National Register of Citizens: A Discussion on its Historical Context and Outcomes

On 20 August, the India International Centre, in collaboration with Good World Foundation (a Shillong based organisation), organised a panel discussion titledInsider and Outsider: Issues of Citizenship and Belonging in Northeast India” to discuss the National Register of Citizens of Assam (NRC) at New Delhi. The panelists were Suhas Chakma, Sublimal Bhattacharya, Krishna Sarma, Rajat Sethi and Sanjoy Hazarika. Samrat Choudhury was the moderator.

The discussion commenced with Choudhury asking several questions: How were the estimates of immigrants arrived at by the NRC? What is the relevance of the India-Bangladesh border? How long does one need to live at a place to be considered a local?

Chakma, who is the Director of Rights and Risks Analysis Group, took a stand on the principle of rule of law and said that the NRC must pass the test of Article 14 of the Constitution of India. Recalling violence between the tribals and non-tribals of Assam in 1980, he warned of a similar situation if NRC is not implemented the correct way. Since India lacks a policy on refugees, he questioned India’s position on illegal immigration. According to him, the entire process stems from xenophobia and racism. Referring to his own community – the Chakmas, (numbering around 2000) who have been living in Assam even before the cut-off date of 1971, he opined that there is a good chance that all of them have been left out of the final draft of the NRC. He also mentioned that Pramod Boro, the President of the All Bodo Students Union, had told him that around 5 lakh Assamese tribal people have been left out of the NRC. He  raised the question of the overall consequence of the NRC and said that  it was the impoverished and downtrodden people who would be most affected by NRC since a large number of them did not have any documents in spite of living in Assam for generations. He also mentioned  the domino effect of the NRC visible in similar demands made in the neighbouring states of Assam.

Bhattacharjee, Director of Jookto, a grassroots organisation in the Barak Valley, began by speaking about the delay in the implementation of NRC. The Prafullla Mahanto government that came to power in 1985 had promised an NRC for Assam but did not deliver on the same. He said that although the NRC is the right step, the method of identification is flawed resulting in  human errors and technical glitches. Though he categorically stated that he is not giving a communal angle to NRC, as the BJP has, he mentioned the names of many Hindu Indian citizens from Cachar district who did not feature in the NRC. According to him, NRC should be given a fair chance of implementation to avoid further delay and resentment. The figure that arises at the end must be acceptable and the issue must then be put to rest“Let the future decide if NRC delivered justice to the people of Assam”, he said.

Sarma, a managing partner in the Corporate Law Group, was involved in the legal battles around the NRC. She began by highlighting the dangers of unabated immigration and its implications for the indigenous people. Taking the case of Tripura, she highlighted how the tribal groups have been marginalised as a result of unchecked immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh. Assam shares a porous riverine border with Bangladesh and the unchecked borders have resulted in a visible demographic change around Guwahati city. Citing the Assam Accord of 1985, she lamented that no government had taken any steps to implement it. She mentioned the origin of the current NRC process  in the 2009 petition filed by Assam Public Works. However, it faced hurdles as Kapil Sibal's representation in 2014 raised the question of the  status of the children whose parents were not in the NRC list. This matter could only be decided by a Constitution Bench because it involved the issue of citizenship rooted in the Constitution of India. At present, a Division Bench deals with NRC. The Constitution Bench is yet to be formed. She concluded by asserting that the NRC is needed. Further, borders must also be sealed to check illegal crossings. 

Sethi, a BJP campaigner in the Northeast, an advisor to the Chief Minister of Manipur and the author of the book The Last Battle of Saraighat, tied BJP’s stand on the NRC to the economic prosperity of Northeast India. BJP’s promise to bring economic development in the Northeast is manifested in the NRC that will disenfranchise the illegal immigrants and give back jobs to the locals, he said. The NRC is also a check to deter any further immigration from Bangladesh in the future. Referring to the Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016, he stated that religious and politically persecuted minorities have no place to go other than India. Keeping this in mind, differentiating between immigrants and refugees is a must.

Hazarika, Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, gave a new interpretation to NRC. He said the issue of NRC  goes beyond the question of illegal immigrants. The larger question is who an ‘insider’ is and who  an ‘outsider’. Therefore, Assam’s NRC is not a sustainable solution. He urged the political parties not to politicise NRC. Following this train of thought, he posed the question: “How long do people need to live in a place to become local?” In this light he referred to the unrest in Shillong where the Mazhabi Sikhs had been living in the locality for 150 years and were still deemed 'outsiders'.

Referring to his book Rites of Passage (published in the late 1990s) where he suggested a system of work and residence permits to be issued in lieu of citizenship or deportation, he said disenfranchisement, detention camps, and deportation plans are not the solution. In this regard, he raised the issue of perpetual disenfranchisement – “Will the disenfranchisement be inherited by their children and descendants?”, he asked. For him, the sustainable solution lies in negotiating with Bangladesh, reservation of jobs for the indigenous people of Assam, and even a general amnesty for all the illegal immigrants.

All the panelists had a common consensus for a long-term solution. Most panelists supported the NRC and were hopeful because there had been no incidence of violence till then. All the panelists also agreed on the disastrous impact on the poor as they lacked documents, resources, and access to legal counsel. The general conclusion was that the process of NRC should be seen to its end.