Will the July 31 deadline for publication of the final list of Assam’s National Register for Citizens (NRC)—a list of bona fide Indian nationals—be adhered to or extended further? This question is reverberating across the state, more so after both the federal Indian and the Assam governments moved the Supreme Court seeking sample re-verification of twenty percent of the names in the draft NRC in Assam’s districts bordering Bangladesh and ten percent in the remaining areas of the state.
The draft final NRC, which came out on July 30 last year, contained 2,89,63,877 names and left out over 40,00,000 as ineligible for inclusion. The sensitive and complex task of updating of the NRC began in 2013 on the apex court’s directive with the objective of identifying and deporting illegal immigrants to find a permanent solution to the problem of illegal immigration in the state. A little more than one lakh names were deleted from the NRC in June after rejection of claims. Over 36 lakh claims and two lakh objections were filed before the state NRC coordinator and the hearing of the same had begun in February this year. The federal government pointed out in its plea that while 2,89,63,877 persons were included in the final draft NRC, the number of objections related to two lakh names.
Since the Bharatiya Janata Party is in power at the Centre as well as in Assam, it is natural that they will be on the same page on the issue of re-verification. But it is set to trigger a fresh churn in the state. Days before the top court was formally approached by the federal and the state authorities on Tuesday, All Assam Students Union (AASU), the powerful outfit which has spearheaded the decades-long campaign against “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh, and All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) have come out with contrasting response to the plea for re-verification.
The need for the re-verification has arisen following representations Assam has received from several outfits over wrongful inclusion and exclusion of names, said the federal and Assam governments in their pleas, arguing that the exercise, therefore, must address both inclusion and exclusion. The federal government’s Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta, mentioned the applications on Tuesday before the court of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and urged him to hear them before the deadline. Initially, the CJI said he would hear it on August 1 but later agreed to look into the request. Common in the two separate pleas by the federal government and Assam administration is the need for addressing the concerns over omission of genuine Indians and inclusion of “illegal immigrants” in the NRC.
What prompted the plea for re-verification? The state government said the re-verification was essential in view of allegations that bribes were paid for inclusion of several names, despite such people being declared illegal foreigners by designated foreigners’ tribunals. “There have been several instances where foreigners who were detected and declared as such by tribunals have been included in the draft NRC. Even cases of declared foreigners having been engaged as NRC officials have come to light,” Assam said in its plea. The federal government emphasised that re-verification—citing possible law and order scenarios—is an issue the Indian Home Ministry has already seized of.
The Assam and the federal authorities pressed for re-verification by contending that the final NRC will have a “critical impact” on the people whose names may not find a place in the list, hence all efforts should be made to draw up a “fair and correct” document. Besides, they pointed out that it was the apex court bench of Justice Gogoi and Justice R F Nariman which had on August 28, 2018, agreed to consider the necessity for sample re-verification of at least ten percent names included in the final draft NRC. But the court had not, at that time, given any orders for re-verification. However, the court had asked the state NRC to submit a report stating the possible timeframe when re-verification can start if ordered by the court and the timeframe within which it can be completed.
There is little doubt that a careful re-verification would take time and might necessitate extension of the deadline for the final NRC publication. This is implicit in the plea by both the federal and Assam governments to the top court, that the July 31 timeline for the final NRC be suitably modified. In fact, both the federal and Assam governments sought to make a strong case for completion of the re-verification exercise, before going ahead further with sorting out claims and objections to the inclusion of names in the list of citizens. What came out from the pleas by the federal and Assam authorities before the Supreme Court was that the hearings on claims and objections centred on two counts—family-tree and family-basis.
Predictably, the AASU has slammed the plea for sample re-verification of the names as a “conspiracy” to delay the publication of final NRC by July 31 and asked why the top court was moved with just a few weeks left for the timeline. On the other hand, AAMSU said it planned to file a counter-affidavit in the apex court. AAMSU’s main contention relates to the officials who will be given the task of carrying out re-verification. Both AASU and AAMSU are stakeholders in the NRC issue in the Supreme Court.
The re-verification exercise is likely to stir fresh anxieties in Assam, and if allowed by the top court and executed, it could result in both deletion and addition of names from the final draft NRC.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.