WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
The newspapers and television channels of Assam are full of the citizens’ duties in cooperating with the NRC authorities in the so-called *”updation” (there is no such English word) of the tiol Register of Citizens of 1951. Even the Chief Minister of Assam (whose opposition to the updating of the NRC is well known) has a tongue-in-cheek message to the people exhorting them to cooperate with the process. It is useful to recall that the process of updating the NRC should have got started in 2005 and been completed by 2007. We are all aware how the Chief Minister of Assam manoeuvred to get the process delayed despite several promises made to the AASU and the Centre (during the UPA regime) to get it started. Ultimately the Supreme Court had to take a hand in the very important business of getting the NRC updated. And had it not been for the intervention of the Supreme Court, this vital task would not have got started even this year. And since the Supreme Court stipulated that the entire work of updating the NRC would have to be completed before the Assembly elections of 2016, the Assam government’s options appear to be very limited. But we may be somewhat premature if we attach too much importance to the general belief that the work of updating the NRC has got off to a good start and that it is too late for the Assam government to do anything about stalling the work now. If we are thinking that the State government has now got into some kind of a fait accompli forced on it by the Supreme Court and cannot backtrack from here, we may be sadly mistaken.
It is useful to recall what the State government did in 2010, the year before the last Assembly elections. Out of its concern to demonstrate to the people of Assam its sincerity about getting the NRC updated, the State government attempted to carry out two pilot projects of the business of updating the NRC at Barpeta Road and Chaygaon. Riots broke out at Barpeta Road, and four people were killed in the police firing that followed. This was an excuse to abandon the process of updating the NRC. And that is how things might have concluded had it not been for the tecity of the Supreme Court in insisting on the business of updating the NRC being properly concluded. One cannot really blame people for believing that the riots of 2010 at Barpeta Road were orchestrated by the State government.
The real hazard for the updating process of the NRC is that it should be doing so well despite the many handicaps that the process faces. The greatest handicap, of course, is that many of the NRC 1951 records are incomplete for quite a few districts. This handicap was compounded by the fact the State government had initially handed over its available records to Amtron for the task of digitization. Since the operators for this task were being paid on the basis of the number of mes digitized, some of them even started playing games and entered anything that came to their minds as entries. This was a major disaster for the NRC updating process. Now that the task has been handed over to Wipro, things are in somewhat better shape. There are now 2,500 NRC seva kendras each equipped with two laptop computers and manned by two young men trained in ferreting out mes from old records. These young men have been hurriedly trained, and in any case one cannot expect to find very competent youths willing to work for salaries like Rs 5,000 a month. But some of the youths are picking up their jobs fast and doing a fairly good job. The most impressive factor in the entire process is the response of the people. So far, about a crore of people have been covered. This is indeed impressive in a State with a population of about 3.3 crore. The pace of the work has picked up momentum, and the updating of the NRC could well be completed in time. Even minority groups have filled in forms in large numbers and promised full cooperation with the process. This is because many minority citizens have been suspected to be Bangladeshis in the past, and they are keen to ensure that the harassment they had faced in the past in proving their Indian tiolity does not get repeated again.
Regardless of what senior bureaucrats of the State may say about the satisfactory progress of the work, what is very obvious is that the present government cannot be happy about the progress of the work. In fact, good progress on the NRC front is a cause for alarm for the present government. A correctly updated NRC would also show the numerous illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who came after March 25, 1971 and whose mes would have to be deleted from the electoral roll. So the process of sabotaging the NRC updating work has already got under way. Since the Chief Minister can no longer directly do very much to sabotage the NRC update exercise himself after having urged the people to cooperate with this important exercise, he has got senior bureaucrats to sabotage the work. For starters, senior bureaucrats have started telling deputy commissioners that the NRC update work is low priority work and cannot be allowed to stand in the way of development work in the State. This is a terrible distortion of facts in two ways. First, there can be no work as important for the people of Assam as the proper updating of the NRC. Secondly, the kind of development work that the Assam government has achieved in the last 35 years or so has been visible to everyone. So have the decadence of the State and the loot of public money received from the Centre on the 90:10 format. So, people would be very justified in asking the administration: “What development are you talking about?” Other means of sabotaging the NRC update process is to prevent a meeting of all deputy commissioners on the progress of the NRC update and related issues—again on the plea of the NRC update work being a low priority work compared to the so-called development of the State that is visible to one and all. Another kind of sabotage is to transfer out someone doing good work on the NRC update work to some remote iccessible place from where getting him back can be ruled out. This is called punishment for good work—something very common in present-day dispensations.
As far as the people of Assam are concerned, the updating of the NRC is the most important work going on in the State just now. People must cooperate by coming out in thousands and getting their mes checked or entered. A lot of people of my generation are likely to find their mes missing. I was a student of Cotton College in 1951 and a part of 1952. Having lost both my father and grandfather in 1939, I had no one in the family who could have got my me entered at that time. So I must get my me entered now. Others like me too must not fail to do so. The media (both print and electronic) must not remain content with the hackneyed government advertisements, and do interesting stories instead on the updating exercise of the NRC. The extent of the updating work completed must be periodically brought to the notice of the public. Senior jourlists must explain to the younger lot the purpose and significance of the updating of the NRC. They must be cautioned to stay away from the brainwashing exercises of some scheming bureaucrats. Any dereliction of duty relating to the NRC update exercise should be brought directly to the attention of the Supreme Court. Anyone has the right to do this. Filly, the Supreme Court and the Election Commission must get constant feedback on the extent of work done in the NRC seva kendras. The people of Assam should send appeals to the Chief Justice of India and the Chief Election Commissioner not to permit the Assembly elections of 2016 to be held until the updating of the NRC is complete. The battles ahead that the people of Assam will have to fight if they lose this one will be far more challenging. We just have to win this battle since our elected government has turned out to be an anti-people one.