Underprivileged risk losing citizenship in India’s NRC drive

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On Monday, the government of the northeast Indian state of Assam released the second draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a Supreme Court-sanctioned database of “genuine” Indian citizens in the state. The implied intent is to weed out “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh who have seemingly settled in Assam over the past five decades.

Here, the test of genuineness entails submission of “legacy data” by applicants to prove their mention in the first NRC of 1951 and the state’s electoral rolls between the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition and March 24, 1971, the date Bangladesh was created. In effect, the rest become “illegal immigrants.”

Mass exclusion
The second draft, much to the dismay of many, failed to include 4 million individuals out of 32.99 million total applicants who had laid claim to “genuine” Indian citizenship. The government has clarified that all excluded individuals will be given a chance to challenge their de-enumeration through a month-long appeal process beginning at the end of August. Thereafter, the administration would release the final draft of the list by the year’s end.

The mass exclusion in the second draft has spurred criticism from various quarters, domestic Indian media and civil society included. Even the international press has covered the event with unprecedented alarm. The chatter across the board is that the Indian government has robbed millions of people of their citizenship overnight. There are also widespread fears that the Bengali community – a linguistic minority in Assam – is being targeted deliberately.

Further, the government of the eastern state of West Bengal, which shares borders with both Assam and Bangladesh, has accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules Assam (and also heads the federal government), of using the NRC exercise to segregate the state’s electorate for poll gains. West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has accused the central government of turning people into refugees in their own state.

Parallel processes
Last month, New York-based Internet advocacy group avaaz.org published a controversial online signature campaign against the NRC drive, provocatively titled “India: Stop deleting Muslims!” The campaign, which seemed to portray the NRC as a targeted endeavor to decertify, detain and deport Muslim minorities in Assam, received much flak from the Assam government and civil society for allegedly misrepresenting the database exercise.

In itself, the NRC is merely a list and does not entail any immediate punitive action such as detention or deportation. It is only part of a much larger, multi-pronged administrative-judicial process in Assam to identify “illegal immigrants” and detain or deport them.

In fact, the NRC is the least consequential of the lot for now, which consists of two other components: a “D-Voter” category and Foreigner Tribunals. These parallel statutory mechanisms hold greater and more immediate significance than the NRC as they are mandated to undertake direct action. Yet the national and international media have barely focused on them.

In 1997, the Election Commission introduced the “Doubtful-Voter” or D-Voter category in the state to mark out applicants who could not provide valid documents during roll revision. In 2005, the marked applicants were served notices by 21 newly instituted Foreigner Tribunals exclusive to Assam, which were mandated to give final verdicts on D-Voters. These tribunals, in addition to summoning D-Voters, have been entertaining direct referrals from the Assam Police’s border wing.

Unlike the NRC, the tribunal verdicts have had direct ramifications on the identified individuals. While some have been deported to Bangladesh, others have landed in detention camps.

According to the Assam government’s own submission to the state assembly, 100 such Foreigner Tribunals that currently operate in the state had declared 20,578 D-Voters as “foreigners” as of February. In a separate submission, it claimed that 29,663 declared foreigners were “pushed back,” and up to July 29, 127 were “deported to Bangladesh.” It appears that a higher number of “declared foreigners” were sent back to Bangladesh than what was pronounced by the tribunals, revealing other, more discreet, processes of forced return.

A news report puts the number of identified foreigners at 85,000 and detainees housed in camps at 1,000. Further, earlier in July, the central government gave the green light to constructing another, larger camp in west Assam to ease the pressure on existing detention facilities – including those that had been operating out of jails – by housing up to 3,000 detainees (fresh and old).

Post-NRC
In a recent statement, the federal Home Ministry revealed that none of those left out by the NRC second draft would be referred to the tribunals.

This means that the real identification of “foreigners” would begin only next year after the appeal process is over and the final list is out, after which the tribunals would begin to summon those who remain excluded. Once the tribunal verdicts arrive, the detention process is expected to begin almost immediately.

The whole triad – NRC, D-Voter, tribunals – appears highly streamlined at the surface. However, it is rife with structural incoherence and administrative lapses. For example, despite the tribunals attesting to the “genuine Indianness” of several D-Voters over the years, the Election Commission has failed to remove the tag, thus leaving many politically disfranchised in their own state.

The serious lack of inter-agency coordination has spurred anxieties in indigenous ethnic quarters about the whole citizenship-determination process. Long-term residents who claim nativity to Assam now fear that passing the NRC test would not be enough to restore voting rights. There is also lack of clarity on whether the Election Commission will actually undertake a fresh roll revision at all before the 2019 national election.

As far as the identified “illegals” are concerned, the entire lot could face detention, unless the government comes up with alternative policy pathways such as formal integration into the state’s labor force. But mass deportation to Bangladesh appears highly unlikely given the absence of a specific return treaty between New Delhi and Dhaka and the delicate standing of the issue in the India-Bangladesh bilateral.

For now, it remains to be seen how exactly the state government handles in excess of 2 million individual appeals, assuming that at least half of the excluded lot challenge their decertification. Further, the appeal process – like any other priority administrative process – is bound to have a differential impact on the excluded lot, depending on socio-economic parameters like procedural awareness, access to legal aid, and the costs of filing appeals.

The case of my mother, a Bengali-speaking Hindu born and brought up in Assam, reflects this varying impact of the NRC well. Despite laying claim to a “genuine” Indian citizenship, she failed to make it to the second list. However, given her privileged socio-economic standing, she will be able to challenge the de-enumeration next month.

Yet there are millions like her who lack the means to fight it out before the state without jeopardizing their everyday existence. For them, the next few months will remain mired in uncertainty and anxiety as they try to prove to the state that they are not “fake Indians.”

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