Archives E-Mail this article

Politics Over A Correct Citizens’ List In Assam

POSTED ON 25 AUGUST 2010

rani pathak das
research associate, Centre for Development and Peace Studies

The age-old debate on the illegal migration from Bangladesh to Assam has embraced a new turn with the commencement of the pilot project to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the resultant violent protest led by the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) in Barpeta district. The Government’s action and reaction in this context has made a mockery of the whole affair, raising doubts and confusion among the people. When it appears that a section of minorities are opposed to the NRC update in Assam, the rest of the people accept the initiative, almost blindly, believing that it will solve once and for all the age-old citizenship issue. The purpose of the NRC is to identify and enlist Indian citizens in the state. However, it is clear that the whole process lacks clarity.

Those who are against the Government’s move to update the NRC say they want the 1951 NRC to be revised only on the basis of the electoral rolls of 1971. But this is something that the Centre and the State Government have already agreed upon. Why the protest then? As a reaction to the violent protests in Barpeta, the Government put an immediate halt to the exercise in both Barpeta and Chaygaon circle, thus raising eye-brows of the people and making them believe how extra sensitively the state government was handling the issue. General perception is that the State Government must be concerned about its large migrant vote bank at a time when elections are round the corner. The halt to the pilot project has also given rise to an impression that the Congress-led Government in Assam, accused by certain quarters of using the migrants as a vote bank, could actually be walking the extra mile to please the AAMSU. The prevailing scenario has also raised doubts in certain quarters as to whether the NRC of 1951 is actually not available in some districts as stated by the authorities.

According to the Citizenship Act 1955—Article 3.1 (a) and 3.1 (b)—citizenship can be acquired by every person born in India “(a) on or after the 26th day of January, 1950, but before the 1st day of July 1987; (b) on or after the 1st day of July, 1987, but before the commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 and either of whose parents is a citizen of India at the time of his birth”.

As one discusses the NRC issue, it is pertinent to take a look at some of the citizenship regulations in India. Article 6A of the Act has special provisions as to citizenship of persons covered by the Assam Accord. It states that every person of Indian origin who (a) came to Assam on or after the 1st day of January, 1966, but before the 25th day of March, 1971 from the specified territory [the territories included in Bangladesh immediately before the commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1985]; and (b) has since the date of his entry into Assam, been ordinarily resident in Assam; and (c) has been detected to be a foreigner, shall register himself in accordance with the rules made by the Central Government in this behalf under section 18 …..…. and if his name is included in any electoral roll for any Assembly or Parliamentary constituency in force on the date of such detection, his name shall be deleted therefrom.

In Assam, the issue of illegal migration is decades old—an issue on which elections have been won or lost. The intensity of the problem was felt statewide with the discovery of the alleged inclusion of 45,000 Bangladeshis in Mangaldoi Lok Sabha Constituency after the revision of the voters’ list from April to May 1979. This acted as a spark to fire the six year long Assam Agitation led by the All Assam Students’ Union in which 855 people lost their lives, many injured badly while thousands sacrificed education and career. On August 27, 1979 the All Asom Gana Sangram Parishad was formed and the anti-foreigners’ movement received a momentum. The agitation ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in the midnight of August 14, 1985 in New Delhi between the Centre and the AASU leaders. The AASU leaders eventually floated the political party Asom Gana Parishad and rode to power on the euphoria generated by the deal.

Now, after 25 years of signing the historic Accord, the AASU thinks that the very issue of illegal migration is yet to be addressed. “The decision on upgrading the NRC was taken on June 6, 2005. It took five more years to start the pilot projects in Barpeta and Chaygaon. And yet again, vested interests have stepped in to create confusion in the minds of the people and stall the project”, said Samujjal Bhattacharyya, Advisor of AASSU. At the same time, AASU has smelled conspiracy of the Government and political parties concerned as the NRC updating in Chaygaon too was paused while the violence actually broke out in Barpeta. “There are enough reasons to believe that migrants across the border who came to the state after 1971 are threatened by the NRC update,” Bhattacharyya said stating that there is no error in the NRC form. Apart from AASU, 25 organizations, including others, want the NRC to be updated with no delay.

