Insights into Editorial: A flawed process that pleased none
More than 19 lakh people in Assam were left facing an uncertain future as the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) was released, 14 years after a decision on it was first taken and four years after the exercise to compile it began in full swing under the monitoring of the Supreme Court.
The final draft NRC published in July last year had included 2.89 crore of the 3 crore-plus applicants, excluding over 40 lakh people.
Over 36 lakh of these people had filed “claims” against the exclusion, while of the 2.89 crore included, around 2 lakh people had had objections filed against their names.
The NRC exercise was technically an updation of the 1951 Assam NRC, which had been prepared based on that year’s Census.
It took the cut-off date to determine citizenship as 24th March (Midnight), 1971 (the start of the Bangladesh war), decided as per the Assam Accord.
The NRC exercise had been undertaken under the supervision of the Supreme Court, and the final NRC list, will be followed by a 120-day appeal window for those who want to dispute their exclusion from the list.
About National Register of Citizens (NRC) of Assam:
It is the register containing names of Indian Citizens. It was prepared first in 1951 after the conduct of the Census of 1951.
It is used to identify who is a bona fide Indian citizen and those who fail to enlist in the register will be deemed illegal migrants.
The first draft of the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) of Assam has been published recently by the Office of the State Coordinator of NRC on December 31, 2017.
The objective behind updating and publishing the 1951 NRC is to compile a list of the names of genuine Indian citizens residing in Assam and, in the process, detect foreigners (read Bangladeshis) who may have illegally entered the state after March 24, 1971.
Vulnerable sections in proofing their citizenship:
Women have no birth certificates, are not sent to school, and are married before they become adults. Therefore, they fail to claim their rights.
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. Hence the lack of proof, has excluded them from the register.
With the entire burden of proving citizenship on their shoulders and the arbitrary and opaque multiple forums to which they are summoned, people deprived of both education and resources are caught in a confusing bureaucratic maze.
People who are excluded from the updated NRC:
- Individuals excluded from the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam will not become stateless and will continue to enjoy equal rights available to all Indians till they have exhausted all the remedies available under the law.
- Those left out are not foreigners until the tribunals set up to determine their fate pronounce them so. The process could go all the way to the Supreme Court.
- The Home Ministry has also extended the time to file appeals against exclusion in the Foreigners Tribunal from 60 to 120 days.
- As a result, the courts in India will be burdened and get exhaustive as the appeal period is short and cases are far too many which may further clog the process. At present, there are 100 FTs in Assam and 200 more will be functional soon.
- The Tribunals are required to dispose of the cases within six months.
- Appellants can then approach the High Court and Supreme Court.
- They will get a window of 10 months to prove their citizenship before being sent to detention centres.
- But protests across the spectrum expressing concern over the excluded, suggest the judiciary-led process was perhaps largely robust and the errors were more procedural than targeted.
- The State government and many political parties have promised to offer legal help to those excluded, but such assistance should have been forthcoming from the time the updating exercise was rolled out on the ground in 2015.
- Instead, it was mostly left to sundry organisations and concerned activists to come to the aid of hundreds of thousands oblivious of documentation novelties such as legacy data.
Certain Limitations in the NRC process
- They were often rejected for small discrepancies, such as in the English-language spelling of Bengali names or in the age even though it is well-known that most rural people do not know their dates of birth. Many of them do not have legal land records.
- In the middle of the NRC process, an arbitrary category was introduced of the ‘indigenous’ Assamese, who were treated much more leniently even when they could not produce the required documents.
- There have been instances where due to lack of procedural safeguards, Tribunals have issued notices to entire families, instead of just the suspected “foreigner”. This makes the entire family vulnerable to orders of the Tribunal.
- Administrative and procedural discrepancies affect the marginalised and vulnerable the most as they are not able to produce enough documents in limited time due to their limited access.
- The burden of proof was shifted to the residents to prove that they were citizens, based on documents such as those linked to birth, schooling and land ownership which impoverished and unlettered rural residents anywhere would find hard to muster.
Assam has six detention camps and the government is planning to build more for illegal migrants within existing jails.
The state government has proposed to build a seventh detention camp with a capacity for 3,000 people. However, the list of illegal migrants is in lakhs which these detention centers won’t be able to accommodate.
Although, India has no fixed policy for “stateless” persons. The only aspect that is more or less clear here is that a “stateless” person will not have voting rights. As of now, nothing is clear about their rights to work, housing and government healthcare and education.
Options being bandied about include instituting a system of work permits, a renewed attempt to nudge Dhaka to take in some of the declared foreigners with appropriate deal sweeteners or ‘friendly’ State governments volunteering to share some of the burden.
If not deported or detained in a camp, such people would officially be entitled as non-citizens.
It is important and essential for the union government to proactively come out with an equitable, predictable and transparent plan on the way forward, for those who will be identified as ‘foreigners’.