Despite best of intentions there ostensibly were operational difficulties in complying with the directions of the Supreme Court.
Assam has a historical problem with migration dating back to 1826 when the region was merged with the Bengal Presidency. The amalgamation was ascribed to the successful cultivation and production of tea by 1837 almost on an industrial scale. It led to the launch of the Assam Company in 1839. Under the Wasteland Rules of 1838, it became virtually impossible for indigenous inhabitants to layout tea plantations. Post relaxation of those rules in 1854, there was a rush to layout these estates. The Chinese workforce that had been brought in for the gardening of tea all but left Assam by 1843.
Thereafter, primarily ethnic workers from the Bodo-Kachari tribes cultivated the tea estates. From 1859 onwards labour from central India was brought to tend to the tea plantations. This import was based on an indissoluble contract that led to practical slavery of these people. The manner in which they were brought to Assam was horrendous and many perished during the journey itself.
The British already had monopoly over the opium trade. By 1889, oil was discovered in Digboi and a nascent oil industry started taking root. During this time widespread starvation deaths occurred in the larger Assam region leading to a decrease in the local populace. Immigrant labour compensated for the shortfall of native people. Colonial control and exploitation of tea, oil and coal-mining industries kept the demand for immigrant workers high, creating sharp inflection points between the locals and outsiders. This situation persisted till 1947.
The next big wave of migration took place in 1947 when India was partitioned. The process principally involved the division of Bengal in the East and Punjab in the West. The third wave commenced in March 1971 when the West Pakistani Army unleashed genocide in East Pakistan that ultimately culminated in the formation of Bangladesh in 1971.
By 1979, the resentment against migrants had peaked and the All-Assam Students’ Union (AASU) launched an agitation that paralysed Assam for close to five years. Finally on August 15, 1985, late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed an accord with the students that led to the agitation being called off. Fresh elections were held and the AASU morphed into a political party called the Asom Gana Parishad and formed the government in December 1985.
The principal terms of the Assam Accord were: All people who came to Assam prior to January 1, 1966, would be given citizenship. Those who settled there between January 1, 1966 and March 24, 1971, would be detected in accordance with provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946, and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order 1964. Their names would be deleted from the electoral rolls and they would be disenfranchised for a period of 10 years. Finally foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 shall be detected, deleted and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners. Remember, March 25, 1971, was when dictator of Pakistan Yahya Khan unleashed the pogram in the eastern part of his country. Clause 5.9 of the accord stated that the government will give due consideration to certain difficulties expressed by the AASU/AAGSP regarding the implementation of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983.
Despite the AGP being in government for 10 years from 1985 to 1990 and then again from 1991 to 1996, the Assam Accord remained mired in implementational minefields. In 2000, current chief minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal, who had just demitted office as the president of the AASU, filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court praying for the striking down of the IMDT Act and tribunals constituted thereto. On July 12, 2005, a bench consisting of Chief Justice Ramesh Chandra Lahoti and Justices G.P. Mathur and P.K. Balasubramanyam allowed the writ petition and declared the IMDT Act and consequential actions taken thereunder as ultra vires of the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court further directed that: “The respondents (Union of India) are directed to constitute sufficient number of tribunals under the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order 1964 to effectively deal with cases of foreigners, who have illegally come from Bangladesh or are illegally residing in Assam.” Despite best of intentions there ostensibly were operational difficulties in complying with the directions of the Supreme Court.
On July 20, 2009, another writ petition was filed in the Supreme Court by an NGO called Assam Public Works. The petition prayed for updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam. The state already has an NRC because of its peculiar migration history. It was prepared in 1951 with 80 lakh citizens on the basis of that year’s census. In 2003, the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules were amended for updating the NRC in order to identify genuine citizens. The template to be used for updating the NRC was the Assam Accord of 1985. The said writ petition was heard as many as 35 times between July 2009 and July 31, 2018, and is still a continuing mandamus. The next date is August 16, 2018. Finally on July 30, the draft NRC was published and 40 lakh odd people were preliminarily identified as not being citizens of India.
What then is the brouhaha all about? There are concerns about the process of identifying citizens that perhaps certain religious and linguistic minorities may not have been properly accounted for. What is even more serious is that when claims against the draft NRC that are to be filed by September 28, 2018 are adjudicated and the final NRC is published, what would happen to those who do not make the grade as Indian citizens?
The logical answer is India would deport them, but to where? No country, least of all Bangladesh, would accept them which has declared that it is India’s internal matter. Like Caste Census of 2011 that has not seen the light of the day till today, will the NRC also become the proverbial albatross?