The NRC mess in Assam: How citizens risk exclusion
A foreigners’ tribunal in Assam’s Barpeta declared Mumtaz Dewan, a housewife in her 40s, a citizen in 2016, 19 years after she was suspected to be an illegal immigrant and declared a doubtful voter (D voter). Despite the clearance, Dewan has been unable to get herself registered as a genuine voter. She consequently faces exclusion from the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC), being updated in Assam under the Supreme Court’s supervision.
Dewan is not alone. A large number of Indian citizens may be omitted from the NRC draft being released on July 30. The NRC is being updated in deference to indigenous groups’ demands to detect and deport foreigners and illegal immigrants.
Election Commission officials blame the panel’s EROnet software introduced in 2017 for problems people like Dewan are facing. Officials involved in updating NRC point to the lack of a centralised database of citizens. The software cannot remove the Assam-specific D voters’ category.
As such, D voters declared Indian citizens since early 2017 are still shown as D Voters in Assam’s 2018 electoral rolls. Suspected illegal immigrants labelled as D voters can get the tag removed after getting clearances from one of the state’s 100 foreigners tribunals.
“I am a Khilonjiya (indigenous) Muslim originally from Dhubri. They still branded me a D voter. And now that I have been declared a citizen they refuse to include me in NRC,” said Dewan
Dewan’s businessman husband, IIim Uddin, said this was happening despite the problems they faced for almost two decades as a D voter and getting the tribunal’s clearance. “NRC authorities refuse to treat her as an Indian citizen despite the order.” He said they went to the NRC Seva Kendra with the tribunal’s order. “They refused to entertain me, saying her name still remains on the D voters’ list with them.”
Barpeta’s election officer Pranjal Konwar acknowledged the software problem. “Yes, a large number of people declared as citizens last year still show (up) as D voters because of the software and almost all districts have complained to (Assam)’s chief electoral officer.”
NRC state coordinator Prateek Hajela said they are dependent on the chief electoral officer’s office and Assam police’s border branch involved in detection of foreigners for the information on pending cases of D voters.
The state government has asked Hajela to develop a centralized database of people who have been through the citizenship verification process for access to the police, election officials and NRC. “I will start on it once we are done with the (NRC) draft,” Hajela said.
Detection of foreigners and identification of D voters are parallel exercises which continue despite the NRC.
Chief electoral officer Mukesh Chandra Sahu promised to ensure names of those declared Indian citizens are back on the electoral rolls as genuine voters. “We are not responsible for what NRC is doing and I did not develop the software,” he said.
A police officer and a deputy commissioner accepted that the lists of citizens marked as D voters were given to the concerned authorities, which means their exclusion from the NRC draft list. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma recently said the government was considering a proposal to deny government documents to those left out of the NRC.
A recent Supreme Court order said D voters and their descendants will be kept out of the NRC draft until foreigners’ tribunals decide their cases irrespective of whether they are citizens by birth under the Citizenship Act, 1955.