With the release of the final list of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, around 1.9 million residents have been excluded. The fate of these stateless people is uncertain as the government will find that it may have opened the pandora’s box through this exercise.
The final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, released this morning, has identified around 31.1 million residents as lawful citizens whereas around 1.9 million applicants have not made it to the list.
The NRC list consists of names of all those people who were able to provide proof of their citizenship under a Supreme Court-monitored mechanism. In order to prove their citizenship, people in Assam were required to show documentary evidence that either them or their ancestors were born in Assam before midnight on March 24, 1971, the day before Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan. The list is the outcome of what has been touted as the biggest exercise in the country to weed out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, as well as their descendants.
Over the next 120 days, those left out from the final NRC list will have to approach the Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT). Over 200 new FTs have been set up across the state for this purpose. Also, if a person is dissatisfied with the FT’s decision, he/ she can appeal against it. However, the FTs are not manned by qualified judicial professionals and another big concern about the accuracy of the entire exercise is that unlike the normal jurisprudence the burden of proof is upon the person declared to be illegal resident and not for the state to prove the illegality.
Also, pretty much as is being done in the United States, the disenfranchised persons will be placed in detention camps that have been set up across the state. At present, there are six existing detention centres in Assam’s Goalpara, Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Silchar, Kokrajhar and Tezpur, where district jails have been converted to camps. These camps are in effect jails where these nearly 2 million persons could be locked up for years if not more while the courts or the government figure out what could be done with the disenfranchised persons.
A flawed procedure
Almost all the NGOs working to assist the persons consider the entire procedure of establishing the NRC to be flawed. They say there are several problems with the type of documentation required to prove citizenship to clerical errors in transcribing names. This is a challenge for most of the poor people not just in Assam but indeed anywhere in India as they depend upon government-given cards for identification and all other administrative purposes. Majority of the applicants are not only illiterate but lack the necessary documents and do not have the means to travel far to the specified locations to file claims, say the NGOs. Also, very strangely even those who have made it to the list can find themselves excluded just due to a complaint by anyone. According to some activists, several thousand persons have been excluded on complaints by a small group of persons who have no connection with them. They accuse workers of the ruling right wing party Bhartiya Janata Party for complaining targeting religious and ethnic minorities to get them excluded from the NRC. Also, those excluded from the draft list were given a mere 120 days to appeal, though now the government officials say that those whose names are excluded from the final list would have about 10 months to approach the courts to appeal against their exclusion. But this could only delay the inevitable as list itself is believed to have many errors, including clerical mistakes in data entry or data verification.
“Those who are not included in the list can appeal to the foreign tribunals. But the problem is that the foreign tribunals are biased. They themselves lack trained adjudicators and have low standards of recruitment. The majority of the people are below the poverty line, how are they supposed to make an appeal before the FTs?” Nadeem Khan, an activist of United Against Hate (UAH), a fact finding team working on the ongoing crisis in Assam regarding the NRC update told Media India Group.
Also several other organisations have questioned that with such a short appeal period how will the courts function smoothly? Added to this problem is the question of what will be the fate of those who will not be able to prove their identity? Activists fear that the people who do not find their names on the list might face possible jail time or deportation, and their voting and other civil rights will be snatched away. The government has already announced its plan to build 10 more detention centres. Nearly 1,000 people are currently lodged in six detention centres located in the existing district jails. Activists feel that since India has not raised the issue of deportation with Bangladesh, people might be held “indefinitely” in detention centres.
Surprisingly, even the Supreme Court of India has approved the suspect measures of the Indian government to verify citizenship in proceedings that are not open to scrutiny.
A mental dilemma
According to a survey by the National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT), about 89 pc of the more than four million people initially excluded from the draft list of Assam’s National Register of Citizens have been suffering from extreme mental torture because of the fear of being marked as a foreigner and its consequences.
The NCAT had conducted a field survey on the mental health of the NRC-excluded in Baksa, Goalpara and Kamrup districts from July 16 to 20. The report, Assam’s NRC: Four Million Tales of Mental Torture, Trauma and Humiliation said that they had been suffering from extreme anxiety due to the fear of deportation and of separation from family members as well as lack of money to appear before the Foreigners’ Tribunals or approach the Gauhati High Court and the Supreme Court.
The Universal Team for Social Action and Help (UTSAH), an Assam-based NGO specialising in child rights has warned of the psychological impact of the NRC on children and asked the authorities not to treat them as “collateral damage” from the expensive exercise.
The NCAT report also said extreme mental torture had forced at least 31 persons to commit suicide since July 2015. “People are in a state of panic and there hasn’t been a single word of sympathy from the government, let alone compensation. With rising number of reports in suicide cases from different parts of the state and people already in detention centres, there seems little hope of emerging from this legal battle,” adds Khan.
Government’s suggestion or warning?
With the release of the final list of NRC BJP MP Pravesh Verma and BJP Delhi president Manoj Tiwari have demanded the implementation of the NRC in the national capital as well to evict “illegal immigrants.” Similarly BJP MLA Raja Singh has demanded a similar exercise in the southern state of Telangana as well. “#Hyderabad Parliamentarian has given shelter to many Bangladeshi & #Rohingyas for his vote bank. It should be Implemented from September 17th #Hyderabad liberation day,” he tweeted, apparently targeting a prominent Muslim MP from the city.
Senior BJP leader and Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the list that has excluded over 1.9 million people, is “erroneous” as “more illegal migrants should have been excluded” and that the party’s fight to “exclude every single foreigner” from the state will continue.
Even though the government says that those excluded will have legal options, not just with FTs but higher courts as well, this is small consolation for those who found themselves excluded in the first instance due to either lack of proper papers or lack of any support or even financial resources needed to leave work and go to courts or government offices that are often a day’s travel away from their homes.
Sensing the sensitive situation, security measures have been tightened and prohibitory orders have been clamped in vulnerable areas of Assam, including in the capital Dispur and neighbouring Guahati, the largest city in north-eastern India.
Many opposition politicians accuse the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of especially targeting the Muslims and ethnic minorities through various moves made by them in the last few years. Congress leader Shashi Tharoor soon after the final NRC list was out, said, “There is a thin line between nationalism and xenophobia —besides, hatred of the foreigner could later turn into a hatred of Indians different from oneself.” — Rabindranath Tagore. The prescience of a great man!”