Publication of ‘National Register of Citizens’ : A historic achievement of Assam government

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Fulfilling the poll promise made prior to the 2016 assembly elections in Assam, the Bharatiya Janata Party led Assam government published the much awaited first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC); a list of verified Indian citizens at the midnight on January 1, 2018. This initial list is the outcome of a long standing demand of the Assamese people to detect and deport the illegal Bangladeshi migrants from their state. This first National Register of Citizens (NRC) has been published with names of 1.9 crore people as state’s legal citizens.

The NRC, for which a total of 3.29 crore people had filed an application, is aimed at identifying and root out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam. The unpublished names are still under stages of verification and as per the schedule, a second list containing the names of more numbers of citizens is slated to be published in March 2018. The final list containing the names of all Indian citizens in Assam is expected to be published by December 2018 after the disposal of all claims and objections in final registers at various levels.

Historically, illegal migration has been a perennial problem for Assam even during the colonial period and after India got the independence. The Liaqat-Nehru pact signed between PM Jawaharlal Nehru and his Pakistani counterpart Liaqat Ali Khan is also credited for contributing to migration into Assam. The treaty stated that “Minorities in both countries would be treated equally and also granted them freedom of movement”.

To create a register for the bona fide citizens of Assam the NCR or National Register of Citizens, 1951 is prepared after the conduct of the 1951 Census, showing the houses or holdings in a serial order and indicating against each house or holding the number and names of persons staying therein. These registers covered each and every person enumerated during the Census of 1951 and were kept in the offices of Deputy Commissioners according to instructions issued by the Government of India in 1951. Later these registers were transferred to the Police in the early 1960s.

Illegal migration to Assam continued during the first decade of independence and multiplied many folds thereafter and particularly during the 1972 war for the creation of Bangladesh. Till 1980 the demography has completely changed in Assam due to huge illegal Bangladeshi migration. Consequently, the demands to update the NRC of 1951 were first raised by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and subsequently the Assam Gana Parishad. The organizations had submitted a memorandum to the Centre on January 18, 1980, two months after launching the anti-illegal foreigners Assam Movement. During the student movement in Assam in early 1980s, BJP senior leaders like Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Shri LK Advani visited and supported the genuine demand of the students’. The AASU and the BJP were on the same side owing to the fear that Assam’s demographic pattern could drastically change because of the illegal influx of migrants.

Whereas, during the entire period after independence the Congress party silently supported the illegal immigrants because they voted the party into power in Assam. Even though the demand was very old yet, the Assam Accord of 1985 did not contain any specific mention of updating the NRC. Bangladeshis were on the electoral rolls and formed the Congress’ vote bank; therefore, the Congress Government at the centre took no initiative in this regard. Instead, it constituted a number of Tribunals and Appellate Courts under both the Illegal Migrants Act of 1983 and the Foreigners Tribunal Act of 1964 to detect illegal Bangladeshis. Consequently, nothing has changed in the decades since the Assam Accord till 1999.

During Atal Bihari Vajpayee led NDA government on November 17, 1999, at an official-level tripartite meeting to review the implementation of the Assam Accord, a decision was taken that the NRC would be updated and the Centre sanctioned the money to start the exercise. Thereafter, the government created a directorate for updating the NRC and the process of computerization of the NRC of 1951 and voters’ list up to 1971 began.

In May 2005 during a review meeting for the progress made in the implementation of the Assam Accord though, it was decided that the Congress government in Assam will take up and complete the process of updating the NRC of 1951 within two years by including the names that appear in the 1971 voters’ lists and those of their descendants, yet, no honest efforts were made either by the Congress led State government or the Manmohan Singh led UPA government at the centre in subsequent years to update the NRC.

Prior to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections PM Shri Narendra Modi categorically said that, “I will make such an arrangement that all the roads that are today helping Bangladeshis enter and destroy Assam are closed and illegal migrants issue will be solved. Finally, it was the BJP government both at the Centre and in Assam which expedited the updation process of the NRC.

Currently updation of National Register of Citizens basically means the process of enlisting the names of those persons or their descendants, whose names appear in 1951 NRC or any of the Electoral Rolls up to 1971 or any of the admissible documents stipulated.

Parties with vested political interests and a section of media creating needless panic by asking, what will happen to those people, whose names have been excluded in the first list? Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had flawlessly cleared this confusion and assured the genuine Indians, that they would get enough opportunities to get their names added to the list and urged people to not worry if they do not find their names on the first draft.

The CM also assured, “There is no question of discriminating against anyone whether he or she is a Hindu, Muslim, Bengali or Nepali. All will be treated equally and given opportunities to prove their citizenship so that their names could be incorporated in the subsequent drafts of the NRC”. He added the NRC has given an opportunity to segregate the bona fide citizens from illegal immigrants and it is a win-win situation for those who have been living under the stigma of suspected illegal immigrants for the last four decades.

Subsequent to the final publication of the NRC list towards the end of this year what the Central government will intend to do with the persons whose names do not figure in the final NRC will certainly be decided and a mechanism will be devised in due course of time. But, unquestionably the publication of the updated NRC by the BJP government is indeed a positive step and historic achievement to put in rest the years of speculations about the extent of the illegal migrant Bangladeshi population residing illegally in Assam and the demographic upheaval it has created in this north east state. This historic step will further demonstrate the way to prepare similar NRCs for the other states in the North East region and particularly states like West Bengal, where illegal migration continues to be an annoyance and volatile security issue for India.