The National Register of Citizens update in Assam is perhaps one of independent India’s most extensive and intensive census exercises
After the publication of the final draft of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam in July 2018, the Supreme Court of India scrutinised the district-wise break-up of the names of those excluded. Based on the scrutiny, the SC considered it necessary to carry out at least 10 per cent sample re-verification of the names of those included. Both the Assam Government and the original petitioner in the case, Assam Public Works (APW), supported the SC’s decision. The SC accordingly directed the State Coordinator of the NRC Assam to submit a report on conducting a re-verification exercise simultaneously with the claims and objections process. The SC was of the considered opinion that such a step would eliminate errors and strengthen the authenticity of the NRC.
People lined up outside an NRC Seva Kendra in Assam
Assam is the only state in India where the NRC 1951 is being updated because of a demographic imbalance caused by large-scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Census reports show that post-1971 Assam’s population grew at a rate higher than the national average. Interestingly, according to the religion data of the 2011 census when the growth of the Muslim population was only marginal in the rest of India, Assam registered the highest decadal growth of Muslim population in the country. Linguistic data also show a sharp rise in the Bengali speaking population in the last three decades. Notably, this change in the religious and linguistic profile of Assam has been more pronounced in Assam-Bangladesh border districts. Sociologists attribute this unusual trend to the cross-border influx from Bangladesh with a majority of immigrants being Muslim peasants.
However, the final draft of the NRC does not corroborate such a trend. Out of 3.29 crore applicants, 2.89 crore names were included. About 40 lakh names were excluded. In its scrutiny, the SC found that a large number of people belonging to the indigenous and tea garden tribal communities of Assam were among those left out of the final draft of the NRC because they did not have the prescribed documents. Another substantial number consisted of Bengali Hindus and of people from other Indian States who had settled in Assam. But pertinently in India, it is still customary to identify a person by his ancestry (vansh), village, caste, community or religion rather than an official document. Indians, therefore, have never felt the need for a document to prove that they are Indians. Ironically, it is only the illegal immigrant who has felt the need to prove his citizenship and hence possesses all the required documents.
In Assam, there is a flourishing racket of forged government documents that help illegal immigrants claim citizenship. For the claims and objections phase, five documents of the original fifteen documents allowed at the time of applying for inclusion in the NRC had been excluded. The five excluded documents were the NRC 1951, electoral rolls up to 1971 (particularly those issued from Tripura), citizenship certificate, refugee certificate and ration cards. The NRC Coordinator had informed the SC that during the preparation of the draft NRC, most of the rejected applications were based on forged documents belonging to these five categories. But the SC advised the NRC authorities to be extra vigilant and permitted all fifteen documents for the claims and objections process too.
Preparing a transparent, digitised legacy database to correctly trace the antecedents of each applicant was crucial for compiling an authentic NRC. The database was laboriously created from the NRC 1951 and electoral rolls up to March 24, 1971. Software was developed to handle these fragile and faded documents, map and merge the original 8 districts with the existing 33 districts, transliterate them into three languages, design a phonetic search engine to display similar sounding names, trace a person by the name of a village or neighbour and verify documents from their places of origin. Each legacy was given a unique legacy code and all data cross-checked with field verifications. Despite such exhaustive preparations, given the magnitude of the task, errors have occurred.
In a report submitted to the SC, the State Coordinator NRC has admitted that because of a design flaw the legacy data could have been misused by imposters to enter their names in the NRC. There have also been disturbing reports about unscrupulous NRC Sewa Kendra (NSK) staff taking money to include names. Or of doubtful citizens, in one case a declared foreigner, working in the NSKs. The APW has filed a fresh affidavit in the SC seeking 100% re-verification in some select districts of Assam. In spite of such technical flaws and human failings, the NRC Authorities have remained committed to the task of compiling an error-free NRC. This is evident from the Additional Draft Exclusion List published recently where about 1 lakh persons who were included in the draft NRC, on verification, were found to be either doubtful citizens or declared foreigners or persons with cases pending in the Foreigners Tribunals.
The NRC update in Assam is perhaps one of independent India’s most extensive and intensive census exercises. In 2015 when the NRC revision process began, Assam’s population was 3.33 crore with approximately 68 lakh family units. NSKs across Assam received 3.29 crore applications from 68.27 lakh families along with 6.6 crore documents. These figures indicate that the SC monitored NRC update process received spontaneous public support transcending linguistic, ethnic and religious barriers. Most importantly, it also helped create a much needed digitised database of Assam’s population.
The NRC will finally lay bare the scale of illegal influx from Bangladesh and end the decades of speculation, controversy and vote-bank politics on the issue. In future, the digitised database will become a vital document to detect illegal immigrants. In the absence of refugee law, the Government of India must amend the Foreigners Act 1946. A special category of ‘refugee’ foreigner must be inserted with the proper procedure for certification, due process and non-refoulment rights so that only the genuinely persecuted are considered for asylum. A nation must first protect the rights of its own citizens before securing the citizenship rights of illegal immigrants who have allegedly fled their own countries because of religious persecution.
(The author is an entrepreneur and free-lance writer based in Guwahati)