After NRC, what next?

The final version of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state of Assam has now been released by the authorities. In the new NRC list, 1.9 million people have been left out, including the about 380,000 who were in the previous draft but did not submit claims for inclusion; 190,000 objections were also received against names in the first version. This means that the claims of about 2.2 million people who had been excluded from the earlier draft have been accepted, but over six per cent of Assam’s population is now subject to disenfranchisement and loss of citizenship. Altogether, however, the number of the excluded is considerably smaller than would have been expected by either the leaders of the erstwhile “Assam movement” or by many in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is also in power in Guwahati. 

Indeed, the latter is not pleased with the results, with senior leader Himanta Biswa Sarma telling the media that it will not solve the “foreigner” problem that has plagued the state for decades. The NRC process has eventually pleased nobody — neither the Assamese nationalists, disappointed at the low numbers, nor the BJP, angry that many Hindus have reportedly also been excluded, or people elsewhere in the country such as Bengal who fear that the NRC is being used to justify religious and ethnic divisiveness. 

The almost 2 million people not on the NRC are not immediately rendered stateless. They will be able to appeal against the NRC’s judgments to special tribunals. However, these tribunals have been severely criticised in the past for violating the principles of natural justice. In the end, the regular court system may have to decide in many cases. The Supreme Court, which has overseen the NRC process for some years, will no doubt take an interest in ensuring that no citizen or resident of India has his or her rights violated. That said, it is far from certain that the appeals process will result in a substantial diminution in the number of people excluded from the NRC. Even if the proportion who did not submit claims for inclusion — individuals who may well have migrated out of Assam to other parts of India — are ignored, there is still a vast number of people who might be rendered stateless. 

The question then is what the next step will be. What rights that Indian citizens have will be denied them? Presumably, they will be disenfranchised. Will they also be excluded from government welfare schemes? Will their children also be so excluded, and how will that exclusion be carried out on the ground? Will their physical freedom be curtailed? There are indeed reports about detention camps being built but surely it is impossible to put between one and two million people into permanent camps. That would be both administratively infeasible and morally repugnant. “Repatriation” to Bangladesh or Nepal is also impossible. Dhaka has consistently refused to take such individuals in — and, in any case, the Indian external affairs minister has officially stated during a visit to Dhaka that the NRC is India’s “internal matter”. 

The task therefore is to find a way out of this impossible situation. Individuals who cannot be deported or interned will have to be given some appropriate legal status within India. Work permits are a possible option, with rights to access certain government programmes (especially if exclusion would be expensive and inefficient). Nor can a permanently excluded class be created. Clearly, there needs to be a path to citizenship at least for the children of those excluded from the NRC. Given the cut-off date of 1971 for the NRC process, there are children excluded whose parents and grandparents might both have been born in India. Eventually, the children born in India will have to be accepted as full citizens, and both process and law must be amended to reflect this necessary conclusion.

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