The National Register For Citizens (NRC) has been in the news for months – with rampant protests erupting in Assam and West Bengal. The purpose of NRC is to detect and deport illegal immigrants in these states – those who had entered India in 1947 and 1971. After being in demand for decades, the government released a list of Indian citizens in Assam and West Bengal – and those whose names weren’t on it, were automatically regarded as immigrants. This move has left over 4 million people without a country leading to massive debates about citizenship and immigration.
But the NRC is so crucial that on the one hand, its demands have caused riots, destruction and hundreds of deaths in the state. And on the other, the victims of the list are now accusing the government of communal plotting against minorities.
So as the NRC becomes an increasingly pressing and political issue, here’s all you need to know about the government’s pandora box.
The first NRC was conducted in 1951
The first register was prepared in 1951, soon after the first National Census.
The purpose was to list out the original citizens of Assam at that time. This was done because during the colonial era (1826 to 1947) thousands of peasants migrated to Assam from other British territories like Burma and China. And post-partition too, this influx of migrants didn’t die down. In the three years after independence, lakhs of illegal migrants entered the northeast from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
So in order to differentiate between real citizens and immigrants, the NRC was introduced. It took down details of citizens (name, address, age, ethnicity, religion, profession) along with their photographs. And even though the immigrants were not added to the register, the process of deporting them never really took place. They continued to live in Assam and flourish over time.
Then in 1971, more immigrants came in
The second wave of immigrants came during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. When East Pakistan was converted to a newly formed nation – Bangladesh, lakhs of refugees entered the northeast and West Bengal (since they were Bengali speaking people)trying to evade the war. That year, the Assam state government reported the number of migrants in the state to have increased from 2 lakhs to 5 lakhs.
And even though the NRC was in place, the government distraught with war on two sides of the border, gave little focus to the immigrant problem. As a result these new batch of migrants also stayed back.
Today, the NRC issue is focused in only these two states; namely Assam and West Bengal.
The Assamese now fear the immigrants
In the years following the war, the Centre did very little to initiate the deportation process. In fact, Indira Gandhi made a pact with the Bangladesh government to allow refugees to enter India via West Bengal, until the state could bounce back from the ruins of the war.
The immigrants thus made permanent settlements in India, learnt the local language and started businesses in the states. Over the years, they had children who then became citizens of India by birth. Today, the original immigrants aren’t at the forefront of the NRC issue. It is their children who are facing the brunt of the new register.
While “birth” makes you de facto eligible for citizenship, these people were denied the same on grounds of being heirs to illegal migrants. As a result today, there are massive clashes in Assam between the original Assamese population and the Bengali speaking population. This resulted in the formation of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) – a six year long agitation that led to thousands of deaths and resulted in the Assam Accord of 1985. The Accord once again initiated deportation of immigrants under order from Rajiv Gandhi. Only this time, those who came in during partition were spared and the one’s who migrated after 1966 were brought under ire. But this attempt too failed to take off and the situation was left as it is for years.
Riots erupt every time the NRC process begins
In 2010, the government finally went through with the Assam Accord and launched a Pilot Project to detect illegal migrants. But within four weeks multiple mob attacks and protests caused the project to be shut down. And this is the primary problem with the implementation of NRC. Every time a small step is taken in that direction, it leads to massive riots. And no government is willing to take it up in the days running up to elections.
Not to forget that the Bangladeshi immigrants from 1971 are majorly Muslim populations which is also why governments have feared to take action. This is also why, when the process went through in 2018, the Modi government was blamed for purposeful communal bias.
The NRC has made 4 million people nationless
The NRC was finally updated in September 2018, after decades of demands and failed attempts. But not everyone was happy with the draft list. Over 4 million people were reportedly left out of the list, despite having legal citizenship proof. The government hasn’t given any explanation over why these people weren’t included, but has allowed them to contest the list in the Apex court.
The government also repeatedly stated that no name in the list doesn’t mean the person will be put in jail or immediately deported. A foreigners’ tribunal has been set up to look into such matters where people feel they’ve been unfairly left out of list or that any other immigrants have been unfairly added.
Despite this, fears of deportation haven’t died down. If these people lose the case, over 4 million will be left without a nation. And since a lot of these people are children of immigrant born in India (citizens), there is no other country for them to be deported to. As a result, they will face serious jail term.
This has led to protests across Assam and West Bengal
These 4 million people have taken to streets demanding their names in the NRC list. In West Bengal activists from the Matua sect, with support from the Trinamool Congress (TMC), have blocked railroads (Rail roko andolan). Since the Matua is a Dalit sect, they’ve blamed the BJP for being biased against them. Some other Dalit groups in Assam have taken out long marches and torched public property.
Today, the Congress and TMC in both states have made this a political issue supporting and organising massive protests. But the issue won’t die down until a barter is established between both sides – the citizens and immigrants.
In conclusion, the National Register is a long sought one but comes with serious ramifications for the demographics of India.If this goes through, it will bring relief to lakhs of citizens in Assam and Bengal and put a long battle to end. But at the same time, it not only makes millions of people homeless but also acts as a symbol of anti-immigrant and intolerance sentiment.