Explained: National Register of Citizens in Assam

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The history of Assam can be called out as a tragic account of hard struggle of the indigenous people of Assam who have been trying their best to conserve and preserve their own identity and are still facing the fear of being reduced to only a minority in their own homeland due to the vast amount of influx from the people outside. This illegal immigration from Bangladesh have been a major problem in the state of Assam since 20th century.

The National Register of citizens or as is commonly called the NRC is a list of such Indian citizens in Assam. Assam, today is the only state that has an NRC. The NRC was first prepared in 1951 following the census. At that time, it had recorded 80 lakh citizens in the state. Since then this debate of weeding out illegal immigrants from the state has been heated and has become a contentious issue.

A PIL was filed in the Supreme Court seeking the removal of “illegal voters” from the electoral rolls of Assam and the preparation of the NRC as required under the Citizenship Act, 1955 and its rules. A six-year agitation demanding identification and deportation of illegal immigrants was launched by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in 1979. It culminated with the signing of the Assam Accord on August 15, 1985.

What is the legal sanctity of NRC under the Indian Constitution?

There is no provision particularly dealing with this idea of NRC. But it is important here to note that whether or not a person’s name is included in the NRC or not he cannot be deprived of some of the basic fundamental rights that have been bestowed by the Indian Constitution to every person.

Article 14 guarantees the right to equality to all persons in India. It states that “[t]he State shall not deny to any person equality before law and equal protections of laws within the territory of India.” Article 20 which relates to protection in respect of conviction for offences is another provision which is available to all persons.

Article 21 states that “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” Article 21A the right to education is another provision available to all, irrespective of whether they are a citizen or not. Article 22 is also available to ‘all persons’ as it protects against arrest and detention in certain cases. The right against exploitation Article 23 and 24 is also applicable to all persons. The right to freedom of religion does not discriminate between citizens and non-citizens either.

Article 32 which establishes the Supreme Court of India as a Court of First Instance regarding the enforcement of Fundamental Rights is also available to non-citizens. Thus, even though NRC per se doesn’t derive its sanctity from the Indian Constitution but it also cannot curtail certain rights of people who are residing in Assam even though if they aren’t citizens of India.

Is NRC in violation of principles of International Law?

The move of NRC however good or bad it maybe, is still considered to be violative of some basic principles of International Law. The central government’s move to establish the NRC and deport 4 million residents of Assam also leaves India vulnerable to the charge of ethnic cleansing. There are millions of stateless people in the world and India has now added even millions more to them.

Also, that these people have lived in Assam for decades and are entirely integrated into the local community makes the Indian case stand out on the international stage for its sheer inhumanity.

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that everyone has a right to a nationality. The UN convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, 1961, creates an international obligation to prevent statelessness and prohibits the withdrawal of nationality in situations where persons would be left stateless.

What are the implications of NRC for the people of Assam?

The work of updating and listing out of NRC in Assam has created a political storm in the state. Many people had to spend their life’s earning in legal fees, in the long process of submitting documents and challenging the various declarations of their non-citizenship with the courts.

From non-transparent “family tree verification” process, to the somewhat arbitrary rejection of the gram panchayat certificates (affecting mostly women), the process has been riddled with legal inconsistencies and errors. The family tree verification process has resulted in numerous instances of parents being on the draft list but children being left out.

The number of people affected by the rejection of panchayat residency certificates is more than 45 lakhs. The fate of lakhs of people relying on these documents remains uncertain as each person will now have to prove his or her lineage afresh.  Preparing the NRC within a deadline seemed more important than ensuring legal clarity over the claims of citizenship which should not have been the case.

What are the benefits of NRC?

There are certain limited yet important benefits of NRC. These benefits being:

  • It will lead to identification of illegal immigrants
  • Those identified illegal immigrants will be barred from voting in the Indian elections
  • With such an action the Indian government will making it stance clear for the world to know that it doesn’t support illegal immigration in any way.

 In conclusion…

Non-intervention in the migration situation in Assam is not an ideal policy stance, as it holds back not only the state but the entire region. The uncertainty of the situation hinders economic development and peace in the region which are central to achieving growth. The NRC exercise, in many ways is a necessary exercise as it creates an opportunity to reset the rules of migration.

 It not only provides an opportunity to tailor governance solutions which are more suited to the needs of an ethnically diverse state such as Assam, but also creates space for a better migration management system between Bangladesh and India given that deportation or statelessness seem unviable policy alternatives.

 Further, the solutions Indian policy makers devise for the issue of immigration can serve as a beacon for the region and can provide the necessary impetus to India’s developmental aspirations in the region. But on the other hand, it is also important to note that the process of NRC is conducted in a fair manner and not arbitrarily or carelessly because India’s approach to citizenship under this scenario would be scrutinized by the whole world.

This article is brought to you in collaboration with Aprajita Jha from National Law University and Judicial Academy, Assam.

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