NRC: All over India?

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The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a register maintained by the Government of India listing names & other relevant information for identification of Indian citizens of Assam state. The first NRC was conducted in 1951, after the first census, to separate original Assamese inhabitants from Bangladeshi migrants.

On 31 August, 2019, The North-East Indian state of Assam became the first state in India where the updated NRC list was published, excluding nearly 1.9 million persons from the registry. They now face a long legal battle in order to prove their citizenship in front of the Foreignors Tribunal.

History: How did the NRC come into being?

Over the years, the influx of Bengali migrants had put strains on the states land and other resources. The local population, having witnessed the example of Tripura, fear the possibility of a demographic shift that would entail a change in their social status, and might lead to the dissolution of their culture.

It was to address this issue that a large number of the local population had erupted in protests in the 1979-1985 period, in what came to be known as the Assam Agitation that was led by All Assam Students Union (AASU).

NRC was born of the accord between the AASU and the Indian Government, as a atep towards fulfilling the local needs.

Nationwide NRC: Centre Had To Set Cut Off Dates

Before the Centre rolled out a plan to compile a country wide National Register of Citizens (NRC) on the lines of the document compiled in Assam, it  decided a common cut­off date.

Home Minister Amit Shah reiterated his stand on a wider NRC exercise a few days ago in Kolkata when he said “all infiltrators will be thrown out” while assuring six non-Muslim communities from neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan that the” BJP government will bring Citizenship Amendment Bill before NRC.”

The Bill had mandated that those who crossed the border and entered into India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan and belong to “minority communities”, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, would not be treated as illegal immigrants despite having entered the country without valid documents or with travel papers that had expired.

They would not face deportation under the Passport (Entry into India) Act of 1920 and the Foreigners Act of 1946. One of the government officials said that under article 6 of the Constitution, the cut off date of migration from Pakistan to India is July 19,1948.

In Assam, the cut off date for inclusion in the updated NRC is March 25,1971,as spelt out in the Assam accord. Conditions which apply are that the police can exercise the power to arrest of foreign national living illegally in India under Section 4 of Passport (Entry into India )Act,1920. Section 14A(b) Foreigners Act 1946 says that action can be taken on a foreigner who enters and  stays in any area  in India without valid documents.

What Has Been The International Reaction to NRC

Pakistan PM Imran Khan cited NRC to lash out at Modi government. He talked of “genocide of Muslims by Modi government”  and further connected NRC with Kashmir saying “illegal occupation of Kashmir is part of a larger strategy against Muslims”.

The national register of citizens (NRC) came up as an awkward lump in discussions between India and Bangladesh  when the two sides worked out larger areas of common interest with Prime Minister Narendra Modi assuring his counterpart Sheikh Hasina the NRC is an “internal” process.

Foreign Minister of Bangladesh AK Abdul Momen said that the country believed in India’s assurance on the NRC in Assam and that Bangladesh was not concerned over the issue. The borders of Sylhet, a city in eastern Bangladesh have been put on high alert after India published the final NRC in Assam, stripping 1.9 million people citizenship.

What Are The Humanitarian Law Issues Involved

The Amity International, in a Joint Statement dated 9 September condemned the exclusion of the 1.9 million people in Assam. It stated, “The failure to implement adequate procedural safeguards and the consequent arbitrariness of the NRC process has been a significant concern.

Further, while India claims that those excluded from the NRC are not yet stateless, they are undeniably at extreme risk of imminent statelessness, as they have effectively been stripped of their citizenship, with a 120-day window to appeal.

International law prohibits the arbitrary deprivation of nationality and obligates states to avoid statelessness, while guaranteeing the right of every child to acquire and preserve their nationality and to be protected from statelessness.”

“Despite mounting evidence that this process would result in a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe and repeated calls to action by UN human rights mechanisms, including a number of special procedures mandate holders, the failure of the international community over the last two years, to exert sustained pressure on India to reverse the process, shows that little has been learnt from the Rohingya crisis or the many crises before.”

Conclusion: The Road Ahead

The NRC exercise may be necessary to address issues like prevention of possible terror, drug trafficking and enhancing women’s safety. It would also help in checking encroachment of both land and resources by illegal immigrants.

T the same time, one cannot forget that the process has been fraught with errors whereby several genuine applicants have been left out of the register. Further, as detention centers crop up in Assam, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, it is imperative to analyze the motives and intention of the plans of a nationwide NRC, lest the exercise cause deepening of religious and communal divides.

In light of the current situation, it becomes necessary to have a humane approach in the conduct of the exercise. There must be a robust legal aid mechanism to assist the persons who now have to prove their “Indianness” in Foreigners Tribunal, as a majority of them come from extremely poor backgrounds. The State now needs to strike a balance between the legitimate expectations of the locals with the human rights of those left behind.

-This article is brought to you in collaboration with Ajitesh Priyadarshi from Calcutta University.

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