Now that the complete draft NRC is out, the long wait is finally over. The significance of this event must be appreciated properly. An updated database of citizens has been created in Assam, the first such effort in the entire country, that too monitored by its apex court. A gigantic exercise stretching for over three years has just crossed an important milepost. Of the 3.29 crore people living in the State, 2.89 crore have made it to the registry of citizens. One should be careful not to jump to the conclusion that the 40.07 lakh people excluded are all foreigners. In fact, the claims and objections filing phase in August-September will be crucial to ensure that no genuine citizen is left out or harassed. But the large number itself (after an exhaustive verification phase) indicates the dimension of the problem squeezing Assam for decades. This is a State whose population has jumped more than fourfold from 80 lakh when the first NRC was prepared in 1951; the drastic demographic change in 11 of its districts is all too real; the proportion of speakers of not just Assamese (down to 48.38% as per 2011 census data released recently) but also of tribal languages like Bodo and Rabha have been steadily declining. Even an initiative in 2015 by then Assam Assembly Speaker Pranab Kumar Gogoi to define ‘Assamese people’ — as mentioned in Assam Accord — raised more questions than it answered. It just goes to show that Assam is a special case, a State overrun by illegal immigrants and sorely afflicted by its consequences. The influx began in the 1930s and was noted by the British colonialists. But matters came to a head in the Seventies, first in the aftermath of the liberation of Bangladesh and the huge inflow of refugees, followed by the Assam Agitation that began in 1979 and continued for six years with the bloody 1983 general elections in between. Yet the very mention of the foreigner problem in Assam or the country as a whole is treated as taboo — we can recall the furore in Assam Congress and the pro-foreigner lobby when the UPA Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Jaiswal informed Parliament in 2004 that there were estimated 50 lakh Bangladeshi immigrants residing in Assam. The backlash seemed to be more due to a Central minister daring to put a number to the problem! Here we are in 2018 and the situation has grown more critical for various groups of indigenous people in Assam, each facing its own existential crisis.
The decision to update NRC was born out of the tripartite meet in May 5, 2005 between AASU and the Central and State governments — but given the extent to which the foreigners problem in Assam has been politicised — it had zero likelihood of succeeding as an administrative exercise. It would have remained stillborn after violence greeted its pilot projects in Barpeta and Chaygaon in 2010, but thanks to the NGO Assam Public Works backed by some public spirited individuals, the matter went to Supreme Court. It was only after the apex court involved itself with the exercise after a landmark verdict in November 2014 that NRC update in Assam got off to a start six months later. The huge opposition ranged against it at every turn continues to be virulent till today; it has stayed the course only because it turned into a legal exercise to determine citizenship. The orchestrated campaign against NRC update in Assam has always sought to create the impression that it is an arbitrary and motivated exercise. What has been conveniently glossed over is that NRC modalities were worked out in transparent manner and passed the test of umpteen legal challenges. To prove that their forefathers resided in Assam before March 24, 1971, applicants could furnish any one of a list of 14 acceptable documents (and not just 1951 NRC or 1965/1971 electoral rolls); to prove linkage, they could furnish any one of at least eight documents including ration cards, land deed, panchayat certificates and post office/LIC/bank records. Is it too much to ask any one of such papers as proof of citizenship when the country as a whole is witnessing a comprehensive Aadhaar database coming up that is merely for residents? The NRC exercise in Assam has actually set a precedent for the entire country — that citizens have a duty to maintain necessary papers and furnish it to the proper authority when asked for. Citizenship and its fruits cannot be claimed by forming votebanks, false entitlement, using force and misinformation.