The Tarun Gogoi led Congress government has at last shown its hand as far as the exercise to update the tiol Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam is concerned. It is common knowledge that this government had been reluctantly led to take up this exercise only because of a determined Supreme Court. With the deadline looming large to complete the NRC update by January next year, a broad attack on several fronts seems to have now begun to undermine the entire process. Almost half way through the massive exercise, the State government has decided to dash off a letter to the Centre to take steps for inclusion into NRC all persons whose mes appeared in the electoral rolls of the country by virtue of them ‘being genuine Indian citizens’. The Tarun Gogoi government has however neglected to mention electoral rolls up to which year should now be considered acceptable. A section of Congress legislators along with some parties and organisations have been vociferously demanding that electoral rolls as recent as those of 2014 should be considered the basis for citizenship. The problem with such electoral rolls is that the mes of lakhs of foreigners already figure there. Over the years, the so-called preparation of ‘correct’ electoral rolls in Assam has descended to such absurd levels that Bangladeshi citizens have not only voted in lakhs but one of them even contested in an Assembly election, drawing the strong ire of the Gauhati High Court. The political reality of legions of Bangladeshi voters becoming ‘kingmakers’ in nearly 40 per cent Assembly constituencies in Assam is such that no party, least of all the Congress, can afford to ignore it.
With Assembly elections less than a year away in 2016, it is hardly surprising that the Tarun Gogoi government has now decided to make an about-turn from its stated position in the tripartite meet of May 5, 2005. In that meeting it was decided between the Central government, the Assam government and the AASU that the base year to update the 1951 NRC will be 1971 (up to 25 March). This was in accordance with the Assam Accord which, though virtually rendered meaningless, is not something that can be officially repudiated. And so the 1951 NRC, as well as the 1966 and 1971 electoral rolls are now being primarily accessed by NRC applicants to gather legacy data of forefathers. Apart from this, the government has been at pains to clarify that 12 other documents may be furnished as proof of citizenship. The citizenship laws of the country are also such that a number of migrants to Assam can be regularised if applied for properly. But the dimensions of the foreigners problem in Assam is such that around 40 lakh Bangladeshis, by a conservative estimate, are desperate to get into the NRC. Most of them are already voters by furnishing documents as flimsy as ration cards. They would have gotten their hands onto Aadhaar cards as well, which is for permanent residents (not citizens) of India, had that project picked up in Assam. A number of them are encountering difficulties with some NRC requirements, despite the plethora of altertive criteria announced.
And so the demand is growing louder to do away with all requirements and straightaway make the 2014 electoral rolls the basis for NRC inclusion. Pray who would dare question which voters in the 2014 rolls were ‘genuine Indian citizens’ and which were not? The orchestrated campaign against even tribuls and courts in Assam branding some voters ‘doubtful (D voters)’ is sufficient indication of the hurdles sought to be erected. In fact, the way in which the entire NRC update process has been designed and conducted appears to be deliberately self-defeating. There are widespread complaints about the complexity of NRC forms, supposedly difficult to fill up even for educated people. The NRC seva kendras set up in 2,500 places are already overwhelmed with queries, and there is a crying need for properly trained resource persons to help out applicants. Meanwhile there are serious misgivings about the NRC update process among indigenous tribal communities, the very people whose identity and existence this exercise should protect. Bodo organisations are demanding the NRC forms should be provided in Bodo language as well. Now Bodo and other indigenous bodies are questioning the need for so many criteria for ‘sons of the soil’ to prove themselves citizens, demanding that their surmes and tribal certificates should be deemed sufficient. Their concerns must be addressed with priority, but the Tarun Gogoi government while giving them lip sympathy, seems more intent to take the opportunity in pushing for inclusion of lakhs of foreigners into the NRC. The sinister political game to throw the entire NRC exercise into confusion and thereby derail it, needs to be exposed at the apex court which is overseeing the process.