Pan India NRC? Difficult, if not impossible

Ashis Biswas, Kolkata
Published : 07:30, Nov 07, 2019 | Updated : 07:30, Nov 07, 2019

The Indian national flag flutters on top of the parliament building in New Delhi December 1, 2010. REUTERS/File Photo

Never mind Amit Shah’s dire warnings, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is facing Himalayan obstacles in its quest to carry out the NRC National Register of Citizens (NRC) upgrading exercise all over India. Meanwhile, Home Minister Shah may reiterate his party’s resolve ad infinitum to identify and act against ‘illegal Bangladeshis’. It helps him kill many birds with one stone
Shah’s objective may be to maintain cadre morale, keeping the ‘How is the josh?’ brigade happy. As with the never-ending probes into the Sarada chit-fund/Narada bribery scams, BJP’s playing the NRC card keeps the Indian opposition badly divided and on the run. Significantly, India has never really pressed Dhaka and has promised not to trouble it in the future as well, over the NRC issue.
This naturally reinforces the conclusion that the BJP is really keen to utilize the NRC as a domestic and not bilateral, issue. It keeps common people in India off balance, under pressure and on the defensive, as the administration wields the iron rod. Also BJP leaders understand very well that the embarrassing fiasco resulting from the NRC operation in Assam will be hard to live down.
And now, an indirect confirmation of such a conclusion comes from Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi himself. The substance of what may well have been his farewell speech ( or sad swansong?) on the subject the other day was nothing less than an official appraisal of the post NRC situation in Assam. He was a prime sponsor of the NRC operations, along with its Chief Co-ordinator Prateek Hajela.
Justice Gogoi referred at some length to the NRC’s work, in a desperate bid to persuade people of its profound import. He did not conceal his fears about the future of Assam in the process. He did not reject the relatively low number of people, only 1.9 million out of a population of over 320 million, who were not registered as Indians. It may be recalled all major parties in Assam—the BJP, Congress, AGP, AIDUF---- have categorically refused to accept the NRC’s final report.
Days ahead of his retirement, the pensive judge chose the unusual occasion of a book release in Delhi to air his misgivings. His sombre message saddened the more excitable leaders among organisations such as the AASU (All Assam Students’ Union) and the Asom Sahitya Sabha (ASS). For these groups, the sustained campaign for the detection and immediate expulsion of illegal Bangladeshis from Assam has long been the raison d’etre of their existence for decades. Their involvement with a highly emotive issue enables them to punch much above their weight in the NE region’s politics.
It needs stressing that there is considerable justification for the concern of Assamiya political leaders and policymakers about the fate of their state. Mr Gogoi’s claim that Assam, the home of a rich variety of different peoples and cultures, has been very generous in dealing with non Assamiyas over the years, cannot be dismissed lightly. True, the Nellie massacre of Feb 1983 claimed over 2000 lives, but the violence had erupted among tribals who attacked Muslim immigrants, not Assamiyas. However there were some instances of mob attacks and other violence against Bengali Hindus and Muslims during the Assam agitation, which was spearheaded by the AASU, for some years.
In recent times, there has occurred no major communal violence, although the minorities maintain that they are not treated as equals by the Assamiyas.
The fact that the Chief Justice has to go only days after the controversial chief Coordinator was transferred, is bad news for hardline Assamiya activists. Legal proceedings at India’s apex court on NRC matters are not yet over. The number of non citizens is expected to drop further by 400,000 to 500,000 lakhs after appellate proceedings in the lower courts are held.
Rightly or wrongly, most non Assamiya people feel that Justice Gogoi and Mr Hajela had been instrumental in prolonging their ordeal and travails during the NRC ops. They were made to run from pillar to post to secure the most basic documents relating to their identity, proof of residence and citizenship. ‘There has been a big sigh of relief that the next CJ in India’s Apex court will not be an Assamiya, among Bengali Hindus and Muslims,’ says Amal Gupta, veteran Journalist of Assam. According to reports, there is little enthusiasm among senior officers in Delhi or elsewhere to replace Mr. Hajela and carry on with the NRC’s work, in view of the protests and outcry over the NRC excesses, in the national and international media, not to mention HR groups.
Ironically, the unkindest cut for justice Gogoi Gogoi was that he lost the support of his cherished constituency----the native Assamiya people who had expressed their unrestrained euphoric support as the authorities systematically tightened the screws on suspect Bengali Hindus and Muslims . Now even AASU leader Samujjal Bhattacharya has declared the final NRC figures indicating that only a handful of people out of a 320 million population could not prove their Indian identity, as unacceptable.
It is not just the AASU that is seeing red. The NGO ASsam Public Works(APW) which had legally forced the authorities to hasten the detection process for illegal foreigners in 2012 claiming that there were ‘at least 4 million illegal settlers’, is also disappointed. Both the AASU and the APW feel that the 1.9 million figure is a gross underestimate.
The agony does not end here for Justice Gogoi and Mr. Hajela. To add insult to their injury, as mentioned already, the BJP, the INC , the Left parties and other organisations have also rejected the final NRC stats. The BJP to protect its main and oldest support base has totally rejected Gogoi’s final comments that the NRC figures could be a basis’ for working for the future of Assam,’ if the reaction of state leader Shilditya Deb is any indication. . He feels Bengali Hindus have been hard done by. AASU’s Bhattacharya complains that local authorities deliberately ignored / discarded documents of genuine citizens but , but accommodated foreigners ! Again, organisations like the Muslim majority AAMSU and the AIUDF made precisely similar charges suggesting that a particular community had been victimised.
The net result of the NRC exercise has been the opening of a fresh Pandora’s box within the simmering cauldron of Assamiya politics. If anything , prevailing confusion regarding the numbers of suspected freoigners staying Assam has been further confounded. If the hon’ble Supreme Court and Mr Hajela between them have achieved anything, they can claim the dubious credit of antagonising every shade of cultural and political opinion in Assam through their manoeuvres. Their hamhanded exercise, strongly challenged by national and International HR organisations for their ill-concealed methods of steamrolling all protests and ignoring humanitarian appeals made by affected non Assamiya citizens, eventually earned them the derision of all political parties at home, among the people of Assam and beyond.
Current estimates suggest that over four yrears, Rs 1600 crore of taxpayers’ money, involving the efforts of over 50,000 officials, had been spent on the exercise which led to some 70 suicides. The affected families(mostly poor) have received neither official apology nor compensation. Even Assamiya organisations have alleged that some concerned officials were bribed by people to include names of not -so- genuine citizens. There were demands for scrapping the entire exercise, which concerned officials and the judiciary chose to ignore.
Given this highly confusing devil’s own brew of unintended political and administrative consequences in Assam over the NRC, it does not seem likely that the centre would find it desirable to replicate its experience elsewhere in a hurry. Already Karnataka, which initially had also pressed for an NRC update has cried off, while west Bengal is opposing it tooth and nail. However aggressive its slogans, the BJP will find it extremely difficult to carry out the NRC especially in states where it is not in power.