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Home ministry steps up security in Assam: National Register of Citizens has long been a divisive issue in state

On Thursday, the home ministry stepped up security measures in Assam before the publication of the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC). This is not the first time the NRC issue has led to law and order apprehensions in Assam. They have in fact been arising on and off since the issue of immigrants cropped up after the independence of Bangladesh.

The state government expects trouble in parts of Assam owing to the "misinformation campaign" being carried out by some political parties and organisations, according to The Asian Age. This "campaign" was also noticed by Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal who said, “Certain forces are trying to create confusion and fear psychosis among the people."

What is the NRC and why is it such a divisive issue in Assam?

The NRC, quite simply, is a list of all Indian citizens. Initially it was created in 1951 and was based on that year's census, according to The Economic Times. Assam is the first state in queue to update the NRC but this process is controversial for many reasons (which will be discussed below). The revision is part of the conditions laid down in the Assam Accord which was signed by then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the All Assam Students’ Union (which had led the movement against foreigners) in 1985. The Accord mandates that all foreigners who came to Assam after 24 March, 1971 have to be evicted.

One of the reasons for the controversy is that to be included in the NRC, a person must prove a link to the 1951 NRC or any legally admissible documents issued before 24 March, 1971, according to The Wire. Thus  or your forefathers must have been included in one of these documents for you to be included in the NRC. If this is not the case then you will be considered a non-citizen and could be evicted from India. This documentation is extremely difficult for both people who came over from Bangladesh as well as nomadic communities like the Mishings. Other communities like the char-saporis (a Bengali-speaking Muslim community) too have found it hard to complete the process.

 Home ministry steps up security in Assam: National Register of Citizens has long been a divisive issue in state

Representational image. Reuters


Further, Assam and other north-eastern states have been paranoid about being swamped by Bengali-speaking migrant Muslims or ‘Bangladeshis’ from 1979, said Hindustan Times. Thus, there is a strong movement against including any illegal Bangladeshis.

Also, the trouble could continue even after the NRC. The Economic Times report quoted Shabaruddin Mian, a migrant from erstwhile East Bengal as saying, "Whenever we want to go to some other district, they harass us, saying we are from Bangladesh. The NRC might put a stop to that. But if they still want to throw us out, we cannot do anything."

These reasons have led to a divide in the Assamese population. A 2010 pilot project launched in minority-dominated Barpeta was stopped when minority students went on a rampage, forcing the police to open fire. Four persons were killed and over 70 were injured. After that the NRC updation went under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court which has declared that a draft NRC must be published by 31 December 2017

'No illegal Bangladeshis in NRC'

Organisations representing the indigenous communities have come out against the inclusion of any foreigners in the NRC. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Assam Public Works (APW), Asam Sanmilita Mahasangha (ASM) want that not a single infiltrator is included, reports The Indian Express. On the other hand, the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU), the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind and a few other groups fear that a large number of people—mostly Muslims—would be left out.

On Wednesday, AASU and 28 organisations representing Assam's ethnic communities took out a demonstration in front of the Raj Bhawan, said a report in The Assam Tribune. Leaders associated with these organisations said, "It is a joint decision taken by AASU and the 28 ethnic bodies and our demand is an error-free NRC without the names of any illegal Bangladeshis. Time and again we come to know about the tricks followed for inclusion of names of doubtful nationals in the NRC. The authorities must be extremely cautious against any such attempt."

Several groups have been identified by security agencies as having the potential to create trouble at the time of the publication of the draft NRC, according to The Indian Express report. Pallab Bhattacharyya, Additional Director General of Police (Special Branch) said that "The AAMSU, which was born to oppose the AASU’s agitation against Bangladesh migrants of 1979-85, has a history of scuttling a pilot NRC project in Barpeta district in July 2010."Some other groups backed by NGOs from outside the state are also on the radar, he said.

On the flip side, other organisations have asked people to cooperate with the NRC process to ensure it is published in timely and error-free manner. The Times of India reported that The Indigenous (Islam) Coordination Committee has asked all Muslims to join hands to in the preparation of the NRC. The committee also added that Assam has 40 lakh indigenous Muslims belonging to various groups. It also feared that some groups with vested interests could misguide the local Muslims by spreading rumours that they would be left out of the NRC because of their religion.

Unclear official position

The official position on the issue has hardly been crystal clear either. According to The Economic Times, Prateek Hajela, NRC state coordinator, told the Supreme Court two weeks ago that 17.4 lakh out of a total of 47.09 lakh applicants, were identified as ‘Original Inhabitants of Assam’ and the claims of the rest were still being validated.

Sonowal for his part has said that the government will ensure that all genuine citizens of the state are included in the NRC. There is however little clarity as to who exactly would fall in this categorisation. Further while the Assam Accord asks for all foreigners to be evicted, one of the major electoral promises by Narendra Modi in the 2014 general elections was to provide citizenship to Hindu migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh. This makes the situation even more convoluted.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Oct 27, 2017 16:04:27 IST