The much awaited final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published on August 31. This list included the names of 3.11 crore people out of the total applicants and left out the names of 19 lakh people.
While for many this exercise was taken to its logical conclusion on August 31 and for the first time threw a number of people left out, for others the list is anything but complete as those left out cannot be assumed to be foreigners. There are still others who are questioning the very credibility of the entire process.
Interestingly, the final figure of 19 lakhs left out of the list failed to impress most groups who claimed to be stakeholders. Starting from Assam Public Works, AASU and the ruling BJP, this process failed to throw up a credible number.
These groups have hinged upon the figure of something in the range of 50-80 lakhs and any number smaller than that is not good enough. It is to be noted that the massive process of updating the 1951 NRC, which itself left out many Indians at that time, was taken up for the first time in 2013.
For the last few years, around 52000 state govt employees worked continuously on the updating process. Procedures were worked out to ensure that there are no loopholes. Applicants were called again and again and their documents were verified by different sets of officials.
To ensure that there is no discrepancy and no foreigner makes to the list, a period for raising objections and claims was marked out. Interestingly while the SOPs to be followed tried to avoid spurious objections, almost 2.6 lakh random objections with no proper identification of the objectors were submitted.
People who raised these objections did not even bother to attend the hearing. Once this was over, again people of few villages were issued hearing notice when the procedure was at its final stage. People were asked to attend hearing at great distances on a very short notice. It created such a panicky situation that people travelling for hearing met with tragic accidents at many places.
Amidst all this the final list did bring respite to those who made it to the list. For them, all the difficulties seemed fruitful and for those often harassed as probable foreigners, this NRC final list was a beacon of hope. But even in this list, a large number of people were left out despite claiming to have submitted adequate documents.
Just like the final draft, in this list also there are cases which saw one or two members of a family left out while others’ names were included, families whose legacy data was wrong in the first time and they corrected it while going for hearing, their names were not included in the final list.
Also most of the women from neighbouring states who married into Assam were not included. While these are no doubt anomalies and need to be corrected, the errors seem more procedural than targeted. People across communities have been left out either for lack of proper documents or some inconsistency in documents.
Much fear mongering was carried out surrounding NRC. More than 60 people have already killed themselves for fear of being rendered stateless and homeless. Even after the final list was out, tragic news of suicides is trickling in.
While government and NRC officials have time and again reiterated that those left out even in the final list will be given another opportunity to prove their citizenship, people in the lower rung of the social ladder are losing hope.
Those left out of the final list will have to approach the Foreigners Tribunal (FT)s which are quasi-judicial bodies within 120 days of the publication of the list. This has also initiated fear in the minds of many as complaints of corruption and unwarranted harassment are often labelled against the FTs.
The FTs have earlier declared a large number of people foreigners in ex parte judgments. Most of the ‘declared foreigners’ are migrant labourers who cannot visit court hearings regularly.
One such case was that of Moinal Mollah whose parents were declared Indians, but he was declared a foreigner. He was taken to the detention centre and he got respite only when his case was taken to the Supreme Court.
Such instances have created some trepidation in the minds of people who will have to go to FTs to get themselves declared as Indians.
As the FTs will have a final say in deciding the citizenship of these 19 lakh people, it is important that they execute their functions in a fair, transparent manner. These FTs should not use discretionary power randomly to dismiss appeals and must give all a chance of fair hearing.
Also the government and its representatives should respect the sanctity of this procedure and the final list. Political leaders are already making dubious claims to ensure the inclusion of ‘Hindus left out in the list’.
Instead government should uphold its commitment towards a fair treatment to all citizens. While writing this piece, a news was doing the rounds about making journalists from outside India take prior permission before visiting Assam.
While many are calling this routine, others are pointing out that this seems like a gag order. This is the time to make procedures transparent and take stakeholders on board.
If not, the NRC update exercise will not serve its purpose–it will neither save poor migrant Muslim workers from the stigma of potential foreigners nor will it put a stop to divisive politics carried out for all these years in the name of the ‘bogey of Bangladeshis’.