Co-Written by Parag Jyoti Saikia and Suraj Gogoi
As soon as the draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was released, an image went viral across media platforms in Assam. It was that of the All Assam Student Union (AASU) members distributing sweets and celebrating the publication of the draft.
With the bitter cries of millions who have been left out, the AASU decided to distribute sweets in their offices. We will leave it to you to decide the innate being and character of a student body that can celebrate the misery of over 4 million people.
The draft left out 40,07,708 individuals from the citizenship register. This is one of the largest marking of people in a 70-year-old democracy. We have failed—as a state, as a society, and as human beings.
In June, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in their letter raised concerns about the potential web of contradictions and discrimination in the NRC process. Countless articles and narratives have been written, speaking of the anxiety, harassment, exclusion and social pain, all products of the NRC process.
Sahimoon Bibi, 45, took her life in April this year. She was originally from of Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district. Following the non-inclusion of her six siblings in the first list, published in December, and the notice served to her family by the Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT), she ran “pillar to post” to prove their citizenship. She fell sick and was even admitted in the Dhubri Civil Hospital. Unable to handle the pressure, she committed suicide.
Subhash Chandra Kalita, 52, committed suicide on February 21. Kalita was a teacher at Sonapur Lower Primary School and a booth-level officer, and was reportedly depressed owing to work pressure related to the NRC related process. His death highlights how even people who can some part of the system are sometimes victims of the system too.
A few weeks ago, an online petition circulated on Avaaz went viral. The petition noted that the NRC process was a ploy to delete Muslim applicants’ names. A counter-petition was launched by the NRC office, which emphasised that its sole aim was to detect foreigners, and the process is free from religious and linguistic biases.
The NRC office issued interesting remarks on online platforms, and also responded to the queries of various individuals. Some stated that “no difference on the basis of religion or language” has been made; D voters—or doubtful voters—are identified by election commissions and not by NRC process; there is no connection between the border police and the NRC; and, lastly, non-inclusion in NRC would not lead to any detention camps. However, all these statements have faultlines. The experiences of D-voters, who have been served notices, speak of different situations altogether.
Let us look at how this whole exercise works.
Oliullah Laskar, who practises in the Gauhati High Court, spells out how the NRC, border police and FT are organically related. He notes the following three aspects:
First, if a case has to be tried in the FT, the border police have to make a reference. During the pendency of any case, that person’s name would not be included in the NRC. If the FT decided the case against the accused, then that person also gets excluded from the NRC register.
Laskar adds that in 2009, a new provision was added whereby after the claims and objection window is over, one can still go to the FT. If the case is cleared by the FT, that individual’s name will be included in the NRC.
Second, the FT is a quasi-judicial body because of the nature of its civil proceeding. Although, it is not obliged to follow the rules of civil proceedings, under Section 30 of the Civil Procedure Code, the FT also holds the power to call and witness, and to use coercion.
Lastly, NRC authorities are administrative agents, but the manner in which they work is similar to FT members. Like the FT, the burden of proof is on the applicant. Such procedural similarities make them almost parallel bodies.
The links between the FT and the NRC becomes clearer when one considers the May 2 memo of NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela. Through this memo, Hajela asked all district magistrates to block the names of declared foreigners and their family members entering into the complete draft of NRC. According to the NRC coordinator, this was done following an order given by the Gauhati High Court in 20186, but the fact that this was done retrospectively—about four months after the first draft list was published—led to speculation and fear among minority communities. It was also reported that a police officer and a deputy commissioner conceded to the fact that the D-voters lists were handed over to concerned authorities, which may mean exclusion from the NRC draft list.
However, Prateek Hajela denies that these institutions of border police and FT are linked to the NRC process, although we can see otherwise. The series of NRC-related suicides proves that the NRC, D-voters lists, FT, detention camps, and border police have an intricate web of relations, which allows for a legitimate bureaucratic infrastructure to function actively.
The only way, perhaps, in which these entities are not linked, is the absence of a central database of cases, as was pointed out by an article. It shows that due to the lack of a central database Mumtaz Dewan, a forty-plus housewife from Dhubri, who has been declared citizen in 2017 after a 19-year long struggle, still could not get her name registered in NRC since election commission website still lists her as a doubtful voter. Election Commission officials blame the EROnet software introduced in 2017. The new cases are not updated, so the old record remains and there isn’t a separate provision for just Assam. This lack of updation in the database also This leads to a duplication of the cases, resulting in a person getting re-notification or multiple notifications from the FT.
In an article, journalist Praveen Donthi mentions that Abdul Hamid, a 68-year-old Bengali muslim man from Nellie got notices three times from FT. He won the cases every time implying that he was declared a citizen three times. This shows that the NRC exercise has been happening on a faulty and outdated data.
Election Commission officials blame the EROnet software introduced in 2017. The new cases are not updated, so the old record remains and there isn’t a separate provision for just Assam. This means Indian citizens declared as D-voters since early 2017 are still shown as D-voters in Assam’s 2018 electoral rolls.
It also appears that many “sons of the soil” are also left out, along with the original target to identify “illegal Bangladeshis”. Ziauddin Ali Ahmed, the nephew of India’s fifth President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, could not find his and his family’s name in the final draft of the NRC. Ananta Kumar Malo, the sitting MLA from Abhayapuri constituency in Assam, also does not figure in the final draft. Malo, a Bengali-speaking Hindu who won the SC-reserved constituency on an AUIDF ticket, told The Indian Express that his brother, who used the same legacy data as him, is there in the final list.
In the public sphere and a couple of media channels, it is being suggested that the number of 4 million is actually lower than the actual figure. Debaters and experts on TV media in Assam are already portraying these 4 millions as Bangladeshis, even though NRC authorities admitted to names of many “sons of the soil” being excluded. Such is the prevalent xenophobia, insensitivity and heartlessness. Such questioning of the number actually being higher is also in reference to a reply which the central government gave in 2017, where Sriprakash Jaiswal, Union Minister of State for Home in the UPA government, mentioned there are 50,000 “illegal” immigrants in Assam.
Regional newspapers, on the other hand, have left no stone unturned to glorify this loss of citizenship for 4 million people. Some of the headlines of regional dailies like Asomiya Pratidin, Dainik Asom, and Dainik Janambhumi read as follows, respectively:
“New chapter to the life of the nation – Names of 40.07 lakhs not included”
“Government getting ready to look after foreigners with state treasury money – What measures after NRC: Government remains silent”
“Threat of Foreigners exposed”
There has also been a spillover effect of the NRC process. Ethnicity and nationalism has been ignited by the NRC process as we see the kind of views pouring in from the nearby states of Nagaland and Manipur. In Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, this kind of non-citizen/non-permanent settler’s frame already existed and is heightened through the NRC process. In Meghalaya, the Khasi Students Union has established infiltration gates to check “illegal immigrants” entering into Meghalaya from Assam.
Fascism is the other side of nationhood. The NRC as an exercise shows us its potential as a legitimate bureaucratic infrastructure that can shelter xenophobia and chauvinism, while acting as a machine to create anxiety and social pain. Intimidation, silencing and hounding are already at display in the streets and in newsrooms. Such acts can be closely associated historically with fascist political culture. What have we become? Whose kingdom of culture is it?