National Register of Confusion

Politics in the North-east in general, and Assam in particular, has revolved around the issue of being an “outsider”. The native versus foreigner question has kept the region boiling since Independence, as it evokes deep-rooted passions. Underdevelopment and neglect of decades accompanied by the burden of illegal immigration from the neighbouring countries (Bangladesh specifically) has led to soaring discontent among the native population. This popular anger has often manifested itself in the form of ethnic or communal fracas. Therefore, with the aim of bringing some order into this chaotic situation the system of National Register of Citizens (NRC) was devised, specifically for Assam, as a tool of identifying the citizens of the country. However, the recent publication of the final draft of the latest NRC and the subsequent extreme posturing by various political parties has not only created a huge controversy but has also raised several questions about the sanctity of the whole process. Thus, this article is an attempt to understand the nuances of the whole process of NRC enumeration.

History and the Context of NRC

In order to understand the necessity of the NRC, it is vital to look back into history and the context in which this system was first conceptualised. To be clear with the facts : first, it is not the first time that NRC enumeration is underway, rather it had been done for the first time back in 1951 only, when that year’s census data was used as the source of identification. Second, the NRC system is unique to Assam as there exists no similar mechanism in any other part of the country. Now, to begin with, first, the rationale behind this system needs to be understood as only then can one recognise the peculiar circumstances of Assam. As numerous historians have documented, the British rulers during the 19th and 20th century took workers from neighbouring regions to Assam to work as labour in tea plantations. Hence, people from what was then undivided Bengal province kept migrating to Assam in search of work. Later, even after the Independence and partition, the process continued. Thus, in 1951, it became an absolute necessity to devise this mechanism to properly ascertain the exact figure of population.

However, the current problem or the controversy traces its genesis to relatively later period that is around 1971. It is during this time that maximum immigration happened from what was then East-Pakistan. Facing persecution, the Bengali-speaking population of then East-Pakistan fled to neighbouring regions-principally Assam and West Bengal. Thus, during this period Assam saw the influx of millions of refugees into the state. Consequently, due to the acute competition over the already precarious resources, the native Assamese people agitated in 1979 in what came to be known as the Assam Agitation, led by the student group named All Assam Student’s Union (AASU). After six years of struggle, in 1985, the Central government, the state government, and the AASU came to the table and negotiated a political solution in the form of famous Assam Accord. As per the provisions of that Accord, it was decided that the NRC will be updated periodically and foreigners will be detected and “deported”. Finally, it was announced in 2006 that the latest round of registration will begin shorty but still it took the Supreme Court to intervene in the matter in 2014 that the process could finally be started.

Divisive narratives

On the surface of it, it seems like the principal cause of the current controversy and hysteria that has surrounded the whole process, is the exclusion of nearly 4 million people out of the total 3.29 Crore population of Assam, from the final NRC draft. While this is undoubtedly the central question and the number itself is indeed appalling but it is not the issue itself, rather the political commentary that has followed it, that has actually bred the paranoia. When the President of the ruling party in the centre, addresses the media using phrases like,”Ghuspethiye(infiltrators) must be weeded out”, or the emerging leader of the opposition group cautions the nation against the dangers of an ensuing “civil war and bloodbath”, it is then that the common people actually feel scared. There are numerous technical and human-error-related issues which may be responsible for this massive exclusion of the masses but to scare them by either instilling fear of national security or deportation is no solution.

As the SC appointed Co-ordinator of NRC Prateek Hajela has mentioned, the best that one can do right now is to show restraint and wait for the final process to get over. He has categorically stated that even those who might be left out after the completion of the entire process, cannot be described foreigners automatically. It will be the judicial scrutiny which will ultimately decide the final status of those left out. In the meantime, the Indian people must not forget the great traditions that its ancestors have abided by. This is the nati which provided shelter to the Jews when no other country was ready to provide roof to them. It would certainly be great if the politicians of today follow those footsteps.

Contributed By Kunwar Suryansh

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