Rights of Assamese above those of infiltrators, says Amit Shah as govt hardens NRC stance
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the government hardened their stance on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) on Tuesday, with the ruling party’s chief Amit Shah calling the four million people in Assam excluded from the final draft “infiltrators” and claiming credit for an exercise that, he said, the opposition Congress had been reluctant to carry out while in power. He also asked Congress president Rahul Gandhi to take a clear stand on the issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Shah’s comments came on a day attorney general KK Venugopal told the Supreme Court that the government wanted to collect and maintain a biometric record of all the excluded people because of concerns that they may migrate to other states.
The court said the draft list cannot be a basis for any action against people not in it. “What has been published is only a draft NRC and it being a draft, it cannot be a basis for action by any authority,” said justice Ranjan Gogoi.
Shah too emphasised that the list was a draft and that the people who were not in it would be given an opportunity to appeal. The BJP chief spoke in Parliament and at a press conference at the BJP headquarters after his speech was disrupted.
Shah said the NRC was the “soul of the Assam accord”, a pact signed in 1985 by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and organisations campaigning for the identification and deportation of illegal immigrants from the states.
Shah claimed that the accord had remained unimplemented because the Congress lacked the courage to enforce it. “We have courage and are doing it,” he said.
The register is aimed at distinguishing the state’s citizens from illegal immigrants, mostly from Bangladesh. It was first prepared for Assam in 1951, and is being updated at the insistence of the Supreme Court, although it has been a longstanding demand of most political organisations in the state.
In his speech in the Rajya Sabha, Shah invited a strong reaction from the opposition with his remarks — “Who are you trying to save? Illegal Bangladeshi immigrants?”
Shah’s remarks provoked noisy protests by Opposition members led by those from the Congress and the Trinamool Congress. The House was first adjourned by chairman M Venkaiah Naidu for about 10 minutes during the debate and then for the day.
At the press conference, Shah said the Assam accord was the result of a campaign by the Assamese people who wanted illegal immigrants from Bangladesh deported. “The BJP never changed its position on the NRC. The Congress has one position on this issue when it is in power, and a different one when it is in the opposition. Rahul Gandhi, his allies and leaders like (Trinamool Congress chief) Mamata Banerjee should clarify their position on the issue of infiltration from Bangladesh.”
Shah dismissed as misplaced fears that the final register would lead to a civil war-like situation. Banerjee -- who made the civil war remark -- was thinking about her vote bank, Shah said, adding that his party made national security the top priority. Shah also said the NRC was, so far, limited to Assam and any decision to extend it to other states will be taken after a thoughtful discussion post the completion of the current process.
The BJP president also made a distinction between ‘refugees and infiltrators’ and suggested that the NRC was meant to protect the rights of citizens living in Assam who see infiltrators as taking away the jobs and resources meant for them.
The Congress hit back, saying the BJP was resorting to divide and rule and claimed that there was contradiction in the stands of Shah and home minister Rajnath Singh on the NRC issue. “On one side, they are claiming credit for NRC and on the other they are bringing the citizenship amendment bill. Both are contrarian in spirit to each other. Will Amit Shah answer that,” Congress’s chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said.
In Assam, Monday’s publication of the list evoked mixed reactions. Sociological experts said the there is still a long way to go before the problem of illegal immigrants is “actually resolved”, and that the final citizens’ registry — to be made public in December 2018 — could have a significant political impact.
“We cannot, I think, completely do away with illegal immigrants,” said Nani Gopal Mahanta, the head of the political science department of Gauhati University, a scholar who specialises in immigration-related politics.
A key concern, according to Mahanta, is the impact the register will have on voting for the 2019 general elections.
The election commission (EC), which is in the process of drawing up the rolls for the Lok Sabha elections next year, said on Tuesday that it will ensure all eligible voters with bonafide documents to prove their citizenship are included, even if their names are not in the draft NRC.
The chief electoral officer of Assam has been directed to work in coordination with agencies carrying out the NRC update, said chief election commissioner OP Rawat on Tuesday.
“Coincidentally our timelines are matching. We have informed the CEO in Assam that all individual cases should be dealt with and in case of a dispute; if the names are missing from NRC but are on the electoral list, then the electoral officer will take the final call based on the supporting evidence,” the CEC said.
He said: “Only those people who are not in the final NRC list and not found to be Indian citizens will not be able to vote.”
Opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha, Congress’s Ghulam Nabi Azad, said the onus to prove one’s identity should not be only an individual but be also shared by the government.
“No person should be harassed. Legal assistance should be given. This should not be used for vote-bank politics but be seen as a humanitarian issue,” Azad said as he initiated the NRC discussion.
Samajwadi Party’s Ram Gopal Yadav asked where Indians would go if their names are deleted from the list.
All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Vijila Sathyananth called it a matter of “great agony” that four million people had lost their identity.
Biju Janata Dal’s Prasanna Acharya said no one should engage in politics over the issue and all mistakes should be rectified. “National security issue should also be addressed…It is a very sensitive issue concerning not just Assam but the entire country.” YS Chowdary of the Telugu Desam Party suggested that the matter be referred to a Parliamentary panel. He asked: “Where will you send these four million people?”