Guwahati: The process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has been stormy from the very start. But the most contentious part of the exercise has been the figure of 40 lakh identified as non-genuine Indian citizens in the draft list drastically dropping to less than half at just a little over 19 lakh in the final NRC.
This, however, was far from a simple task. It took a complex, exhaustive and detailed process over six months, involving thousands of workers, hundreds of work hours and extensive hearings to arrive at the figure.
But not many seem to be happy with this number, finding it to be far less than what they expected. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah had been raising the pitch on the BJP’s success in identifying ’40 lakh infiltrators’ for months now. Shah, however, is hardly the only one.
Assam, which has for long grappled with the ethnic Assamese versus ‘outsider’ debate, has seen a range of political leaders peg the number of illegal immigrants at a variety of figures — 30 lakh, 40 lakh, 50 lakh and so on.
The All Assam Students Union (AASU), which spearheaded the anti-immigrant Assam agitation, feels 19 lakh is way too little.
After the draft lists raised expectations and satisfied stakeholders with a relatively high number, it was the process of ‘claims and objections’ that eventually told Assam it didn’t have 40 lakh suspected foreigners, and that the figure actually stood at less than 6 per cent of the total applicants.
ThePrint does a deep dive into what this process was all about, what it entailed, how much the final number can be trusted and what next for NRC.
When the entire exercise of updating NRC was being planned between 2013 and 2015 — after the Supreme Court ordered the list be updated till applications were invited — it was felt that given its complexity and implications, an in-built design had to be provided to ensure double-checking and grievance redressal. This was the underlying mandate of the claims and objections process.
Claims meant that anybody left out of the draft lists could come forward to say they had been wrongfully excluded and ask for fresh verification. Objections meant that any individual could red flag someone’s inclusion and demand re-verification.
Of the around 40 lakh left out of the two draft lists, 36, 26, 630 people filed claims, of whom around 17,00,000 were able to prove their exclusion had been incorrect. Sources involved with the process claim the around 4 lakh people who did not file for claims “could be those who have absolutely baseless documents and are aware they wouldn’t be able to prove their citizenship”. Even those labelled as ‘doubtful voters’ or declared ‘foreigners’ by Foreigners Tribunal could take part in the process.
As for objections, around 2 lakh were received of which a mere 700-odd were found to be correct.
Once the second and final NRC draft was published at the end of July 2018, work for the next stage began. A standard operating procedure (SOP) was finalised on 1 November 2018, by the office of the NRC coordinator, in consultation with the Supreme Court that is monitoring the exercise. Following this, capacity building and specific training of officials involved with the project began.
Essentially, the officials had to be trained to figure out documentation discrepancy and how to read the documents, what questions to ask the applicants and how to determine whether the case was genuine or not. Authorities claim “it was designed to be a scientific process with clearly laid down guidelines”. Findings from the ground, however, reveal that given the number of people involved, a reasonable degree of discretion and subjectivity is bound to have crept in.
Claims and objections were invited and it was 15 February onward that this process of re-verification started.
What it entailed
Effectively, the process entailed re-checking of each document at the back-end, but more importantly, taking this exercise to beyond paper-work to bring in ‘supporting evidence’. For this, extensive hearings were conducted, where family members were called to one spot as per specific slots allotted to them and attempts were made by the disposing officer to determine a family tree.
Hearings were conducted where more members of a particular descendent resided. This, however, meant several had to go through the inconvenience of travelling long distances at short notices to be able to make it for the hearing.
To give an example of the kind of discrepancies that arose, authorities explain that often a legacy mismatch was noticed. In some cases, descendants inadvertently brought out wrong legacy data of people with the same name as their ancestors and hence could not prove lineage. In certain other cases, legacy data was deliberately traded between people. The idea was to call all members who claim to be from one legacy at one spot to question and arrive at a conclusion.
All disposing officers had the necessary documentation and case history of each case on a computer screen in front of them. In all, around 3,500 disposing officers were at work. Each disposing officer had around two people for technical support and another 2-3 support staff on an average. Besides them, around 25,000-30,000 staff was designated to physically deliver the letters of date and place of hearing to each applicant who had filed for claims/objections.
Overall, authorities say nearly 40,000 workers were involved in the entire claims and objections process. Over 15 lakh hearings were conducted, with disposing officers working for an average of 10 hours a day, five days a week, for six months.
The NRC has cost the exchequer over Rs 1,100 crore.
Veracity of the final number
To put it pithily, there is no way to determine if the figure of 19.06 lakh is correct. This has been the first of its kind exercise and given there is no benchmark to determine what the number of illegal immigrants would be, this remains the only conclusive, albeit highly disputed, data.
All claims made by political leaders from across the spectrum of the number have no real scientific basis.
Moreover, the Assam Accord of 1985 — which forms the basis of NRC — pegs the cut-off date to determine those who immigrated illegally from Bangladesh before 24 March 1971. Migration, however, has been happening since much before and the 1979-1985 Assam movement actually talked of a much higher number because it took into account pre-1971 immigrants as well.
There is also no absolute basis to determine the religious breakup of those excluded given the NRC application form did not ask for the applicant’s religion. Sources, however, say around nine lakh of the total excluded would be Hindus, mainly those of Bengali origin.
The immediate mandate for the office of the NRC coordinator may have been to update the 1951 list, but the task is far from over.
Each one of those excluded who want to appeal to the Foreigners Tribunal will need to approach their local NRC office for an ‘exclusion certificate’ on the basis of which they can approach the tribunal. Thus, the NRC headquarters will have to ensure each document is in place and is dispatched to the relevant local centre.
The NRC will also have to be regularly updated, much like the revision of electoral rolls, to account for births, deaths, fresh migration and more. The NRC directorate, therefore, will function just like the office of the chief electoral officer in terms of the mandate to revise the list.
However, how often the list will be revised and how is a modality that is yet to be worked out.