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Misgivings Over National Register of Citizens

Like the proverbial elephant being described by six blind men, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has become a battleground of contending views and cynical posturing. The Congress, AIUDF, Jamiat and AAMSU, among others, are dismayed over NRC State Coordinator Prateek Hazela’s suggestion to the Supreme Court about considering the citizenship claims of 40 lakh people (left out of draft NRC) on the basis of any of 10 documents, rather than 15 as earlier. They have pointed out that while the NRC authority expended great time, energy and resources in digitising 1951 NRC and electoral rolls up to 1971, these are among the five documents omitted from Hazela’s suggested list to the apex court. When lakhs of NRC applicants hunted for their legacy data in these documents to submit to the authority earlier, how come such documents are now sought to be ‘downgraded’ — it is being asked. Instead, the NRC Coordinator has plumped for papers like land documents, permanent resident certificate, documents proving government service, passport, bank or post office account, LIC policy, birth certificate and education certificate. “From where did Mr Hajela get the authority to give such an affidavit to the Supreme Court, when the fact is all 15 documents had earlier been accepted by the Registrar General, the Union Home Ministry and the Supreme Court?” wonders Assam Congress chief Ripun Bora.

Interestingly, Assam BJP chief Ranjit Dutta too has raised the same question, saying that the NRC Coordinator’s “unilateral” affidavit has sowed confusion in the minds of people and that his action has been discussed in the party’s national executive meet in New Delhi recently. Mr Dutta has further alleged that the names of a large number of indigenous people along with those of Bengali, Hindi, Gorkhali and other speakers living in Assam for ages have been excluded from draft NRC. How the Central and State governments respond in apex court to the NRC Coordinator’s affidavit remains to be seen, but one thing is clear — hardly any quarter seems happy with it.
After the initial euphoria over complete draft NRC publication on July 30 last wore off, it was found that an applicant could only search for his/her name after typing out the barcode number given in the receipt — there was no provision to examine the register as a whole. Nevertheless, speculation is rife that this draft NRC too has gone the way of electoral lists of yore, riddled with the names of Bangladeshi infiltrators. In the first part draft NRC published on 31st December last year, the NRC authority later weeded out 4,259 names of persons who had been declared foreigners by foreigner tribunals. There is still no official word forthcoming as to what action has been taken to apprehend these people, and whether any credible search is being made in the complete draft NRC to detect more such people. There are even reports of suspected foreigners employed in NRC verification work, and the mischief they perpetrated on the exercise. The NRC Coordinator himself has caused much consternation by admitting in the apex court that legacy data may have been bought and sold! This has spurred Assam Public Works, the NGO whose petition to Supreme Court in July 2009 had set the NRC update ball rolling — to now demanding that the vaunted NRC software be examined by a leading tech institute for failure to detect such fraud, as well as third-party verification of draft NRC. Meanwhile, the NRC authority has blocked access to legacy data (the 1951 NRC plus electoral rolls of 1967 and 1971) on NRC Assam portal, reportedly fearing its misuse. The data had been available online for three years, and many rejected applicants are only now finding out that they had failed to collect the necessary legacy data or had furnished the wrong data. Taking up cudgels on their behalf, the rights body ‘Citizens’ Rights Preservation Committee (CRPC)’ has pointed out such people stand to lose out on citizenship just because of their illiteracy and sheer ignorance. There are reasonable grounds to believe that most such people are either of indigenous stock or their forefathers had migrated to this region far earlier than 1971.

The Union Home Ministry, in consultation with Assam government, submitted to the apex court last month a draft standard operating procedure (SOP) for filing claims and objections regarding NRC. It is likely the SOP will be finalised soon after stakeholders submit their representations. Once this is done, hopefully, the question over penalties for filing objections that turn out to be wrong will also be settled. AGP’s Prafulla Kumar Mahanta has taken issue on this point, referring to the draconian penalty provisions for ‘wrong objections’ that had made the IMDT Act unworkable. How the balance is struck between necessary public scrutiny of an updated and transparent NRC on one hand and guarding against mischievous objections on the other, will be keenly watched. But the Assam government’s recent affidavit in Supreme Court on draft NRC offers food for serious thought, mentioning as it does the omission of a large number of people who qualify as original inhabitants, as well as genuine Indian citizens who migrated here from other States. It is all very well for the ruling BJP to talk of undertaking NRC update in other States too, so as to “detect, delete and deport” illegal immigrants. But the challenge is to ensure that the NRC in Assam is prepared to free of flaws before it is extolled elsewhere as a ‘model’. Subverting it from within by waiving settled norms, and bypassing it from outside by tweaking citizenship laws to make citizens of refugees, threaten to defeat its very purpose.