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Assam's NRC quandary Part 4: Confusion on 'original inhabitant' may be major bottleneck in identifying legal citizens

Editor's note: This is the fourth and last article in a multi-part special series done by Firstpost where we document several problems of illegal immigration and ethnic turmoil that authorities in Assam face.

For the past over 32 years Assam has been searching for the definition of the terms "Assamese" and "indigenous people" of the state to decide the "constitutional safeguards" for them in accordance with the Assam Accord, but in vain, for want of political consensus. Now, when Assam is on the cusp of scripting history of becoming the first state in the country to get an updated National Register of Citizens, a fresh controversy as to who are the "original inhabitants" of the state threatens to overshadow the historic moment.

 Assams NRC quandary Part 4: Confusion on original inhabitant may be major bottleneck in identifying legal citizens

The citizenship tangle in Assam. Reuters

The controversy is brewing despite the office of State Coordinator of NRC clarifying through a public announcement leaflet that the "NRC will contain list of only Indian citizens and no categorization such as 'original inhabitant' or otherwise shall be made in the draft and final NRC list". The All Assam Minorities’ Students’ Union, the opposition parties Congress, All India United Democratic Front, CPM and several organisations from Barak valley in the state have objected to identifying applicants as "original inhabitants" for inclusion of names in the NRC on the ground that term "original inhabitant" is yet to be defined by constitutional authorities.

The All Assam Students' Union and 28 other organisations of different ethnic communities including All Bodo Students’ Union, on the other hand, insisted that "original inhabitants" must be used for compiling the updated NRC.

Eight political parties and 42 organisations of Assam placed their stand on the issue on record in separate meetings with the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India, Sailesh in Guwahati on 2 November when the latter visited the state with top officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs to take stock of the NRC work and take representation of political parties and the organisations.

Speaking on behalf of the AASU and 28 organisations, AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya insisted that as the NRC is being updated on the basis of the Citizenship Act and The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003 there is no scope for objecting or opposing the use of the term "Original Inhabitants" for compilation of the NRC and it must be used. The AASU as well as the student bodies and other organisations of the different ethnic communities expressed the apprehension that a conspiracy was on to include names of Bangladeshis in the NRC and demanded the RGI, NRC authorities, the Central and the state governments to make the verification process to be foolproof to foil any such attempt by vested forces.

The office of the State Coordinator, NRC has explained on its website the legal provision of "Original Inhabitant" thus: "As per provisions of Clause 3(3) of Schedule of “The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, “The names of persons who are originally inhabitants of the state of Assam and their children and descendants, who are Citizens of India, shall be included in the consolidated list if the citizenship of such persons is ascertained beyond reasonable doubt and to the satisfaction of the registering authority”. The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India vide the Order dated 21st July 2015 in WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO(S). 562/2012 further stated that “Insofar as clause 3(3) of the Schedule appended to the Rules is concerned, we clarify that the expression “original inhabitants of the state of Assam” would include the “Tea Tribes” and the inclusion of such original inhabitants would be on the basis of proof to the satisfaction of the Registering Authority which establishes the citizenship of such persons beyond reasonable doubt.”

It has further clarified as the law provides for the "Original Inhabitants" to be included in NRC, this provision is being implemented to ensure that no "Original Inhabitant" is deprived of this legal protection and is excluded from NRC due to unavailability of any document or any such reason.

The issue came to the fore when the State Coordinator, NRC Prateek Hajela, in a report submitted to the Supreme Court on 10 October stated that of 47 lakh applicants who claim inclusion on the basis of certificates issued by Gaon Panchayat secretaries approximately 17.40 lakh are "original inhabitants" and the registering authority is satisfied with regard to their citizenship.

Earlier on 24 August, a division bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Navin Sinha while passing an order on a bunch of Special Leave Petitions, directed the state coordinator, NRC to segregate the exercise of "original inhabitants" from among the 47 lakh applicants who claimed inclusion on the basis of certificates of panchayat secretaries, within four weeks’ times after he had submitted before the court that on being queried that expects about 20 lakhs claims to be in respect of "original inhabitants", which fact, if proved, will not require, any further proof or inquiry and all such persons will be included in the draft   NRC and indicated that the exercise could be completed within four weeks.

The AAMSU stand is that in absence of a clear definition of "original inhabitants" names of many applicants belonging to religious and linguistic minorities who also have, the student body claim, "original inhabitants" in the state may be left out in the process of verification of the claims based on certificates issued by the Gaon Panchayat secretaries. The Congress too insisted that the use of the term “Original Inhabitants” would create a divide among those included in the NRC, which the party said is not warranted.

While the updated NRC is expected to provide an answer to the most difficult question as to how to identify the Bangladeshi migrants staying illegally in Assam so that they can be expelled back to the neighbouring country in accordance with the Assam Accord, the latest political developments in the state indicate that an updated citizens’ register might push the state to look for a consensus definition of the term “Original inhabitants”. Nobody will dare to hazard a guess, as to how long the search may continue the search for the definition of “Assamese” and “indigenous people” has not yielded any answer for over three decades.

Also Read

Quest for citizenship Part 1: As millions try to prove nationality in Assam, one man's story reveals the burden of proof

Assam's NRC quandary Part 2: No immediate end in sight as cut-off date for citizenship is yet to be finalised politically
Assam's NRC quandary Part 3: Sarbananda Sonowal will have his hands full in 2018 with draft citizenship registry, electoral roll

The author is a senior journalist and editor of NEZINE.


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Updated Date: Nov 04, 2017 08:45:27 IST