It is only in India that something as basic as a register of citizens becomes a political plaything, that too in just one State. The manner in which the NRC update exercise in Assam has been buffeted this way and that over the years merely goes to show the irresponsibility of political parties. The country has laws on citizenship laid down by the Constitution — but at the altar of votebank politics — these laws have been sacrificed in letter or spirit, or tweaked outright for ulterior ends. It speaks volumes that it requires the highest court of the land to keep the NRC process going along the straight path, while the political establishment sees to it that it gets deviated, sidetracked or stalled outright. Over the next few days, the Supreme Court is slated to take up for hearing the issues of acceptability of panchayat certificates as NRC linkage document, along with the ‘origil inhabitant’ tag used in NRC verification phase. Meanwhile, sinister quarters are already attempting to force the issue and settle it on the streets through overt threats. Jamiat Ulema e-Hind president Arshad Madani has played true to type by rabble rousing comments that if panchayat documents are rejected and thereby lakhs of Muslims are denied citizenship, “Assam will turn into another Myanmar”. His allusion to persecuted Rohingyas (who are not considered citizens in Myanmar) was virtually a call for violent action to his core base. With the Jamiat leader thus raising the threat perception for security agencies in Assam, the December 31 deadline to bring out the draft NRC is straightaway under pressure. As if on cue, the Central government through the Registrar General of India (RGI) has approached the Supreme Court, seeking to push the deadline by seven months to July 31 next year. Reportedly, the Centre’s contention is that the extension is needed to ensure maintence of law and order, as well as publication of an error-free NRC. It remains to be seen how the apex court responds to this plea, but indications of yet another deadline to be missed have been apparent since last week.
The State NRC Coordintor in a status report to the Supreme Court mentioned that the authorities ‘are yet to come to a fil decision’ regarding 1.23 crore applicants (out of total 3.21 crore). The SC bench made its displeasure at the delay clearly known; the NRC Coorditor later clarified before media that while ‘verification has progressed’ vis-a-vis all these cases, the fil decision ‘on their eligibility on all parameters of verification’ has not arrived so far. He has reiterated the difficult ture of the on-field verification part, involving house to house visits, back-end verification of documents with issuing authorities and linkage verification by matching family trees. It is also a fact that some States have been very tardy in returning verification documents of citizens who have settled in Assam, which in turn has added to the delay. But the Centre’s latest plea for extending the NRC deadline has raised more suspicions of a political agenda — that the NDA desperately wants this breather to push through the citizenship amendment bill to grant citizenship to minority refugees (read Hindu) from neighbouring countries including Bangladesh. If the bill does come up during the forthcoming winter session of Parliament, the battle lines will be clearly drawn. The prospect of Hindu Bangladeshi migrants in Assam getting blanket citizenship while their Muslim counterparts desperately seek papers for inclusion into NRC — is ripe for political mischief that can create havoc in Assam. While there can be no compromise with an error-free NRC, intermible delay will push its publication towards the 2019 general elections (even if it is not brought forward). That in turn can make the NRC exercise a highly divisive political issue in Assam, if not the country. People of this State have witnessed this kind of cynicism in 2010, when the NRC pilot projects at Chhaygaon and Barpeta came a cropper due to violence and the entire exercise came to a shuddering halt. The Prabrajan Virodhi Manch (PVM) has furnished figures that ancestors of as many as 98 of the 132 people who were injured and received compensation from the State government — did not figure in the 1971 electoral rolls. Unless the Congress, which was holding reins at Dispur in 2010, counters the PVM revelation in convincing manner, it will merely reinforce the suspicion that the NRC pilot project was conveniently stalled through the agency of Bangladeshi infiltrators. The people of the State are now looking to the apex court to keep the NRC issue along strictly constitutiol lines, but the political class as a whole needs to rise above rrow, short-sighted considerations at this critical juncture.