For decades Assam has been disturbed by militant violence and bloodshed. The Centre’s decision to completely withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958 from 1st April 2022 from 23 of the State’s 33 districts indicates that militancy is waning in Assam. While this is a welcome development, the root cause that forced some youth to pick up the gun forty years ago remains unresolved. Assam has undergone a demographic upheaval because of an unabated illegal influx from Bangladesh. The presence of many illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam has caused a demographic imbalance that has had adverse political, social, and economic consequences for the indigenous population and all genuine Indian citizens in the State. An authentic National Register of Citizens (NRC) and correct electoral rolls have therefore become crucial to safeguard the interests of the indigenous people and for future peace and stability in Assam.
There are legitimate grounds for re-verifying the NRC. Reportedly the Legacy Data matching software was not foolproof as it did not have provisions for quality checks. In a report to the Supreme Court (SC), Prateek Hajela, former State Coordinator, NRC Assam, admitted that imposters could have misused the legacy data due to a software design flaw. During random checks in the claims and objections phase, over 1 lakh names had to be deleted as they were found to be ineligible. While nearly 50,000 names of persons from other States settled in Assam were found excluded. Moreover, in the final NRC, names of about 1,20,000 persons falling under the Original Inhabitants category were missing.
Perhaps because of such glaring mistakes, immediately after assuming office Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma directed the State Coordinator, NRC Assam, to instruct all the Deputy Commissioners (DC) to begin the re-verification process and delete names that were not eligible to be included. The NRC update process is governed by the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens & Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules 2003. Under this Rule, after the final NRC is prepared, the power of re-verification rests with the Executive. Rule 10 of this provision vests power in the Registrar General of India or his nominee, in this case, the District Registrar/District Magistrate/DC, to remove any name from the NRC, which is found to have been included on incorrect particulars. However, the State Government’s re-verification exercise has been stalled by the Jamaat-e-Ulema and All Assam Minority Student Union’s petitions in the SC seeking intervention against the State Coordinator, NRC Assam’s directive to all DCs to remove the names of all ineligible persons and their descendants from the NRC.
It is evident from the many omissions and commissions that the final NRC list is faulty. Therefore there is an impression that the entire NRC revision project was an exercise in futility. But importantly, Assam has been prone to large-scale illegal influx from erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Consequently, in 1951 it was the only state in India that had an NRC prepared to distinguish between Indian citizens and illegal immigrants. After 1951 however, no citizenship enumeration exercise was undertaken in Assam. Instead, only the National Population Register (NPR) has been regularly compiled based on the decadal population Census. The NPR is a database of all people living in the State irrespective of their citizenship. Given Assam’s illegal influx problem, the NRC 1951 should have been periodically updated. This lapse has had serious demographic implications for Assam.
It is also believed that many illegal immigrants did not consider it necessary to apply for inclusion in the NRC because, with political patronage, they were already enrolled as voters. Assam-based NGO Assam Public Works had petitioned the SC in 2009 to revise the NRC 1951 and remove the names of 41 lakh illegal immigrants enlisted as voters. Are these numbers mere conjecture? A comparison between the growth rate of Assam’s population and voters will reveal contradictory trends. In the decadal census of 1971, Assam recorded a population growth rate of 34.95%, well above the national average of 24.50%. Over the next three decades, the rate of growth declined steadily. By 2001 it had fallen to 18.85%, well below the national average of 21.15%. In 2011 it fell further to 17.07% against the national average of 17.70%.
In contrast, the average annual growth rate of voters in Assam increased and remained noticeably above the national average. From 2.73% in 1971, it rose to 4.67% in 1991 when the national average was 3.26%. Also, significantly, the growth rate of voters in the border districts was even higher, with the Dhubri district registering almost 7%. Even though subsequently it declined to 3.24%, Assam’s annual growth rate of voters remained well above the national average of 2%. Even with the lowering of the voting age in 1989 and the Election Commission’s drive to register new voters from 2001, Assam’s constant higher enlistment of voters in comparison to the rest of India is unnatural, more so because the 2021 census data show that Assam’s population growth rate has fallen even further to 13.54%.
The presence of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam is a reality. Only the numbers are debated. Political expediency has kept the problem unresolved for four decades. Congress exploited the Muslim immigrants as vote-banks to stay in power. In lieu, their illegal entry and stay in Assam were overlooked. They were given citizenship by dubious methods and enrolled as voters. The 1985 Assam Accord, a consequence of the Assam movement, offered a paper rather than a permanent solution. The vital clauses of providing Constitutional safeguards for the indigenous peoples’ political interests have remained unaddressed till today. The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 has now given BJP the opportunity to consolidate the immigrant Bangladeshi Hindu votes to counter the immigrant Bangladeshi Muslim vote bank. The politicization of the illegal immigrants’ problem has done irreparable damage to Assam’s socio-political fabric by destroying the age-old bonds of communal harmony. A permanent solution to the illegal immigrants’ problem can only be found if it is kept above politics.
(The writer is an entrepreneur & freelance writer based in Guwahati)