The final National Register of Citizens, which came out on 31 August after years of wait and anxiety, may have settled the vexed issue of ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’ for Assam’s indigenous community. But for the Election Commission, the task has only just begun. As the Sarbananda Sonowal government in Assam gears up to address the grievances of 19.06 lakh people excluded from the final NRC list, the long-pending issue of ‘doubtful voters’ should be taken up on a priority basis.
As per last count, there are about 1.2 lakh D-voters in Assam, declared so in 1997. These are disenfranchised people who can neither contest elections nor cast the vote. Their cases are pending in the state’s various Foreigners’ Tribunals, the quasi-judicial bodies that will, along with the courts, decide the fate of those not named in the final NRC list.
The possible ‘eligible’ voters
Sorting out these pending cases are important for Assam’s political and electoral system. There could be many D-voters who remain out of Assam’s electoral list when they may in fact be ‘eligible’ voters. During the 2019 Lok Sabha election, there were more than 2.18 crore eligible voters. With the NRC list declaring 3.11 crore people as citizens, the number of ‘eligible voters’ could go up if all pending cases – from D-voters to those excluded – are properly dealt with, and at the earliest, by the Foreigners’ Tribunals. Failure to do so will lead to controversy and ill-feeling among the people of Assam.
At the same time, those who ultimately fail to prove their identities, including the D-voters, must be deported back to their country and their names struck off from Assam’s electoral roll. This decision must be communicated to everyone concerned.
Getting back to governance
The state has suffered enormously due to the diversion of regular government staff to the NRC exercise. A large number of development-related works, the critical task of handling flood relief, as well as various social welfare programmes were put on the back burner to facilitate the completion of the mammoth task of updating the NRC. One now hopes that with the NRC exercise over, Assam’s governance will come back on track. We must express our gratitude to the Supreme Court for having undertaken this massive challenge when it is already burdened by pending cases of its own.
The Assam government will also have to do its part. At various levels, the Sonowal government has expressed its readiness to extend necessary help to those not included in the final NRC list. It should now ensure that their cases are thoroughly re-examined by the tribunals without further loss of time to ensure no ‘genuine’ Indian citizen is declared a foreigner. Any failure on the tribunals and the courts’ part to address the grievances of ‘genuine’ citizens will be construed as a failure of the Indian state. There should be a definite timeframe to close all cases. Those excluded from the NRC list must be provided all legal help and encouraged to approach the relevant platform in order to resolve their grievances and bring closure to this massive exercise.
Having said that, one must accept that the outcome was on expected lines, given the number of tweaks and changes in the list of identity documents considered acceptable as proof of citizenship. Usually, such massive exercises are always embarked upon after fixing necessary and appropriate parameters in advance, so that some measure is not changed or abandoned midway that could compromise the outcome. When the Supreme Court finally allowed all 15 documents that the petitioners wanted to be made as ‘acceptable’ for people filing claims against their exclusion in the draft NRC, it provided some elbow room to manoeuvre at lower levels to include more people in the final list.
Keep the promise
At a meeting of BJP allies from the region (North East Democratic Alliance) in Guwahati, Home Minister Amit Shah declared Monday that the BJP government’s “intention is to expel illegal immigrants from the entire country and not just Assam”. Similar announcements were made during the campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha election. For the Assamese though, this remained a pipe dream. One hopes this is not repeated and the indigenous people of Assam are not misled once again.
The author is former Chief Election Commissioner of India. Views are personal.