Closely related to these developments (as mentioned in Part I) was the 1951 National Register of Citizen (NRC) list which was an effort to have a permanent record of the residents in Assam based on the data of the 1951 Census (the first census conducted in Independent India). Hence, when the Assam agitation started the initial demand of the movement was to expel foreigner as per the 1951 NRC. However, as cited above, after years of deliberation between the protestors and the government 25 March 1971 was decided to be the cut-off date. Over the years there were many demands for expelling the ‘illegal migrants’ from Assam. This led to a tripartite agreement between AASU (The Assam student union which was most active in the movement), the state government and the central to update the 1951 NRC as per the 1985 Assam Accord’s cut-off date in 2005. In December 2015 the NRC updating process received affirmation from the Apex Court of the country in response to a petition.
While the NRC process has specifically affected the Bengali Muslims in Assam in general, people belonging to other marginalised classes have also been affected. Among other things, the acute illiteracy and deprived conditions make it extremely challenging for the marginalised to produce any of the specified documents that would facilitate proving their ‘authentic’ Assamese identity. It was equally difficult for many to appear for the NRC-related hearings as summons were issued for far-off places in quite short notices.
Furthermore, the NRC process has been gender insensitive. The final list revealed that around 2,000 transgenders were excluded from the NRC list. Having been abandoned by their families, many were unable to provide proof that they belong to families which have been living in Assam before 25 March 1971, or because the requisite application for the NRC process contained only ‘male’ and ‘female’ gender categories forcing them to choose either of the two. Many married women have also been excluded from the list because of the failure to establish blood links with their paternal families through relevant documents.
As of 31 August 2019 with the publication of the final NRC in Assam, the future of more than 1.9 million people in Assam have become uncertain. This lack of clarity on their nationality raises concerns of possible statelessness. While the excluded people wait anxiously for a chance to appeal against the decision and find their name in the NRC list, there is no clarity on the appeal process either.
The ruling right-wing BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) government at the Centre has also introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. As per this amendment, migrants who entered India ‘illegally’ on/before 31 December 2014 from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are eligible for citizenship. However, only ‘illegal’ migrants belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, or Christian community are eligible under this amendment, which has been principally introduced with an intention to exclude people of the Islamic faith.
Further, with the proposal to introduce the NRC process nationwide it can be argued that it has the proclivity to create one of the world’s largest displacement and statelessness in the modern times. Probable consequences of exclusion from the NRC could be, inter alia, indefinite detention, deportation, denial of legal status, or even political, social and economic rights.
Internationally, the failure of the refugee regime to widen the definition of ‘refugee’ makes the picture even bleaker; it has become increasingly difficult for refugees to prove persecution within the existing definition, adding more challenges to their already daunting lives. Thus, while a distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ is essential to avoid any blurring of legal categories which might have detrimental effect to their specific rights, it is also important to counter the definitional constraint which states use to justify the discriminatory practices of denying refugee status or rendering individuals/groups stateless. Relying solely on political motives to assert that some refugees deserve asylum more than others is parochial. It is essential, therefore, to challenge the existing norms and practices and to advocate for increased state responsibility and a strengthened rights framework.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are personal and have no institutional affiliation.