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Day after NRC provisional list, relief but no closure

The Election Commission has told the chief election officer of Assam to coordinate with the state coordinator of NRC to ensure that all eligible voters are included in the electoral roll which will be published on January 4, 2019, for the general elections

india Updated: Jul 31, 2018 22:49 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq
Hindustan Times, Guwahati
NRC,NRC provisional list,Assam
People wait in queue to check their names on the draft list at the National Register of Citizens (NRC) centre at a village in Nagaon district, Assam state, India, July 30, 2018. (REUTERS Photo)

A day after Assam released a consolidated provisional National Register of Citizens (NRC), the popular sentiment, which is for rooting out ‘foreigners’, is more a sense of relief than “immediate closure”, locals say.

In the state’s public discourse, the word ‘foreigner’ is most often used not to describe western tourists or just any other visitor from abroad, but to specifically refer to illegal settlers from Bangladesh. Waves of illegal migration resulted in a widespread six-year-long agitation in the 1980s, led by the influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU).

Still, there’s a long way to go before the problem is “actually resolved”, a section of local commentators and analysts said on Tuesday. Much depends on what the final citizens’ registry — to be made public in December 2018 — throws up, they said. Some see politics taking a new turn in the state.

“I don’t think there can be immediate closure,” says Nani Gopal Mahanta, the head of the political science department of Gauhati University, a scholar who specialises in immigration-related politics. “We cannot, I think, completely do away with illegal immigrants.”

Yet, resolving the problem is one of the main purposes of the NRC, a registry of all Indian citizens in Assam, published on the directions of the Supreme Court. It involved three years of a painstaking vetting of 60 million documents submitted by the state’s 32.9 million residents. Of these, names of four million residents have been dropped from the registry made public Monday. Many genuine residents fear being excluded due to improper documents. Unless these people can fix documentation issues and prove citizenship within a month, they will be virtually stateless.

Mahanta points to a lot of ambiguities. “Will this cut the right to vote of illegal migrants in panchayat polls (due next month) and in the 2019 general election?” “What happens to the 0.25 million D-category voters?” D-category voters refers to those already deemed to be of “doubtful citizenship” and therefore excluded from the registry.

The Election Commission has told the chief election officer of Assam to coordinate with the state coordinator of NRC to ensure that all eligible voters are included in the electoral roll which will be published on January 4, 2019, for the general elections. It has made it clear that for now, those among the excluded 4 million who are already on the electoral rolls will not be disenfranchised.

“The current celebration is about the figure (4 million exclusions). That’s because it comes close to the public’s imagination of what the number of illegal immigrants in the state might be — about 5 to 6 million,” said Mahanta. This “imagination” of 5-6 million has been reinforced by figures cited in Parliament, he said.

Everyone is sure that the number of four million left out of the registry released on July 30 will likely come down when the final registry is published.

“Everybody is saying at least 1 million people will be able to include their names post-verification,” says Swapanil Saikia, a painter.

“If the number of illegal migrants comes down significantly in the final version of the registry, then it might open up the possibility of the people, especially the AASU, rejecting it,” Mahanta said. That’s a grave warning.

Sandhya Goswami, a psephologist and political scientist, doesn’t agree. “People will have to leave their emotions aside. Now, there is concrete data and people trust the NRC document. That’s why everybody has been patient,” she said.

The AASU, led by its adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya, is an overarching body that has popular backing. It has taken a centrist position. Anybody who is an illegal migrant, whether Hindu or Muslim, must be treated as a foreigner, Bhattacharya said.

Goswami, a retired professor of Gauhati University, said the BJP would try to take credit for the registry. Prime Minister Modi, after all, had vowed to throw Bangladeshis out of Assam during his 2014 election campaign.

“But people also understand very well that this registry has been possible because of the Supreme Court. I am also a little disappointed with the Congress’ reaction, which appears confused,” she said.

On Monday, the Congress cast doubts over the credibility of the process of counting Assam’s citizens. To be sure, the state government has said in case there are errors, these would be corrected upon verification.

First Published: Jul 31, 2018 22:47 IST