The misgivings about the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of Assam, are not entirely unfounded. The NRC was prepared from a competent system that successfully built a reliable digital database. Software was developed to comprehensively collate all available government records from 1951 – 1971 to create a legacy data for accurately tracing the antecedents of applicants. The legacy data was fundamental for an authentic NRC. Digital scrutiny was also supported by field verifications. Anomalies were expected. But the general consensus was that the NRC would be fairly accurate and the margin of error limited. It is therefore intriguing that the 40 lakhs excluded from the final draft NRC in July 2018 fell drastically to 19 lakhs in the final NRC of August, 2019. A huge difference of 21 lakhs.
Doubts about the veracity of the NRC have surfaced because in the influx prone districts bordering Bangladesh which have large immigrant population the percentage of exclusion was 7.71%. This is well below the average 12.15% exclusions in the final draft NRC. The State Coordinator NRC, Assam, had reported to the Supreme Court (SC) that because of a design flaw the legacy data could have been misused by imposters to enlist themselves in the NRC. In Assam there is also a flourishing racket in forged documents that help illegal immigrants claim citizenship or get enlisted as voters. The misuse of legacy data, forged documents passing undetected and collusion of some unscrupulous NRC Sewa Kendra (NSK) personnel enabled many illegal immigrants in these districts to enlist themselves in the NRC.
In contrast, the exclusion percentage in the predominantly indigenous interior districts was higher at 14.5%. These people were excluded because they did not have the prescribed documents. Apart from the Citizenship Act 1955, the NRC update process in Assam is governed by the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens & Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules 2003. This Rule specifically provides for inclusion of such persons who are original inhabitants of Assam and whose citizenship is beyond doubt. The indigenous communities who are the sons of the soil rooted to their land have never felt the need for a document to prove their roots. In the absence of documents, instead of rejecting their applications, in-depth field verifications among the communities to determine their status would have been more prudent. In such cases the SC directive was to apply discretion where necessary, which perhaps was ignored.
Significantly, the minority dominated non-border districts had the highest exclusion percentage of 20.25%. In Darrang and Hojai districts the percentage was abnormally high, 31.39% and 30.9% respectively. In these districts a large number of Bengali Hindus and people from different Indian States settled in Assam were excluded. Apparently field verification reports were subverted and not digitised or verified at higher levels and unscrupulous workers in NSKs manipulated the lists.
The NRC process is still ongoing. After the final draft NRC was published the SC had suggested a 10% sample re-verification of those included with 100% re-verification if discrepancies were found. Now with the districts where significant disparities have occurred revealed the Government of Assam, Assam Public Works (APW) and AASU should jointly petition the SC for 100% re-verification in these areas. Importantly as the digitised database of all applicants are now easily available, the scrutiny in these districts should not be restricted only to those included but also to those excluded. This will save many genuine citizens excluded erroneously from prolonged harassment in the Tribunals and Courts.
Furthermore the Assam Government must mobilise the Border Police and access the digitised database now available in all districts to detect the persons who submitted forged documents and misused the legacy data. Once traced the names of such frauds must be deleted from the NRC. According to records, out of a total population of 3.33 crore in 2015, 4 lakhs did not apply. Another 4 lakhs did not file claims after being excluded from the draft NRC. It is suspected that a majority of these 8 lakh people and the 1.02 lakh excluded because of pending cases in the Foreigners Tribunals are illegal immigrants. It is imperative that the police track down these almost a million people before they vanish somewhere in Assam. Otherwise three decades later their descendents will claim citizenship.
The NRC in Assam has been selectively criticised at the national/international levels as communal and for relying on documentary evidence. Critics argue that in a country where identity papers and documentation was a rarity until recently, it is illogical to expect illiterate and impoverished people to produce decades old papers to prove their identity status. Yet 6.6 crore documents were submitted. Such critics may not be aware that in Assam, ironically, it is the illegal immigrant who has all the prescribed documents to prove citizenship. The NRC is an attempt to detect such illegal paper citizens irrespective of religion or language. No one expected a foolproof NRC. Hence statements that declare the NRC a failure, the digitised database useless and demand its scrapping indicate some pre-planned agenda.
The NRC was prepared in 1951 after independent India’s first Census. It contained the names of all genuine Indian citizens and recorded relevant information of those included which would subsequently help detect non-citizens. Maintained by the Registrar General of India, it was to be updated every decade. The fact that it was never updated after 1951 reveals the callousness of successive governments towards such a vital document of national importance. The six year long Assam movement against the grave consequences of large-scale unabated illegal influx from Bangladesh on the State’s demography and a SC intervention compelled the Union Government to shed its apathy and do what it had not done since 1951. Assam is the first State in India to update the NRC 1951. An up-to-date NRC is vital for a country prone to cross-border terrorism, infiltration and illegal immigration as it has serious demographic, economic and security implications. The NRC Assam should therefore be appreciated and corrected. Not castigated and politicised.
(The writer is Guwahati-based columnist)