How a government and bureaucracy betrayed its people
So far, at least in ‘mainland’ India, we have been relatively insulated from the tortures and traumas caused by public authorities demanding proof of whether or not we are Indian. In the far corners of Assam, however, turmoil and anguish reign. Some of our most economically weak people have been ground down to desperation as a peculiarly callous and even motivated bureaucracy rules over their fate.
According to a meticulous list compiled by Citizens for Justice and Peace in Assam, there have been 58 citizenship related deaths as of July 18, 2019. Almost all of them hail from working class agrarian or urban backgrounds. Of these 28 are Hindus, 27 Muslims, one Boro, one Gorkha and one is a member of the Tea Tribes. The numbers of those dead have so far not touched us in the rest of India. However, when 40 lakh plus of Indians were excluded from the provisional National Register of Citizens last July, a sense of the magnitude began to percolate through.
The NRC, a process both complex to understand and unique to Assam, was a consensual process arrived at after the tumultuous years that preceded the Assam Accord, when aggression, strife and violence marred a politics that was driven by real or imagined fears of the outsider. The discourse has been twisted cleverly to now mean ‘foreigner’ and ‘infiltrator’. So it is these peculiar and seemingly parochial preconditions that have to be factored in to understand how and why a wide consensus developed around the process of a ‘free and fair’ NRC. Terms like ‘genuine Indian citizens’ have now emerged to form an integral part of the wider humanitarian discourse within the state.
Legally, the NRC in Assam is today being finalized under the Citizenship Act, 1955, which applies to all Indians (with a special amendment that relates to Assam) and under the special provisions of the Citizenship Amendment Rules, 2003.
The ‘Modalities of NRC’ — under which this process has to be undertaken — are thorough. These Modalities (2003 onwards) were prepared on the basis of a common consensus arrived at with all stakeholders in the state. These included the supporters of the Assam Movement, various religious and linguistic minority organizations, and all the political parties of Assam. It was truly a hard earned consensus.
Thereafter, these Modalities were approved by a cabinet sub-committee of the government of Assam and then sent to the NRC authority. After the approval from the NRC authority, these were sent to the registrar general of India under the department of home, government of India. Understanding these Modalities is to judge whether today’s process is fair. After elaborate discussions, the Modalities approved as many as 15 kinds of documents as legacy documents and another 10 sorts of documents known as ‘linkage documents’, which could and must be used during evaluating the applications of genuine Indian citizens for inclusion of their names in the updated NRC. All these documents were approved by the RGI and subsequently by the Supreme Court of India. It was on the basis of any or all of these documents that the process was to be finalized.
However, perversions and manipulations have dogged the process of late. After 2016, the acceptability of some of the documents which were initially approved in the Modalities (for finalization of the NRC-Assam) were ‘diminished’, owing to the damaging intentions of various authorities. When these were brought to the attention of the court, some of these were rectified. However, at the ground level, in spite of this disapproval by the court that is monitoring this mammoth process, the NRC authority continues with its questionable task of diminishing the acceptability of some of the ‘Legacy’ and ‘Linkage’ documents. The motive appears to be not just to harass the common citizen but to perform to a ‘target’ set by political bosses.
To elaborate, the NRC authority has ‘diminished’ the acceptability of the citizenship certificate, migration certificate, refugee inmate certificate. Besides, all government documents including the voters list issued from Bengal and Tripura have been rejected. All this has happened during the ongoing process of the finalization of the NRC. All birth certificates issued by the Nagaland government authority have been rejected without the minimum steps or any initiative to prove the documents’ authenticity being taken.
Further, within the NRC Modalities, there was a strong provision — well thought out — whereby an arrangement was put in place for a district magistrate investigation team to intervene. This provision ensured and assured any Indian citizen of a forum he or she could approach on the question. If, for instance, a genuine Indian citizen failed to submit proper documents, these could be investigated independently by the DMIT. The team was empowered to meet local people, and after proper investigation, had the power to approve the inclusion of a name of an orphan, destitute or a person having no documents, especially the ‘linkage’ documents. This entire provision has been ignored, dropped from the on-going process.
Finally, there was a last, strong, fall-back provision, also within the Modalities, that laid down the DNA test as an ultimate arbiter for the finalization of a claim for the inclusion of a name while updating the NRC (when all else failed). The provision was also struck down by the office of the RGI unilaterally. The highest court in the land has not been kept fully apprised of these deletions.
There is more. During the course of this finalization process, large numbers of applications have been rejected because of minor discrepancies in the names, titles, age differences in the legacy documents and the user of such legacy documents. This in spite of the fact that ‘Modalities of NRC’ state otherwise: that minor discrepancies of the names, ages, titles will not affect the legitimate demand for inclusion of a name in the updated NRC. However, on the ground, at the 1,200 plus Nagrik Seva Kendras, this specific assurance is being given the go-by, causing injustice and mass exclusions.
There is no section of the population in Assam that has been left unaffected by this overpowering, State-created tragedy. Bengali-speaking Hindus, Muslims, the Gorkhas, Hindi-speaking people of north and west India have all been caught up in this, equally. There is no way to describe what this unfolding trauma has meant, for women and men to attend hearings scheduled in places far away from home, spending significant amounts of money filling in applications. Worse, they are summoned to appear not once, but repeatedly, along with ‘legacy persons’.
This means that, in some cases, many people have even had to attend hearings as many as seven to 14 times along with their entire troupe of family tree members. This means a batch of 40-80 persons from an extended family having to travel up to hundreds of kilometres from their place of residence. Not too far back, a professor from a prominent university of Delhi had to rush three times from Delhi to Lakhimpur in Upper Assam — which is about 3,000 kilometres — along with all his family members .
What is the legal recourse for persons unfairly or otherwise left out of the final NRC? The courts? An executive order of the ministry of home affairs (May 2019), now under challenge in the court, tries to diminish due process and an Indian citizen’s right to citizenship by compelling those excluded from the NRC to approach Foreigners Tribunals. What are these bodies? Created specially in Assam under the pre-Independence Act of 1946, they are non-transparent bodies, about 100 in number. Fair adjudication of citizenship under the 1955 Citizenship Act needs to be undertaken under the Citizenship Tribunals constituted under that law. Confusions abound as injustice persists.
With inputs from Nandu Ghosh, Bijni and Zamser Ali.
Teesta Setalvad is secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace