The Rs 1,500-crore mega exercise of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam is coming to an end on July 31, the date fixed by the Supreme Court for the authorities to declare the final list of citizens. The exercise began in 2015 with the idea that an NRC, free from names of foreigners, could emerge in a state that is believed to be infested with illegal migrants from adjoining Bangladesh. A total of 3.29 crore people applied for inclusion of their names in the updated NRC, of which 40 lakh names were left out when the final draft NRC was published on December 31, 2018.
The publication of the draft list that saw the names of over four million applicants missing triggered a whole lot of questions. The NRC authorities depended solely on documents meant to establish the legacies of individuals, their date or place of births, their voting records, land deeds, academic certificates and lots more. To put it simply, those who were in possession of critical documents found themselves to be on a firm footing, and those who did not have proper records failed to have their names in the draft list.
Therefore, the natural question that was being asked was this -- are these four million people illegal migrants? Obviously not. The NRC exercise is directly monitored by the Supreme Court, which itself allowed time to these four million people to file claims and even objections. More than 36 lakh people filed claims, but around 3.75 lakh of them apparently did not do so. The names of these 3.75 lakh people will not appear in the final list, but eventually what could happen to them is not quite clear. Most of these 3.75 lakh people would now be investigated by the border wing of the Assam police, the agency responsible for probing cases of doubtful citizenship.
How many of the over 36 lakh people who filed claims get to see their names included in the final NRC will be known on July 31, but on June 26, the NRC authorities published another list of over one lakh people and called it an “additional exclusion list”. This meant that over and above the 40 lakh people whose names did not appear in the final draft list, the authorities excluded an additional one lakh-plus people from the draft NRC. These people have also been given time to lodge claims. But, since the final list in any case will have to be out on July 31, the question remains as to how the NRC authorities could possibly deal with and dispose of the cases relating to their claims in a fair manner after due investigations. Actually, it is issues like this that have raised questions on the NRC process.
The NRC exercise aside, the process of detection of foreigners in Assam is going on simultaneously. Two main agencies are involved in this — the border wing of the Assam police, which investigates cases of doubtful citizenship, and the foreigners’ tribunals, which gives the verdict. Of late, the roles of both the border police and the tribunals have come under serious scrutiny after several people declared as foreigners by these tribunals on the basis of investigations by the border police and sent to detention camps have walked free, although still on bail as a first step, because they are actually genuine citizens.
The first case to hog the media spotlight was that of Mohammed Sanaullah, who retired from the Indian Army after serving it for 30 years. A tribunal declared him a “foreigner” because the Assam police investigating officer had an interrogation report with a thumb impression where Sanuallah is supposed to have admitted he was a Bangladeshi and that he was a wage earner or “labourer”. It had the names of three so-called witnesses.
Thereafter, the local media ran detailed stories of the investigating police officer saying that Sanuallah, the Army soldier, was not the Sanaullah he had investigated 11 years ago. Then the three people named as “witnesses” came out and told the media that no police officer had ever met or spoken to them. Now, the question arises whether the police investigating officer had simply forged the whole thing or whether he had simply written down everything himself. The big question now is whether the Assam police would order a probe on the botched investigation.
Then the same question for the tribunals, which have adequate powers to call for records or to summon authorities. Now, when an accused says he had served in the Indian Army for 30 years, was it not incumbent upon the tribunal authorities to call for records or ask the local superintendent of police to get a report from the Army authorities? After all, as per the figures placed in the Lok Sabha on July 2, the tribunals in Assam have, between 1985 and February 28, 2019, declared 63,959 people as foreigners through ex-parte proceedings, thereby denying such people an opportunity to contest the verdict.
Again, days after Sanuallah walked out of detention, an elderly lady, Madhubala Mandal, came out. By then she had spent nearly three years in jail. The border police mistook Madhubala Mandal for Madhubala Das, and that was it. For the record, Madhubala Das is not even alive! Then it was the turn of another woman, Rongmala Sarkar, to walk out of a detention centre. This was mistaken identity too.
Now, what would happen to those whose names do not appear in the final NRC? They can appeal before 200 new appellate tribunals that are coming up. The rest of the 80 functioning foreigners’ tribunals will continue dealing with around 200,000 cases pending over the years.
What is clear it that a long-drawn legal battle is on the cards for those who can afford lawyers, while the poor people will have to wait in uncertainty. Even if a certain number of people admit that they are Bangladeshis, will Dhaka accept them back? This is a big question. But I would say the NRC may not succeed in resolving the foreigners’ issue unless we stop the entry of fresh migrants and adopt a more practical approach towards those whose names will not be there in the final NRC.