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‘Not opposed to NRC’: Congress Assam leaders wary of party’s stand on citizen registry

The Congress’ top brass had sharply criticised the citizens’ registry on the day of its publication, July 30, for leaving out names of over four million applicants, subject to further scrutiny.

india Updated: Aug 03, 2018 07:38 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Congress Assam,Congress,Assam NRC
Congress activists raise slogans during a protest against controversial Assam's National Register of Citizen (NRC) draft in front of Assam House, in Kolkata.(PTI Photo)

The initial response of the Congress’s central leaders against the final draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has made the party’s state leadership fear that the party might have played right into the hands of its rival the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a section of local leaders told HT.

The Congress’ top brass had sharply criticised the citizens’ registry on the day of its publication, July 30, for leaving out names of over four million applicants, subject to further scrutiny.

There were disruptions in both houses of Parliament. In Rajya Sabha, the Congress, along with most of the main Opposition parties, walked out in protest. Briefing the media, Congress spokesperson Anand Sharma had questioned the “credibility” of NRC.

“I must say I was a little uneasy about the initial response. But ultimately, what are we trying to say? We are not at all opposed to NRC. The NRC is our baby. But it is a defective baby. We will have to correct it,” said Pradyut Bordoloi, the Congress’s state vice-president for Assam.

Assam has witnessed large-scale migrations from Bangladesh, with which it shares a 267km border. Natives want illegal migrants rooted out. The NRC is a database registry of all Indian citizens in Assam. It aims to filter out so-called ‘foreigners’ and is being finalised under the Supreme Court’s watch.

Some local Congress leaders, from district-level upwards to state-level, said they fear the party’s leadership in New Delhi “overreacted”.

“Such a messaging gives the BJP scope to say we are against the NRC although we brought the NRC,” said another leader, who represents Assam on the Congress’s all-India committee. He requested anonymity.

The Assam BJP has deployed spokespersons and television panellists to criticise the Congress’ stance. “When the entire state has accepted it, people are peaceful and calm, the Congress has committed a blunder again by questioning the very credibility of NRC, which is Supreme Court-monitored,” said the BJP’s Assam unit vice-president, Manoj Ram Phookun.

The terms of citizenship in Assam were written into an agreement, the so-called Assam Accord, signed on August 14, 1985 by the then Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government with the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). It was the culmination of a six-year agitation led by the student body against illegal settlers. According to the pact, anybody who can prove that they or their families were in Assam prior to midnight of March 24, 1971 would be deemed a citizen.

Bordoloi said NRC was never a part of the Assam Accord. “It was suggested by us, by the (previous) Congress government on May 2, 2005 during tripartite talks involving the state government and the AASU in which former PM Manmohan Singh was present,” he said, adding: “AASU gratefully accepted it.”

In 2007, a state-level cabinet sub-committee held discussions on it, he said. In June 2010, the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government started a “pilot project” in two districts – Barpeta and Chaigaon – to vet citizenship and update the citizens’ registry, first compiled manually in 1951, the year of India’s first census.

“The Supreme Court (which was already hearing a petition on illegal migrants) endorsed the NRC and that’s how it came into the picture,” Bordoloi said.

Despite this background, the BJP has got a handle to take on the Congress and local leaders are trying counter it. “Many MPs overreacted because 40 lakh (four million) is a huge number. Genuine citizens, both Hindus and Muslims, have got left out due to some improper documentation,” said Sujit Kumar Das, the president of the Congress’s Chirang district unit. On July 31, attacking the Congress and the Opposition, BJP president Amit Shah described the NRC as the “soul of the Assam accord”. Shah said there “will be further re-verification, amendments and hearings” and that this “40 lakh (four million) figure is not final”.

Things aren’t easy for the BJP-led state government either. The name of Pradip Talukdar, a ‘caste Hindu’ Assamese farmer from Batakuchi village in Chaigaon, an area 50 km east of Guwahati, is missing from the NRC. He said the government must include him and all other Assamese like him. “Otherwise, it will be bad for the BJP.”

The head of the Congress’s Lakhimpur district unit, Joy Prakash Das said: “People will understand our stand. No name of genuine citizens can be left out. Amit Shah’s statement that all these 40 lakh are intruders has offended the people.”

The Congress has now asked all its district units to offer free legal help to genuine citizens in filing appeals.

First Published: Aug 03, 2018 07:33 IST