Election Commission in focus after release of Assam NRC final draft; fate of D-voters in its hands ahead of 2019 polls

The final draft of the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) of Assam was published on Monday morning, bringing with it a plethora of possibilities. Of the 3.29 crore applicants who had sought to be included in the list, about 2.89 crore people made it while over 40 lakh applicants were excluded from it. While only courts will now have the final say on the citizenship status of these 40 lakh applicants, all eyes will be on the Election Commission to see whether it will refer to this draft of the NRC or the final list to revise its electoral rolls in Assam ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The Election Commission's (EC) "Manual on Electoral Rolls" published in October 2016 states: "Although currently, there is no standard and uniform document throughout the country to determine citizenship, there are some documents that could be referred to by the Electoral Registration Officer while inquiring the question of citizenship of the concerned person. These documents are (i) The National Register of Citizens, wherever it exists; (ii) A citizenship certificate issued by a competent authority; (iii) A valid passport issued by the Government of India; and (iv) A birth certificate."

The EC manual, however, specifies that these documents are illustrative, not exhaustive.

 Election Commission in focus after release of Assam NRC final draft; fate of D-voters in its hands ahead of 2019 polls

People stand in line to check their names on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Asam's Kamrup district. AFP

In 1997, the polling monitor had ordered the use of the "D" tag against the names of those voters in Assam who, according to the EC, had failed to prove their citizenship. The commission had also directed authorities to refer their names to foreigners' tribunals. D-voters are debarred from voting till these courts clear their names.

Now, speculations are rife about whether the EC will tag as a "D" (doubtful/disputed) voter any of these 40 lakh people excluded from the final draft of the Assam NRC when it revises its electoral rolls before the 2019 polls. The Election Commission's decision will have significant bearing on electoral politics and its outcome in Assam.

In a statement released after the final draft of the Assam NRC was released, Minister of Home Affairs Rajnath Singh said that everyone will have the full opportunity to file claims and objections to the draft as per law. "Only after the disposal of these claims and objections will the final NRC will be published," he added.

"I want to clarify that even after the final NRC (is published), every person will get an opportunity to approach foreigners' tribunals. This means that even those whose names do not figure in the final NRC will get an opportunity to approach the tribunals. There is no question of any coercive action against anyone," he said in his statement.

Chief Minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal also gave his assurance that no genuine Indian citizens will be deprived of their citizenship rights. Later in the day, the Office of the Registrar General of India issued a notification, saying the Centre had fixed 31 December as the deadline to complete all processes and publish the final NRC of Assam.

At the release of the complete NRC draft in Guwahati on Monday morning, Satyendra Garg, joint secretary (North East) in the Ministry of Home Affairs, said that based on the final draft of the register, authorities will not refer any names to the foreigners' tribunals, and no one excluded from the list will be sent to detention camps. Registrar General of India Sailesh and NRC State Coordinator Pratik Hajela also said that all those left out of the list will be given adequate opportunity to submit claims to be included in the register, and that no genuine Indian citizens should have any fear. However, when questioned whether those excluded will be allowed to vote, Sailesh said, that the election process "is handled by a different authority".

The Election Commission is expected to refer to its own manual while revising the electoral rolls. The EC cannot be expected to make note of the assurances from both the central and Assam governments to the over 40 lakh excluded applicants that they will not be referred to foreigners' tribunals.

D-voters are allowed to submit applications to be included in the NRC, but their names can be included only after they are cleared by the foreigners' tribunals. Hajela said that 2.48 lakh of the 40 lakh people excluded from the final NRC draft were D-voters and their descendants as well as those whose names are pending with courts and their descendants.

Those left out of the list can submit their claims, objections and corrections to NRC Seva Kendras (NSK) from 30 August to 28 September, for which forms will be available from 7 August. Claims can be submitted along with additional documents, or the same papers submitted earlier. People can submit claims and objections only at the NSKs, but corrections can be submitted online, as well. The final NRC list will be published only after all these claims, objections and corrections are disposed.

While those excluded will keep their fingers crossed after filing their claims, their number (40 lakh) also presents the possibility of a surge in the number of cases before the foreigners' tribunals after NRC authorities settle the claims.

Those who fail to make it even to the final NRC list can file appeals before the courts. Their verdicts can be challenged in the Gauhati High Court and finally in the Supreme Court. However, the Election Commission's past decisions to use the D-voter tag even when no court has declared the voters foreigners has fuelled debates on which list the poll panel will refer to while revising its electoral rolls — the completed NRC or the final draft

According to official figures, there are 2,44,144 D-voters who have been referred to foreigners' tribunals, and 1,31,034 cases have been disposed of, so far. Altogether, 66,986 people of these were found to be Indian citizens and 20,578 were declared foreigners. But till their cases were disposed of and they were declared Indian citizens, they were stripped off their voting rights as they were tagged as D-voters.

While the NRC-excluded in Assam will rigorously filing claims and objections over the next two months, the focus will be on the Election Commission and on which NRC list it will follow to revise its electoral rolls, on whether it will refer to the final draft or wait for the final NRC to be published after all claims and objections to determine citizenship are settled.

The author is a senior journalist and editor of NEZINE

Updated Date: Jul 30, 2018 22:46:39 IST