The publication of the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, originally scheduled for 30th June but eventually deferred by a month, has brought several disturbing questions to the fore. The number of applicants excluded from the draft NRC is massive: more than four million. Of the 3.29 crore applicants who had filed claims for inclusion in the NRC, names of 2.89 crore people appear in the draft while 40.07 lakhs remain excluded. The central and state governments are busy telling us that the NRC is only a draft and there would be scope for raising objections and correcting mistakes and that as of now nobody would be deported or sent to detention camps on the basis of the draft NRC. The time available for making complaints and filing proofs is however only a month (from August 30 to September 28) and the government has set December 31, 2018 as the final deadline for publication of the final NRC. Given the scant possibility of correction of mistakes in this rushed bureaucratic exercise and the horror of the existing detention camps, the fear that has engulfed the four million excluded people is too real to be allayed by empty assurances and appeals.

The present NRC updating exercise was mooted by the previous Congress government in Assam as a step towards implementing the Assam Accord which had stipulated 24 March 1971 as the cut-off point for determination of ‘foreigners’ or illegal immigrants. The 1951 NRC and subsequent electoral rolls till 1971 have been made the main basis (legacy data) for inclusion in the updated NRC. Given our experience with exclusion-ridden electoral rolls, it is not difficult to see that the process of exclusion has thus been built into the very framework of the current NRC. We also have to keep in mind the changes that have taken place since 1951 – the redrawing of the map of Assam with the fragmentation of the erstwhile state into a number of new states and the internal migration that has happened over the years. Add to this the general lack of documentation among the weaker sections and toiling masses and the NRC becomes a nightmare for many. Rural women migrating to Assam through the marital route have found it especially difficult to substantiate their claims as the NRC has disregarded certificates issued by panchayats. Many families stand divided on the basis of the NRC with individual members failing to make it to the draft. There are even many cases of people with Indian passports and other identifying documents having been excluded from the current NRC draft.

It is not just the NRC which has enveloped many in Assam with fear and insecurity. For the last two decades, some people in Assam have been marked as D (D for doubtful) voters, usually on the basis of adverse remarks made by the Border Security Force. A few thousands of them are lodged in detention camps in certain jails of Assam, stripped of not just their voting rights but virtually most of their basic human rights. While the government says that the excluded will not be sent to detention camps, there are reports that the Modi government has granted 46 crore rupees for construction of new detention camps including one in Goalpara with a capacity of more than 3,000 people. The plight of these detained D voters has not received much attention in the national media or even within Assam, but horror stories from the camps cannot be suppressed or denied any more. Is this the fate now awaiting the four million excluded people in Assam? As of now, the discussion over the NRC in Assam revolves primarily around the omissions and anomalies and the process and possibility of getting them corrected in the final list. But it is now very much clear that Assam and India will soon have to deal with a huge social problem of hundreds of thousands of ‘stateless’ people. And this is a topic on which there has been no public deliberation yet.

The BJP is playing a dangerous game in Assam. By amending the passport entry rules and introducing the Citizenship Amendment Bill, it has effectively nullified the Assam Accord and made it abundantly clear that it wants to deal with the issues of citizenship and immigration on the basis of a communal framework where Muslims will be excluded and treated adversely. Assam and Tripura reacted angrily to the Citizenship Amendment Bill. With the publication of the draft NRC, the BJP now seeks to create the impression that it is committed to the implementation of the Assam Accord and the agenda of identification and deportation of foreign nationals from Assam. But what Assam has got in the process is an explosive situation with four million people residing in the state for decades liable to be declared stateless. Who are these four million people? We do not yet have sufficient data to map their social profile, but early indications suggest that majority of them are women and Bengali-speaking. This has understandably stirred the Bengali community across India and especially in neighbouring West Bengal (now proposed to be renamed ‘Bangla’) and the BJP is seeking to fish in the troubled waters. BJP leaders in Bengal are now speaking about implementing the NRC in the state, clearly targeting the Muslim community which is customarily branded by the BJP and RSS as a community of ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’. After ‘cow protection’ and ‘love jihad’, here you have another grand RSS-BJP game plan for communal polarisation for the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.

The Assam movement was prompted by the demographic anxiety and developmental aspiration of the Assamese community. The BJP wants to turn Assam into a laboratory for its politics of hate, deception and ‘divide and rule’. While Assam wanted to move forward, the BJP is bent upon taking Assam and India back to the trauma, turbulence and tragedy of the Partition. We must reject and defeat this divisive conspiracy. The BJP’s empty talk of a just and perfect NRC will not do, we need a broader and more inclusive framework for the NRC. And while minimizing the chances of omission from the NRC, the government must come out with a clear road map for the people being omitted. The horror of the detention camps must end. We must uphold the dignity and human rights of whoever may be excluded from the NRC. At a time when the whole world is seeking an end to the Rohingya crisis, we cannot create another humanitarian and social tragedy in the name of the NRC. India has given shelter and dignity to Tibetan and other refugees in the past, we cannot treat our own people as aliens in their own land.