NRC: An experiment gone awry | HT editorial
Thirty years after an anti-immigrant movement rocked the state of Assam, the process of identifying Indian citizens and detecting outsiders finally reached a (partial) conclusion on Saturday. The National Register of Citizens was updated, excluding over 1.9 million people - six percent of Assam’s population. The NRC process took four years, involved the massive deployment of the bureaucratic machinery, became one of the most contentious political issues in contemporary India, deepened existing cleavages in Assamese society, and delivered an outcome with which no one is happy.
The roots of the NRC can be traced back to the Assam movement, when “indigenous” Assamese mobilised sentiment against the perceived influx of immigrants, particularly from Bangladesh. After a series of agreements, and laws made and unmade, the Supreme Court directed and closely monitored the process of updating the NRC. The political push came from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which saw in the exercise an opportunity to fulfil an old promise of deporting immigrants. Its assumption was that a majority of those identified as such would be Muslims. It was this combination of an old local identity-based movement, an over-zealous judiciary, and political activism by a party keen to make electoral inroads in a new region and pursue its ideological agenda that led to the NRC.
But the process has had tremendous costs, with little tangible benefit. At the human level, stories abound of Indians — including the old and ill; those with long periods of service to the nation; and across religious communities and ethnicities — struggling to prove their citizenship. Even though the final list has seen the number of those excluded dip from 4 million to 1.9 million, political parties across the board believe that genuine citizens have still been left out. Politically, the issue has deepened the communal divide not only in Assam but also other parts of the country where the BJP has promised to kick start the NRC process. (It is a different matter that the party itself is not happy with the outcome of the NRC in Assam, for it had expected a higher exclusion of Muslims and lower of Hindus.) These divisions will not be easy to heal. The episode has also brought out the perils of an interventionist judiciary which prioritised identifying immigrants without carefully considering the difficulties in the process. The fate of those excluded is uncertain, for deportation is not feasible and detention centres would be ethically wrong and a blot on Indian democracy. There have been diplomatic costs too. While India has assured Bangladesh that it is an internal matter, Dhaka has been concerned about the rhetoric emanating from Indian leaders. On the other side, the benefits are unclear for no section of Assamese society is happy with the outcome. India must avoid such experiments in the future.