After much hype, confusion, politics and processes, the updated list of Assam’s National Register of Citizens — NRC — is finally out. Around 19 lakh people have been excluded. Considering 3.29 crore people applied in the first place, less than 6 per cent have been found not to be ‘genuine’ Indian citizens.
Incidentally, this figure is far less than what the leaders of the 1979 Assam Agitation would have anticipated, which is why they agitated in the first place and succeeded in getting the Rajiv Gandhi government to agree to update the 1951 NRC as part of the 1985 Assam Accord. And this is precisely why this exercise has been a complete waste — redundant in the current context and late by at least three decades. This figure, in fact, knocks the bottom off the original Assam movement. It indicates how the entire talk of demographic imbalance was more a fallacy than fact.
A senseless endeavour
Essentially, the NRC exercise has achieved little — except to create panic in a state, cause unnecessary confusion and discomfort to Assam residents, give India a bad name, eat into the Supreme Court’s precious time, cost over Rs 1,100 crore and waste human resources to the tune of more than 62,000 workers and most dangerously, give the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party a potent tool to further its Hindutva politics, thus polarising the state.
The idea behind updating the NRC was to identify those who immigrated ‘illegally’ from Bangladesh, keeping 24 March 1971, as the cut off date. This was a long-standing demand of the people of Assam, who harboured resentment against ‘outsiders’ for eating into their share of resources and benefits. Never mind that the anger was against all ‘outsiders’, which BJP has doggedly tried to convert to one against just Muslim immigrants.
The widespread resentment and anger was because the ethnic Assamese believed illegal immigrants had trooped in and encroached on their rights in swelling numbers. But a mere 6 odd per cent would hardly explain that decades-old indignation and hostility.
Not to forget this number will go down even further. Consider this, after the two draft lists, 40 lakh people were left out. In the claims and objections process that followed, over 20 lakh were clearly able to prove their exclusion was wrongful and thus, get their names into the final list. The ones left out even now cannot be declared ‘foreigners’ right away, and a due process that involves appeals in the Foreigners Tribunal and courts will follow. In that course, several others might also succeed in proving their citizenship, lowering the number even further.
Speaking at ThePrint’s Off The Cuff in August 2018, senior BJP minister in Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma had claimed that those who did migrate illegally after 1971 will “just disappear”. If that turns out to be true, the number of those left as illegal immigrants will see a further drop.
So, in the current context, the NRC has been an absolutely pointless and senseless endeavour — as provocative as that might sound. Imagine those who did come in from Bangladesh illegally after 1971 would now have their third generation living in Assam, who know of only this state as their home. And obviously, most have been able to generate the required legacy documents as well.
BJP’s move now
The most notable thing that has happened in the entire process, inadvertently, is that the BJP got a dangerous instrument to further its majoritarian politics. The party, however, is evidently out of its depth for now. This list isn’t full of Muslims, as it had hoped, and has Bengali Hindus, Nepalis and even some from the indigenous Assamese tribes who perhaps did not have the mandatory paperwork. The BJP’s panic knocks at the SC’s door asking for re-verification, particularly in areas bordering Bangladesh, fearing wrongful inclusions, has been telling.
The disconcerting part going forward would be to see how the BJP tries to get out of the sticky situation and send a political message by ensuring that the Hindus left out can wriggle back in. The proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is the antidote it is looking for, but which is actually a disaster in the making.
In the end, this behemoth of an exercise has turned out to be a case of the famous Hindi proverb — Khoda pahad, nikla chooha (You dig a mountain only to find a mouse). The BJP, of course, would like to believe it found “deemak” (termite) and not a mouse, given its president Amit Shah’s fondness for referring to infiltrators as “termites” who deserve to be thrown into the Bay of Bengal.