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An Exercise In Exclusion?

An Exercise In Exclusion?

On August 31, 2019, the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published in Assam. In this final list 19,06,657 people are still excluded. Whilst several maintain that the numbers excluded now are significantly less than what was expected (according to earlier lists), the fact remains, that the entire exercise is seen to be a highly discriminatory and exclusive one.

The  National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a register maintained by the  Government of India containing names & certain relevant information for identification of all genuine  Indian citizens. The register was first prepared after the  1951 Census of India and since then it has not been updated till recently, when rather suddenly and unexpectedly the Government seems to have woken up.

Assam is the first state in India where the updation of the NRC is being taken up to include the names of those persons whose names appeared in the NRC, 1951 & still alive and/or of their presently living descendants having permanent residence within the state.

However due to an amendment carried out in the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955 , the State Register of Citizens for the state of Assam , which forms a part of the National Register of Citizens, has also been held to be legal to contain the names of all persons, whose names appeared at least in any of the  Electoral Rolls published for any of the then assembly constituencies within the territorial limits of present day state of Assam up to midnight of 24 March 1971 and also of descendants of such persons presently having permanent residence within the state. 

A certainly eligibility criteria for inclusion in the NRC were decided upon as follows:

·       Persons whose names appear in NRC, 1972

·       Persons whose names appear in any of the Electoral Rolls up to 24 March (midnight), 1971.

·       Descendants of the above persons.

·       Persons who came to Assam on or after 1 January 1966 but before 25 March 1971 and registered themselves in accordance with the rules made by the Central Government with the Foreigners Registration Regional Officer (FRRO) and who have not been declared as illegal migrants or foreigners by the competent authority.

·       People who are original inhabitants of Assam and their children and descendants who are citizens of India provided their citizenship is ascertained beyond a reasonable doubt by the registering authority.

·       ‘D’ voters  can apply for inclusion of their names in the updated NRC. However, their names will be finally included only when the appropriate Foreigner Tribunal declares them as non-foreigners.

·       Persons who can provide any one of the documents issued up to midnight of 24 March 1971 as mentioned in the list of documents admissible for citizenship.

·       All Indian Citizens including their children and descendants who have moved to Assam post 24 March 1971 would be eligible for inclusion in the updated NRC on adducing satisfactory proof of residence in any part of the country (outside Assam) as on 24 March 1971.

·       All members of the Tea Tribes shall be covered under ‘Original inhabitants of Assam’ category provided for under Clause 3(3) of the Schedule of The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003.

·       All such original inhabitants shall be included on the basis of proof to the satisfaction of the Registering Authority. On the establishment of the citizenship of such persons beyond a reasonable doubt, their names shall be in the updated NRC.

After the publication of the ‘final’ list there has been much angst not merely on the process, but on the way people were discriminated against. The point is what happens to the 19 lakhs persons who have been excluded from the ‘final’ list? The Assam government itself claimed that many genuine Indian citizens had been left out of the final National Register of Citizens (NRC), but said that they do not need to panic as they have option to appeal in the Foreigners Tribunal (FT) within the next 120 days. But what happens if they still do not succeed in this last-ditch effort? Will they be rendered ‘stateless?’

 

On September 7 and 8, several human rights organizations have organised in Delhi, a public hearing on issues arising from the NRC. Entitled ‘Contested Citizenship in Assam: Public Hearing on Constitutional Processes and the Human Cost’, the programme intends focussing on those who risk becoming ‘stateless’. In a backgrounder for the hearing, the organisers state, “the complete draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam was published on 30th July 2018, raising fears that it risked arbitrarily depriving the nationality of over 4 million persons and rendering them stateless. The populations at risk are overwhelmingly from minority ethnic, religious and linguistic groups - consisting Muslims and Hindus of Bengali descent and Nepali-speaking populations - with high percentages of women, children and daily wage workers, all among the most marginalized and excluded communities. The discriminatory and arbitrary manner in which this procedure is being carried out is causing despair among many and has, to-date, resulted in over 50 suicides”.

The elaborate backgrounder traces the genesis of the issue, the way it has unfolded historically and what the consequences would mean for the thousands who do not find their names in the final lists or will not be able to clear the ‘Foreigners Tribunal’. Adding, “those finally deemed as foreigner will be interned in Detention Centres. The 6 detention centres spread across Assam house 1133 ‘declared foreigners’. 335 of these have been detained for more than three years. A recent enquiry by a special monitor of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) into ‘detention centres’ in Assam provides a chilling account. It highlights the illegality of the centres; indefinite incarcerations and accompanying vulnerabilities suffered by detainees; the lack of any legal redress whatsoever; and the sheer hopelessness of detention conditions. Victims are detained in conditions like convicted prisoners, but without enjoying associated rights, including parole or freedom from indefinite incarceration. The NHRC has, to date, not been reported to have taken any action on the findings. A recent intervention on detention centres in the SC has resulted in minor relief without mitigating their stateless status: detenus having done more 3 years could be released, subject to execution of bond with two securities, and their biometric and finger prints being captured, among others. With the threshold being what it is, the relief has meant little help to most detenus.”

On September 1, Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in a statement from Geneva, urged India to ensure that no one is left stateless by the exclusion of nearly 2 million people from a citizenship list in Assam state. Grandi said that "any process that could leave large numbers of people without a nationality would be an enormous blow to global efforts to eradicate statelessness." Further adding that to ensure no one ends up stateless, "including by ensuring adequate access to information, legal aid, and legal recourse in accordance with the highest standards of due process."

Earlier, in June 2018, in a significant move, four UN Special Rapporteurs jointly addressed a letter to the Government of India communicating concerns that “ local authorities in Assam, deemed particularly hostile towards Muslims and people of Bengali descent, may manipulate the verification system in an attempt to exclude genuine Indian citizens from the updated NRC”, warning that “ if these allegations are founded, the updated register poses a dire risk to thousands of Indian citizens who may wrongfully be declared as “foreigners” and consequently rendered stateless”. In what is unprecedented, the UN experts have followed this up with two more letters since, reiterating their concerns and issuing warnings. OHCHR website informs none of these letters have elicited any response from Indian authorities.

The next months are certainly going to be crucial for those who have been excluded. There are several organisations like the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) who are working round the clock at the grassroots with those who are despairing. Well known human rights activist, who is the Secretary of CJP, in a very comprehensive brief on the ground realities in Assam vis-à-vis the NRC states, Our Constitutional foundations and the fundamental freedoms guaranteed under Article 14 and 21 should be the guiding principles to mitigate the NRC and citizenship-related crisis affecting Assam, hereafter. The institutions created and the measures put in place to redress grievances of the 15 lakh plus excluded must pass this litmus test. Turmoil, trauma and a vicious targeting have dogged an otherwise consensual process for over four years in the state while the wounds have festered for decades. It is time the process forward is constructive and provides some healing”.

For a country which has for long flaunted the Sanskrit text Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam meaning “the world is one family”, the NRC therefore comes as a litmus test

Will the country live up to the ideal, or will it show the world that the right-wing political leaders are wedded to a policy of exclusion? If it is the latter, then the beautiful words of the Maha Upanishad,

“one is a relative, the other stranger

say the small-minded.

The entire world is a family

live the magnanimous”,

will have to be consigned to flames for all eternity!

India – are you listening?

(The writer is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com )

(Published on 09th September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 37)