Insights into Editorial: A national register of exclusion
The National Register of Citizens exercise is among the most ambitious experiments the Indian state has undertaken.
The census is, of course, conducted every decade, on a national level and gives the state a window into the size and nature of Indian population.
But the NRC is a unique exercise for the onus to prove citizenship lies with the citizens. They have to, through tedious documentary evidence, show how they have come to be citizens of India living in Assam.
About National Register of Citizens (NRC) of Assam:
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is the list of Indian citizens of Assam. It was prepared in 1951, following the census of 1951.
For a person’s name to be included in the updated NRC list of 2018, he/ she will have to furnish:
- Existence of name in the legacy data: The legacy data is the collective list of the NRC data of 1951 and the electoral rolls up to midnight of 24 March 1971.
- Proving linkage with the person whose name appears in the legacy data.
The process of NRC update was taken up in Assam as per a Supreme Court order in 2013. In order to wean out cases of illegal migration from Bangladesh and other adjoining areas, NRC updation was carried out under The Citizenship Act, 1955, and according to rules framed in the Assam Accord.
All cases referred by the police are heard by Foreigner’s Tribunals (FTs). Earlier, retired judges were appointed to these tribunals.
Distressing and Frightening cycle to residing people:
The official presumption that people residing in Assam areas are foreigners has reduced several million of these highly impoverished, mostly rural, powerless and poorly lettered residents to a situation of helplessness and extreme poverty, destitution, hardship.
It has also caused them abiding anxiety and uncertainty about their futures. They are required to convince a variety of usually hostile officials that they are citizens, based on vintage documents which even urban, educated, middle-class citizens would find hard to muster.
And even when one set of officials is finally satisfied, another set can question them. And sometimes the same official is free again to send them a notice, starting the frightening cycle afresh.
Much Tougher on women:
- Women are especially in danger of exclusion from the citizenship register. Typically, they have no birth certificates, are not sent to school, and are married before they become adults.
- Therefore, by the time their names first appear in voters lists, these are in the villages where they live after marriage, which are different from those of their parents.
- They are told that they have no documents to prove that they are indeed the children of the people they claim are their parents. There were cases of being excluded from citizenship on this ground alone.
Migrant workers to other districts can be named as an illegal immigrants:
- Impoverished migrant workers often travel to other districts of Assam in search of work, as construction workers, road-builders and coal-miners.
- In the districts to which they migrate, the local police frequently record their names as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
- The police then mark them out as illegal immigrants. They receive notices from foreigner’s tribunals located in districts where they might have worked years earlier, far away from their home districts they have to travel to for every hearing, adding further to their costs.
“D-voters” also debarred them from being included in the draft NRC:
Another process began in the mid-1990s when the then Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan, as a one-time measure, directed officials to identify “doubtful voters” by marking a “D” against their names on the voters’ list.
This would temporarily bar them from voting or standing for elections, until an inquiry was completed.
But this temporary measure became permanent. The power was vested permanently with junior officials who could doubt the citizenship of any person at any time without assigning any reason.
Those with the dreaded “D” beside their names had no recourse for appeal under the rules, with years passing without any inquiry.
Who will be challenged before which institution to prove that they are Indian citizens?
- No person in any one of the testimonies that we heard was given legal aid by the state, which is bound to deploy lawyers paid by the state to fight their cases in the Foreigner’s Tribunals (FTs) and higher courts.
- People instead spoke of panic spending, of enormous amounts of money to pay lawyers, as well as for costs of travel of witnesses who they bring with them to testify in their favour. For this, they have had to sell all their assets or borrow from private moneylenders.
- Even if a person finds her name in the NRC, the police can still refer her case to an FT as an election official can even deem her to be a “D”-voter.
- Article 20 of the Constitution includes as a fundamental right that “no person shall be prosecuted and punished for the same offence more than once”.
- But this principle has been waived for FTs. We found that even after an FT had confirmed a person to be an Indian citizen, another FT and often the same FT can again issue notice to the same person to prove her legitimate citizenship once more.
- A person is never be allowed to feel secure that the state has finally accepted that she is an Indian citizen.
Now people have to bear the entire burden of proving citizenship on their shoulders and the arbitrary and opaque multiple forums to which they are summoned.
The large majority of them are poorly educated and very impoverished, doing low-paid work such as drawing rickshaws, or working as domestic work or farm labour.
People deprived of both education and resources are caught in a complex, bizarre, complicated, frightening bureaucratic maze from which they find it hard to emerge.
Trapped at the crossroads of history, people destinies depend on institutions and government officials that treat them with undisguised hostility and bias.
There are indeed few parallels anywhere in the world of the state itself producing statelessness on the scale and in the manner that it is doing in Assam.