Rs 1,220-cr and 10 years later, NRC leaves group favouring exercise dissatisfied, raises doubts over migrant numbers in Assam
The NRC in Assam, which took ten years, employed 52,000 government employees and cost the government Rs 1,220 crore, is now being considered as a fruitless exercise by the very same people who sought it in order to detect and deport of illegal migrants from the northeastern state
The National Register of Citizenship, which took ten years, employed 52,000 government employees and cost the Government of India a whopping Rs 1,220 crore, is now being considered as a fruitless exercise by the very same people who sought it
The All Assam Student’s Union (AASU), the organisation that launched a movement in Assam in 1979 demanding the expulsion of illegal migrants from Assam and was a signatory of the Assam Accord feels the NRC is incomplete and faulty
The BJP, the ruling party at the Centre and state, has said that it's seeking reverification of 20 percent of the data and is in discussion with AASU and Assam Public Works, the original petitioner
Social actiivists, however, say that the dissatisfaction is a result of false claims on the 'mythical 60 lakh illegal migrants' — mostly Bengali Muslims — living in the state
Activists also claim that if NRC was done without prejudice, the actual number of people excluded from the list could be even lower than 19 lakh as stated in the final list
The National Register of Citizenship, which took 10 years, employed 52,000 government employees and cost the Government of India a whopping Rs 1,220 crore, is now being considered as a fruitless exercise by the very same people who sought it. The list of genuine citizens did little or nothing to live up to the expectation of the parties which made the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi sign the Assam Accord in 1985 for detection and deportation of illegal migrants in the northeastern state.
In the own words of the All Assam Student’s Union (AASU), the organisation that launched a movement in Assam in 1979 demanding the expulsion of illegal migrants from Assam and was a signatory of the Assam Accord feels the NRC is incomplete and faulty.
“Thirty-four years, over 855 lives lost and finally an NRC under Supreme Court. We were happy. But when you look at the figures, we don’t feel the numbers speak the reality,” said Samujjal Bhattacharya, the chief adviser of AASU.
The exercise of NRC, that finds its start on 5 May, 2005, when the then prime minister Manmohan Singh formally adopted a resolution to update the citizenship registry, has since then turned into a confusing process with rapid changes of standard operating procedure and hundreds of petitions to the Supreme Court.
Started as a pilot project in 2010, it saw the death of four persons during a protest by a minority organisation in Barpeta district, eventually pushing 60 people to commit suicide in the past six years due to fear of becoming stateless. Over 855 people died in the Assam movement while over 2,000 (unofficial figures are higher) were killed in violence targeting the Bengali Muslims — perceived as illegal migrants — in what is known as the Nellie Massacre.
In 2013, after the Supreme Court gave its node in NRC updating, the NRC authority under IAS officer Prateek Hajela developed over 20 large custom software applications, over 2,500 digitised NRC Seva Kendras and a state of the art data centre. It hired over 55,000 government employees and contractual employees for the process. It took six years for the digitisation of old records up to 1971, generation of 32 million legacy codes and finally preparing three lists — the draft NRC, the additional exclusion list and the final list.
The contractual employees kept on complaining of doing overtime, government employees of doing two jobs at the same time. One — their original job and the additional job and then as NRC officials that required collecting and verifying 6.6 crore documents and finding linkage of over 32 million people.
So much so that the NRC Sevaks sat on a dharna claiming non-payment of salaries for months when the government filed a petition in the Supreme Court for re-verification of a certain percentage of the document already done!
"Leave extra payment, we spent money from our pockets during the whole exercise. Good that the process came to an end. Some leaders again want 20 percent re-verification of the people. I just hope the Supreme Court do not listen to them. We cannot keep on working for 12-15 hours a day. We are humans,” said an NRC Sevak on condition of anonymity.
Zamser Ali, a social activist and the state coordinator of Citizen for Justice and Peace (CJP), an NGO which has been helping people left out of the list, said the idea that thousands of Bangladeshis are getting inside Assam as per reports of various agencies is nothing but a myth.
"In many cases, parents are in but children are out. A brother is in the list not his sister. If we can include a DNA test in the SOP (standard operating procedure) at least 4 lakh people will again be included. Then the migration card and refugee cards are not accepted which were given by the Ministry of Rehabilitation to people who entered India during the 1960s. Now, this department is non-existent along with the refugee records. If these people are accepted then the real number of Bangladeshis will be really less. The entering of thousands of Bangladeshis into Assam every day is nothing but a myth," he said.
NRC was a good process which was run under the legalities of the Supreme Court, but due to lack of willingness from the state and the Central Government, the process has become a failure, said Dipanka Kumar Nath, president of AASU. The students' body is a signatory of the Assam Accord.
“It took a lot of time due to the apathy of the state and the Centre, and cost a whopping amount of money with an unsatisfactory result," he added.
NRC which was started as an exercise of Rs 500 crore in 2013, cost Rs 1,220.93 crore in the next five years. It means the government spent an approximate Rs 6,400 per illegal migrant to identify them. And if 20 percent of the samples are going to be re-verified as demanded by BJP, AASU and other organisations, then the cost will again go up along with the engagement of human resource and time, hinting at a never-ending process to follow for another decade.
Nanda Kirati Dewan, National Secretary of Bhartiya Gorkha Parishangh, an organisation of the Gorkha community in Assam also feels the exercise of NRC is a waste of economic and human resources.
