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How important is the NRC?

WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah

During the last few weeks, States like Assam have woken up to the importance of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), 1951 and its updated form for being able to distinguish the Indian citizens from foreign nationals illegally living in India and most of them pretending to be Indian nationals. In fact, this is a very important reason why all the States of India should have updated NRCs and the mechanism to keep updating the NRCs every 10 years or so. It is all very well to pretend that an updated NRC is vital only for a State like Assam which has about the largest number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. But the day is not far off when Assam and the other States of the north-eastern region will have a surfeit of illegal migrants from Bangladesh and such migrants will start moving to other States of India as well. But this is not the only reason why the exercise of updating the NRC should be undertaken by all Indian States. It is the very attitude of our political leaders to the entire business of handling huge influxes of human beings from other countries that makes a greater dependence on the NRC rather imperative. The problem with most of our political leaders is that they are still not entirely familiar with the political culture that is appropriate for all democracies. There is somehow a deeply ingrained belief that India is responsible (in one way or another) to be sensitive to the human problems of neighbouring States and even for taking some of them on regardless of what our resources and abilities are. But this is not the only reason why India has to be far more careful about getting involved in the problems of its neighbouring countries. One of them is that there is a vague tendency among neighbouring countries to give the impression of looking up to India as the big brother even if they have no intentions of giving India the status of the big brother except when the question of financial assistance is involved. And considering that India’s economy is growing at a very impressive rate, this pretence is likely to be extended and refined in the days to come. And that is why it is very important that all the States of India should strive to have very clear and precise information about the exact number of its citizens and the number of foreign nationals living in the State, either legally or illegally without any travel documents. In fact, this information about the number of Indian nationals and foreigners living in each Indian State is bound to become very important in the days to come.

There is no denying that some of the States of India along the international borders are far more vulnerable in respect of the number of foreign nationals living illegally in the States of India. And that is why, way back in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi had initiated the updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRCs) and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had taken steps in 2005 and 2013 towards the implementation of the initiatives needed for the updating of the NRCs. As Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh informed the Rajya Sabha recently, “The NRC update process started after the Assam Accord was signed on August 15, 1985. At that time Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister.” It will be recalled that the Assam Accord was signed following the six-year-long agitation by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) between 1979 and 1985, demanding detection and deportation of illegal migrants or “foreigners” from the State. But regardless of the fact that the Congress was eventually instrumental in getting the NRC updated, it will not do to overlook the fact that in the beginning the Congress had repeatedly postponed and delayed the exercise of updating the NRC. And the reasons for this are not far to seek. Over the years, the Congress had been responsible for inflating our electoral roll by including the names of lakhs of Bangladeshis who were living illegally in Assam. This was the easiest way of expanding the vote bank illegally and ensuring easy votes for the party in power without having to deserve such votes through good performance. And this is part of the accepted political culture of the world’s largest democracy: that no one should ask for the credentials of the candidate seeking our votes; we should be content to know the margin by which he/she had won the earlier elections. In a queer twist to the demographic process, we have taken away the principle of choice from the voter to the candidate who can choose the constituency from which to contest any election. In doing so, we have also shifted the very mode of choice.

One of the unfortunate facets of the NRC of Assam is that even after the updating of the NRC of 1951, we are still left with a large number of names of foreigners who had got included even in the updated NRC. The very fact that over 40 lakh (four million) names have had to be deleted from the updated NRC indicates that a very large number of the names of foreign nationals had got into the NRC. And it is not as though names can get into any list on their own. Any name gets into any list because someone has put it there. And quite obviously, many names of foreigners had got into our electoral roll and our NRC because someone had put them there. So we have clear evidence of our own people stabbing us in the back by inserting the names of foreigners in our voters’ lists when no one was looking. And now those names have risen up like monsters to tell us how deeply some people were involved in putting in names in the NRC and the voters’ lists that should not have been there.

Does a poor country like India (an impoverished country is a more precise description of India because ours is not really a poor country—it has been kept poor by successive batches of incompetent bureaucrats with inadequate knowledge about efficient administration) deserve the kind of political executives who cannot see beyond their own ambitions while they pretend to be concerned about the problems of the people? It is perhaps much better off without incompetent and uncommitted politicians and bureaucrats. But then we also have politicians like Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of neighbouring West Bengal, who has no business to be meddling in the domestic affairs of Assam, but is hell-bent on doing so because of ambitions about turning Assam into a Bengali-majority State. A chief minister, who is tardy about providing vital information relating to people of other States living in her State, is obviously more interested in disruption and sabotage than anything constructive. Unfortunately, it is our misfortune to be obliged to deal with people like her in a so-called civilized society. She can talk about a simple issue like the updating of the NRC “triggering off” a civil war. She can talk to top political leaders in New Delhi with virtually no information about Assam and hold up business in the Rajya Sabha for four days without anyone even questioning her right to do so. This is hardly surprising, because a large number of our MPs are more interested in the tamasha in Parliament than any serious business conducted at enormous expense of public money.

A relatively simple matter like the updating of the NRC for a State has been turned into a major issue that political parties either support or oppose without adequate information of the issues involved. And there is no remorse about having done serious injustice to some individual, group or organization because of ignorance of some important facts related to the issues involved. Mamata Banerjee has done considerable harm to the people of Assam by meddling in matters that are really of no concern to her. She even organized a trip to Assam by a group of TMC legislators and activists that could not get anywhere beyond the Silchar airport. It is high time people found an effective way of disciplining their elected representatives, especially when they overstep their jurisdictions and stray into domains that should be made out of bounds for them.