POST TIME: 21 October, 2019 00:00 00 AM
The NRC could still become a reality for the rest of India
Aman Wadud

The NRC could still become a reality for the rest of India

About midnight one night in August, I received a call about an accident not far from Guwahati, a bustling city in India’s north-eastern state of Assam. As a lawyer who works on cases relating to citizenship, I was already aware that many of Assam’s rural dwellers were driving through Guwahati on their way to other parts of the state to deal with a pressing matter: their status as bonafide citizens of India. At the scene of the accident, a truck carrying molten tar had upended after colliding with a bus full of people en route to hearings set up to determine whether they would be included in the National Register of Citizens, or NRC. The register, essentially a comprehensive list of all Indian citizens living in Assam, was scheduled to be released that month. Those with burn injuries had to be rushed to a nearby hospital, where a woman with her three-year-old daughter sat, both covered in molten tar, weeping as she wondered about the consequences of not making it to her destination the following day. It seemed to me that her anxiety, driven by the possibility of not finding their names in the NRC, had dwarfed the pain caused by her injuries. Sadly, she was not alone. Entire families had been served notice, some only 24 hours before they were due to attend their hearings. Many had to stump up whatever cash they could to make the journey, like selling their belongings including cattle and gold. For the past four years, a vast majority of the 33 million residents of Assam have been made to endure similar anxiety and hardship just to prove their citizenship. And there is more uncertainty to follow, judging by the pandemonium the release of the NRC in Assam caused on August 31, when the list left out nearly two million residents and put them at risk of becoming stateless.

What is worse is that the same crisis is about to unfold across the country. While Assam is the first Indian state to have its own citizens’ register, politicians in other states like Haryana, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh are calling for the same in their respective provinces. The Haryana assembly elections are due to be held next week and chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar has hinted he might kickstart the process of identifying illegal residents in his state if he is re-elected. What is common with all four state governments – as well as the federal government in Delhi – is that they are all currently being run by prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The NRC has become its electoral trump card. Home minister Amit Shah, the hawkish party president and Mr Modi’s powerful deputy, recently declared that “the BJP government will make sure every infiltrator is thrown out of the country” by the time the next general elections are under way in 2024.

But the story of the NRC began well before 2015, when the exercise to identify bonafide citizens living in Assam began on orders made two years earlier by India’s Supreme Court. Pre-dating the BJP, the register was simply meant to follow on from the first census of independent India, conducted in 1951. It was only after anti-migrant agitations in 1985 that the exercise to detect and deport so-called illegal immigrants was formally approved. It was then legislated that anyone who could not prove that they or their ancestors had entered Assam before midnight on March 24, 1971, would be deemed illegal immigrants. March 25 marks the eve of the Bangladesh Liberation War and Assam shares a border with the country.

In fact, the issue is two centuries old, dating back to when people began migrating to Assam from Bengal when both were provinces of the British empire. Bengali Hindus were the first to arrive, brought in to perform clerical duties and work in tea gardens. Bengali Muslims followed in the middle of the 19th century, mostly rural workers looking for land to till, given that densely populated Bengal had reached its limits. Many yearning to own land knew they did not have to go very far to do so, even though it was going to be an arduous journey. Stories of people sailing up to 500km against the flow of the Brahmaputra river to reach their promised land is not simply the stuff of legend. Encouraged by the British for the purpose of maximising profit, this influx continued into the 20th century. According to the 1931 census, Assam was home to more than half a million immigrants and by 1951, Bengali Muslims alone comprised nearly 25 per cent of the state’s population.

The writer is a lawyer at Guwahati High Court, India