tribunals, and also assist on the humanitarian front.
The Indian media remains particularly ill-informed on the process, influenced by a prejudicial baggage of ‘infiltration in the state of Assam.’ In large sections of the media coverage of the historic process (post publication of the Register), has been devoid of any in-depth investigation of the process itself, limiting itself to some editorial comment and a few human interest stories. Television is worse, a crude and hysterical version of the US’ Fox News with cries of ‘Throw the 4 Million Out’ filling the airwaves at newshour (9 p.m.) That these sentiments that echo the views of hegemonic and supremacist governments at the both, the Centre and State levels, is not a coincidence. Crude sloganeering of ‘Bangladeshi infiltrator’ (the term ‘ghuspethiyon’ sounds far worse in the Hindi) have begun from the very top of the BJP’s national leadership.
Two very basic points about the debate around the NRC bear mention: First, people who have been living for generations, that is centuries in places that were made part of Assam only in 1874 and still live there, were asked (under this process) to prove their citizenship under section 6A of the Citizenship Act, 1955: this section of the amended law provides a cut off date of March 24, 1971 for distinguishing deemed citizens (immigrants specially naturalised as citizens) and illegal immigrants by providing prescribed pre-1971 documents. This has essentially meant treating them as immigrants based mainly on their non-Assamese linguistic identity. This is seen by this section (the Bengali) as discriminatory and racist because most of the Assamese speaking communities were exempted from such a requirement by dubbing them the ‘original inhabitants’!
This part of the process is problematic also because the people living outside ‘proper Assam’, the territory that the British annexed to their empire by the Yandabu pact of 1826 which is roughly now called upper Assam, are all immigrants even if their ancestors have been living in those places since before the Ahoms came into upper Assam in the second decade of 13th century. Many of those who were thus arbitrarily treated as immigrants are the marginalised, landless and illiterate people who, due to their economic and social status, do not have the prescribed documents and were, hence, excluded from the list. This is a case of arbitrary deprivation of citizenship based on mainly linguistic identity.
The second issue relates to those who came to Assam after the cut off date of March 24, 1971. Their case is humanitarian and falls under the refugee laws and laws relating to prohibition on enforced statelessness. They also have human rights that include right to a nationality. However in the large, excluded group of 4 million plus, most belong to the former group who are Indian citizens but could not prove this due to inability to meet the demand of proof because of their economic and social status, most importantly because they were mainly the people who get displaced several times due river erosion, floods, violence and evictions.
The nature of errors in spelling of names of the Barak valley people in the draft NRC published on July 30 shows that names were transliterated from English to Bengali as per Assamese pronunciation by Assamese speaking officials who didn’t know Bengali letters and their pronunciation. Same thing happened to the names of Bengali Muslims as their names were Bengalised forms of words derived from Arabic, Persian and Turkish roots. This begs the question why officials from Barak valley were not given the task of transliteration of names of Barak valley people, if such transliteration was necessary, instead of Assamese speaking officials. This could have saved people from further harassment during the process of correction of names as well as a huge amount of public money and time.
The insistence (by the NRC) that this process and the declaration of Voters as ‘D’ Voters (Doubtful) or ‘DF’ (Declared Foreigners) are not inter-linked is not borne out by ground reality. While the latter two are handled by the Election Commission under a different statute, the NRC authorities have non-officially assumed the power of the tribunals in relation to burden of proof, D voters and those ‘declared foreigners’ by the tribunals by passing controversial, last minute Orders linking the two (May 1 and 2 Orders of the NRC Coordinator). Detention Camps –cramped rooms in six locations within Assam’s jails – are the fate of those who will finally not make the NRC; and this is precisely the fate of those ‘declared foreigners’ by the 100 Foreigners’ Tribunals in the state. Besides the NRC Coordinator has decreed that those declared foreigners by the FT will not be included in the NRC, never mind the fact that these orders (in a whopping 80 per cent of the cases) been overturned by higher courts.
Assam faces a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Matters are not helped by shrill and hysterical voices, especially from the BJP, in Assam, in Bengal and the rest of India. In the build up to July 30 there was heavy militarisation of the state with more than one hundred additional companies of paramilitary forces being deployed in the three districts of Barak valley. Despite this build up, people, though simmering with anger, have maintained restraint. While this must be commended, all efforts for fair and just redressal must be insisted upon, and found.
Too much is at stake here, at the very basic, the fundamental rights and dignity of over forty lakh Indians. The threatening posturing assumed by some sections of the Assamese population – we won’t let the ‘outsider’ speak for us, or about us – has no place in 21st century India. Solutions will have to be found and found fairly, justice cannot be sacrificed at the altar of political hysteria. In the days leading up to the publication of the register, the witch-hunt of senior academics expressing reservations about the process, bode ill for an atmosphere of questioning, or introspection.
What has made matters more fragile and serious, is the threat of such anti-Constitutional processes being launched in other states; beginning with Bengal and then extend to the rest of India. Nationally, it is the supremacist Hindutva right that is voicing this, but our past is littered with such violent articulations from regional players. The Shiv Sena and the MNS in Maharashtra are examples.
Today, the prevalence of a parochial hysteria among the influential appears to hold sway in Assam. This is not the best climate to ensure just hearing and fair play. This strong parochial sentiment has also in the past perceived to have affected the attitude(s) of India’s highest court. It is crucial that the rest of the process – correction and inclusion – happens in a humane and inclusive manner, not at the threat of a ridiculous deadline which is impractical to work.