The final list of Assam’s National Register of Citizens is due out on August 31, and tensions are running high. In its final hearing before publication of the list, the Supreme Court bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and RF Nariman had brushed aside requests for reverification of part of the list in light of concerns about its accuracy that had been raised by both the Assam government and concerned civil society groups. The Court held completion of the task on deadline as scheduled to be most important.
There have been numerous reports in the national and international media that indicate that there are in fact an unknown number and percentage of errors in the list. This includes errors of exclusion of genuine Indians from the list and inclusion of illegal migrants into the list. The magnitude of these errors is at present unknown to the government and public.
Nonetheless, the list will be out this weekend. What next is the big question now.
The number of people excluded from the NRC at last count was over 41 lakhs. Some of these people will probably find inclusion in the final list, but the number of those excluded is still likely to be in many lakhs. These people will have to go before the Foreigners Tribunals that will decide whether or not they are to be stripped of their Indian citizenship. If the tribunals decide they are foreigners, they will be sent to detention camps.
Apart from the legal dimension, there is a big political dimension in this process of exclusion and inclusion. Pushing out Bengalis from Assam has long been the mainstay of Assamese agitational politics and found resonances elsewhere in Northeast India. This applied for both Hindu and Muslim Bengalis. At times, Bihari migrants and Marwari businessmen have also faced attacks.
The BJP is keen to exclude only the Muslims while finding ways to include the others. However, because the NRC process was driven by Justice Gogoi himself, and was based on the availability of documentation, it has produced quite different results. So, for instance, Karbi Anglong and Udalguri, both of which are inhabited predominantly by Karbi and Bodo tribals respectively, have rates of exclusion higher than the state average. However, Assam districts bordering Bangladesh, which have Muslim majorities, have among the lowest exclusion rates.
This was revealed in the assembly by Assam’s state government which is led by Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal of the BJP. The exclusion of so many Hindus and indigenous tribal people is obviously awkward for the party. This probably drove its efforts to delay the exercise. However, Justice Gogoi, who is scheduled to retire in October, would have none of it.
This therefore means that the BJP will most probably reintroduce and pass the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill which is expected to ease the path to Indian citizenship for non-Muslims excluded from the NRC. The party now has a demonstrated ability to pass controversial legislation in both houses of Parliament. Opposition from Northeastern groups to the Citizenship Amendment Bill is not likely to dissuade the Centre from passing it.
With this in the picture, reactions may be relatively muted from the excluded Bengali Hindus and tribals, who would hope the Citizenship Bill would eventually save them from any state action. The Muslims, mainly of Bengali origin, who are called Miyas in Assam, are therefore the group most likely to be left in the lurch.
Bangladesh will obviously not accept any of them because this is, according to them, an internal matter of India. Any attempt to push any number of people out will draw comparisons with the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.
It is neither feasible nor desirable to try and imprison lakhs of people in detention camps. The Indian government is already seen to be becoming increasingly autocratic and dismissive of the rights of its minorities, not only in Kashmir but more generally. Camps that would be likened to concentration camps would further tarnish the country’s image and fuel resentment against it both internally and externally.
The likelihood of any very large number of people being held in detention or deported, therefore, is also slim. What is most likely to follow is a painful process of going through the legal grind for the excluded who are not saved by the Citizenship Amendment Bill – assuming the Bill will save anyone at all. That too remains a matter of doubt as there are legal and procedural issues.
At the end of it all, thousands of poor people will be further pauperised by the costs of legal fees. Some may die in detention camps or commit suicide. India’s close ties with Bangladesh will be severely tested. The Assamese jatiyobadis may earn an international reputation for xenophobia. Hindu fundamentalists will further cement their reputation for translating dharma as identity rather than moral code, because no moral code could possibly allow the destruction of lives of lakhs of poor Indian Muslims who may have fallen out of the NRC just like the poor Hindus and tribals who have been excluded – because of difficulties of documentation and poor literacy. The government of India will be many thousands of crores poorer. Some lawyers and law firms will get a lot richer.
The scope for legal review however may be limited because the Chief Justice of India, who is from Assam and familiar with the state, has himself watched over and pushed along the entire process.
Therefore the assumption will be that justice has already been done, and been seen to be done.