“NRC consolidated the documents of suspected people while lakhs of people from Gorkha community got excluded. Now, these cases will be attended by Foreigners' Tribunals and we all know that the credibility of the Foreigners' Tribunals courts is under question. Even the Assam Accord which paved the way for the NRC is not out of question. We can also say that Gorkhas do not fall in the ambit of Assam Accord," says Parishangh.
The Assam Accord was signed by then AASU president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, AASU general secretary Bhrigu Kumar Phukan, All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad general secretary
Biraj Sharma, then Union home secretary RD Pradhan representing Government of India and then Assam chief secretary PP Trivedi on behalf of the state government in the presence of then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
In 1964, when the Registrar General of India declared the presence of over two lakh illegal infiltrators, the population of Assam was 108 lakh. In 1991, it increased to 224 lakh. The Muslim population during the period of 1961 to 1991 saw a growth of 53.65 percent while the Hindu population increased by 38.19 percent. After 1991, the changing demographic pattern became visible. The 2001 Census estimated the number of illegal migration at 20 lakh.
Ali claims that the numbers of infiltrators in Assam were always false.
"There were many agencies which gave us false numbers of infiltrators into the state and with the NRC we got to know the basic reality. When the Assam Movement started there was this myth among the people that the state is filled with 60 lakhs of infiltrators. Then the SK Sinha report said that 6,000 Bangladeshis had been entering into Assam on a daily basis. Today, only 19 lakh people are out of NRC. The NRC has been done with the consent of all stakeholders and the documents to prove citizenship was decided after discussion with them,” he adds.
However, many intellectuals in Assam who have been closely monitoring the exercise since its very beginning, believe that despite many limitations, the NRC final list is a milestone for the state of Assam.
Akhil Ranjan Dutta, a political thinker and professor at Gauhati University said, “NRC has demystified many things. First of all, the huge figure of illegal immigrants very often referred to has been put to rest. Seventy to 80 lakhs foreigners, that was circulated in the public domain created a fear psychosis among the indigenous people. After comprehensive scrutiny, the number has proved to be much lesser. Besides, out of the 19 lakh who failed to figure in the final NRC list, a substantive number are probably Indian citizens. Once they get their citizenship through the procedure already laid down, the number will be much lesser."
Dutta feels that NRC has debunked many myths about illegal migration, and people of Assam will finally have the time to address other vital issues of livelihood, employment, agriculture, etc.
“In Assam, many, including the ruling BJP have decried both the figure and also the process. However, the Ministry of External Affairs has asserted that the NRC update has been transparent and without political bias. Finally, the people of Assam need a solution to this problem. Forty years are enough. Let there be a new beginning for a vibrant Assam,” he added.
While Dutta talks about the struggle of Assam with illegal migrants in the context of the last 40 years, a quick peep through the history of Assam says the indigenous Assamese first felt threatened by the mass influx from East Pakistan when a Bengali language movement erupted in the Barak Valley and Bengali was made the official language of the Valley in 1961.
Three years later, the Registrar General of India, in his report said that 2,20,691 "infiltrants" had entered Assam from East Pakistan. This report led the government to set up the Foreigners' Tribunals in the state. The rest is known to all.
However, since the publication of the final list on Saturday, the BJP leaders have been asserting that the list is not the “last word” on citizenship.
“There is no question of the sons of the soil like the Koch Rajbanshis to get out of NRC. Today, they are worried. It is regrettable on the part of us that they are worried. The genuine citizens who are excluded from the list should not be worried. Likewise, those foreigners who are enlisted should not be happy. Till the time (Narendra) Modiji and Amit Shahji are there, no foreigners will be given citizenship and no indigenous will be stripped off,” said Assam minister and North East Democratic Alliance convener Himanta Biswa Sarma.
He further added that the party is planning to jointly submit a request for re-verification in discussion with AASU and Assam Public Works (the original petitioner) to the Supreme Court. "This is the first window. The second window will be when the real national NRC would take place. The third window will be the reports of Border Police. That’s why I am saying this is (the NRC) not even the quarter-final. The quarter-final, semi-final and finals are yet to play," Sarma said.
Ashraful Hussain, a student leader belonging to Chatra Mukti Sangram Sammitee and an NRC activist, however, said that though he thinks that many genuine Indians are excluded, the whole exercise cannot be termed as futile.
“Though for many NRC is implemented to solve the problem of foreigners, for us it is a problem of citizenship. We thought NRC would solve the issue of D voters and false reference cases made by the police, but it is seen that such cases were never investigated and people were excluded from NRC on the basis of such reports. It has made the problem more complex,” he says.
Hussain, who has been relentlessly helping the poor and marginalised with the filing of documents, claims, etc, said that the officers behind the implementation of NRC were prejudiced with the idea of constant influx from Bangladesh from the colonial era to till date.
“A lot of officers engaged with the process have grown up seeing dubious reports of an influx of millions in the state and so they naturally cancelled names of genuine citizens. They entertained false objectors who never showed up in the hearing. If the genuine citizens are enlisted then what the list is for?" asks Hussain.
If the process of re-verification again starts as demanded by the ruling BJP, the opposition Congress, the AASU and original petitioner Abhijit Sharma, it will take Assam another few years, cost more money and thousands of human resources to solve the 60-year-long issue — who is a foreigner and who is a citizen.
Amidst all the controversy, the man of the show — Hajela, a 1995 batch IAS officer and state coordinator of NRC has chosen to stay away from the media glare and the shifting position of political water.
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