On the other hand, the AAMSU’s demand for cancellation of the process of upgrading the NRC is based on its opinion that the NRC form has certain errors. As part of the project, the citizens have been asked to attach some documents as proof of their Indian citizenship with the standard government form. These documents include the list of NRC 1951 and the electoral rolls of 1966 and 1971.

Supporting the AAMSU’s demand, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) general secretary Hafiz Bashir Ahmed Qasimi stated in a press conference in Guwahati on August 22, 2010 that the current process of updating the NRC is faulty. In its memo to the Prime Minister on August 20 it demanded that “copies of the NRC 1951 and all the electoral rolls prior to 1971, after elimination of all anomalies or defects in them, be published immediately and made accessible to the public; in case of areas where copies of the NRC, 1951 and the electoral rolls prior to 1971 are not available, the Government should immediately specify the documents which shall be acceptable …”. Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Choudhury, working president of AIUDF, feels that the 1971 cut off date is all right while he blames the successive governments at the Centre and the State for keeping the border open in order to keep the influx issue alive.

The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, (repealed in 2005 after a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court in April 2000) was in force only in Assam since October 28, 1983. The Act played as a deterrent to the whole process of identification and deportation of foreigners. Under the IMDT Act, the onus of proving the citizenship of an accused 'illegal alien' lied on the accuser, whereas in the Foreigners Act, the onus lies with the accused. Sarbananda Sonowal, former AASU leader and ex-AGP MP from Dibrugarh, who filed the PIL, now argues that with amendments in Article 3.1 (a) and 3.1 (b) in the Citizenship Act, the government has paved the way to grant citizenship to illegal migrants and their decedents who have entered the country till 2004. “Thus the very clauses of the Assam Accord have been rendered redundant”, he rues. The process of updating the NRC assumes significance in view of such concerns.

Questions arise as whether an Accord, not even ratified by the Parliament, is a piece of legal document or can pass legal scrutiny? Article 13(3) (a) of the Constitution says that "law" includes any Ordinance, order, bye-law, rule, regulation, notification, custom or usage. One may say that the Assam Accord overrode Article 6 of the Constitution and made the cut-off year for migrants from erstwhile Pakistan to Assam March 25, 1971. If this is a serious discrimination against the people of Assam, it is also unconstitutional.

Any debate on the migration issue leads people to look back on Assam’s past. C.S Mullen, ICS, Census Superintendent of Assam in 1931 warned, “Probably the most important event in the province (of Assam) during the last 25 years—an event, moreover, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole future of Assam and to destroy more surely than did the Burmese invaders of 1829 the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilization—has been the invasion of a vast hoard of land hungry Bengali immigrants ………. sometime before 1911 and the census report of that is the first report which makes mention of the advancing host.” The Mymensingh region—the major source of this influx—became a part of a foreign country after Independence. The problem of influx saw an international dimension.

In 1998, Lt. Gen (retd) S K Sinha, the then Governor of Assam, submitted a 42 page report to President K R Narayanan with a copy to the then Prime Minister IK Gujral noting that the serious demographic and security threats posed by illegal migration had not been suitable addressed by successive governments at the Centre and in the State. The former Governor wonders why the government took more than 25 years to seal the Assam-Bangladesh border. “During my tenure as the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, I managed to fence 700 kilometres of the international border with Pakistan in one year”, he said later.

The failure to solve the problem, according to Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who led the Assam Agitation as AASU president and later was CM for two terms in the State, lies in the Central government’s lack of will and its far greater emphasis on the problem of insurgency. And now he feels the need of a different approach to the issue. He thinks that Delhi should try and build up a diplomatic understanding so that Bangladesh can take back those detected as Bangladeshi citizens illegally living in India.

It is true that updating the NRC of 1951 can do a lot in identification of foreign nationals living illegally in Assam. It took a long time for the Government to start the pilot project since the decision of updating the NRC was taken in 2005 at a tripartite meeting chaired by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. Nobody knows if there is a time frame earmarked to complete the project. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has formed a committee of ministers to hold talks with concerned organizations to remove the loopholes, if any, in the mechanism used for updating the NRC. It may be noted that no specific time frame is given to the Committee to finalize the report. In the first meeting of the Cabinet Committee on the NRC held recently, it was decided to remove the “minor errors” in the NRC form and speed up the process of updating of the NRC through consultations with all political parties and organizations. But the meeting, too, did not make it clear when the pilot project on the NRC would resume!