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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 38 New Delhi September 7, 2019

National Register of Citizens: Divisive Institution Creating Statelessness

Saturday 7 September 2019

by Gautam Sen

The final list constituting the National Register of Citizens (NRC), pertaining to the State of Assam, has been published on August 31, 2019. While 311,21,004 persons are included in the NRC, 19,06,657 have been considered ineligible for the purpose. The excluded include family members of former Indian President (late) Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and nearly a lakh Gurkhas long-resident in Assam. This document or database is of enormous significance. This is the first updated NRC relating to a province of the country, after the initial NRC, based on the first national Census, was prepared in 1951. The moot point is whether such an NRC should be replicated for other States and Union Territories, and if not, why?

The present political dispensation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has not formally demanded such an NRC for all States and Union Territories, but some of their functionaries, have. For example, Biplab Deb, the BJP Chief Minister of Tripura State, and the BJP leader in Delhi, Manoj Tiwari, have suggested drawing up NRCs for Tripura and Delhi, respectively. It is not clear which segment of the people of his State Biplab Deb was targeting to exclude from citizenship because more than 50 per cent of his State‘s population are non-indigenous Bengali people, with a substantial segment of Bangladeshi origin. Manoj Tiwari had obviously the Muslims from the eastern States in mind. The significance or implications for a wider NRC, therefore, need not be overstated. Its political overtones are, however, clearly recognisable.

Without going into the intricacies of preparing an NRC apropos the country‘s Citizenship Act, its objective as part of the existing political system, is required to be thought through. Does an NRC bring about better governance through the instrumentality of its database? Do the people and citizenry at large feel more comfortable or secure, more assured of their rights when they are part of the NRC?

Incidentally, the NRC is just another database, apart from the databases of Aadhar, the inputs derived from the huge voters’ database with the Election Commission of India, the Permanent Account Number repository of the Income-Tax Department and those of the security agencies. The present Union Government‘s response in these respects is not evident. It needs to be borne in mind that all such data at the disposal of the state, are only a means to an end and the end objective or objectives should be very clear. The security of the country and its people and the latter‘s well-being depends on how prudently such data are used by all concerned, and particularly by the government agencies.

An objective of the Assam NRC exercise has been the determination of the individuals who are in the State but not eligible to be citizens of India. The political demand for detection of foreigners or illegal entrants to the State from outside India, has been the trigger for the NRC exercise. Since 2013, the Supreme Court has maintained an oversight, inter alia directing the NRC‘s updating in conformity with the Citizenship Act, 1955. But, just consider if the exercise reveals that a particular number of applicants for inclusion in the NRC are deemed ineligible for citizenship, and the number is large. How are such persons to be dealt with? Have the governments of the day, at the Union level and Assam, thought of the consequences and the consequent follow-up action required? Moreover, if a large component of the population does not take the initiative to get enrolled in the NRC, what steps are to be taken at the State level? Unless the above questions are answered, the entire NRC exercise cannot but be termed an exercise in futility and to satiate the political demands of various quarters.

As a result of the NRC exercise in Assam, conducted under the supervision of the Supreme Court of India, 19.07 lakh persons, declared ineligible to be included in the NRC, will have the opportunity to represent and be adjudicated upon by 1000 tribunals sanctioned by the Union Home Ministry, to determine whether they have a rightful claim to be part of the NRC or ipso facto are illegal migrants. This will be a mammoth exercise, involving a large number of government personnel and resources and spread over considerable time. Have the Union and Assam State governments—and also the Supreme Court—thought on these issues? The psychological impact on these persons who have been considered ineligible for citizenship status, have also not been appraised. The consequences of this phenomenon on governance, the livelihood of these people, internal security and on the polity, have not been reckoned at all. If ultimately, after considerable state effort through adjudication before the designated tribunals, these persons are found to be entrants into Assam without valid documents and also ineligible for citizenship by birth and the naturalisation process, the actions to be taken by the state, at the Union and provincial levels, are not clear. In such a scenario, the NRC and its aftermath raises more questions but no answers from authoritative quarters have been forthcoming.

In the above-mentioned context, all thinking persons and citizens, over whom the Damocles sword of the NRC scrutiny does not loom, should ponder on the outcome of this NRC exercise. First and foremost, a significant portion of our people, who have lived within the geographical boundaries of India, would become stateless and virtually internal refugees. Does not this phenomenon impact the national morale, particularly when quite a few of such people would have their kith and kin, their friends and aquaintances who are regular citizens? The economic impact of such people within the State, is another imponderable. The accessibility of such people to jobs is an open question. Such people, within the State as well as moving out to States outside Assam, would have socio-economic as well as political ramifi-cations. Even citizens of India, have been the cause of inter-State and intra-State tension, such as the BRUs and Hmars in Mizoram, owing to ethnic animosity and movement between adjoining States, not to mention people considered ineligible to be citizens.

The requirement of an NRC, on the face of it, may appear unexceptional. The question is: why has the need been felt only recently and with so much political vigour, and that too, for selective application in Assam? The genesis of the problem lies in the Assam Accord of 1985 which enjoined on the governments of India and Assam, to detect entrants in the State with effect from 1.1.1966 and deport those who entered from March 25, 1971 onwards. With hindsight it appears that it was a measure agreed to by the Rajiv Gandhi-led Union Government without foresight. A prudent approach should have been to fix the citizenship issue on ‘as is where is‘ basis, that is, accepting those with identity documents in India at the time of signing of the Accord on August 15, 1985, that is, rather than resort to an NRC entailing huge government effort and involving many imponderables for the future. It is also not fair to subject the people of Assam alone for scrutiny towards determi-nation of their eligibility in the NRC, when the people of other States are not dealt with as such. This is notwithstanding the geopolitical disposition of different States. The demand for an NRC with a view to determine outsiders, migrant Muslims from Bangladesh, Rohingyas, etc., have however no justification per se because of the underlying politico-communal intent.

In India, the casualness of our approach, lack of sincerity in our endeavour both at the govern-ment and non-state levels, on implementing programmes and projects, need no emphasis. The NRC exercise cannot be an exception to this attribute. Recent reports of numerous Aadhar applicants having their birthday as January 1 and peculiar ages (parents and children of near-similar age), only shows that all such databases have to necessarily factor in a reasonable margin of error. In such a scenario, even after the sifting of the data at various echelons and adjudication by different tribunals post-declaration of the NRC list on August 31, 2019, it may be difficult to repose faith in the NRC.

Statelessness is a huge political, social and economic problem, wherever it occurs all over the world. Those who are perpetrators of this phenomenon are a cause of great human misery with a long-lasting effect. We in India, particularly at the level of the higher executive and judiciary, should have the sagacity and foresight to uphold our civilisational heritage of inclusiveness and help assimilate the stateless into our polity, unless our polity has become so brittle as to implode from within.

The author is a retired senior Civil Service Officer of the Government of India with administrative experience in North-Eastern States. The views expressed here are personal.

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