ASSAM: AN IDENTITY CRISIS
Who are the ‘original inhabitants’ of Assam? The SC verdict could divide the state
In the first week of November, an audio clip of a local woman journalist was doing the social media rounds in Assam. She was heard seeking help from an unknown person on creating a forum to unite the state’s Muslims against the “heinous plot” to deprive them of government jobs and political rights in the next 10 years. The basis of her suspicion—the term “original inhabitant”, mentioned in the Supreme Court by Prateek Hajela, state coordinator of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an exercise to weed out illegal immigrants from Assam.
Though the NRC is supposed to be updated every 10 years, no state has done this since the first one was prepared in 1951. The Union government had agreed to update the NRC in Assam in accordance with the Assam Accord in 1985 but the first pilot project started only in 2010. Following violence during a protest by the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU), the project was aborted. The updating exercise resumed in March 2013.
In October 2014, the Supreme Court ordered that work on the NRC be completed by January 31, 2016 but the NRC authority missed the deadline and the apex court is now directly monitoring the exercise. The process hit a roadblock in March 2017 when the Gauhati High Court rejected the residency certificates issued by gram panchayats as proof of citizenship (it was one of 11 documents approved by a state cabinet sub-committee in 2010). On August 24, the Supreme Court directed Hajela to ready a “partial” draft NRC by December 31 not including the names of the 4.7 million people affected by the high court order. The court also asked him to segregate the ‘original
inhabitants’ from among these 4.7 million applicants. The issue came up after Hajela’s report to the court on October 10 stated that only 1.7 million were “original inhabitants” (OI) and the registering authority was satisfied about the citizenship status of this lot.
The Opposition Congress, AAMSU, All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), CPI(M) and several organisations from Barak valley in the state have objected to identifying applicants as ‘OI’ on the ground that the term is yet to be defined by constitutional authorities. Social media is abuzz with reports that not a single Muslim has been identified as OI and that they would all be denied citizenship. The AAMSU claims that in the absence of a clear definition of ‘original inhabitants’, names of many applicants from religious or linguistic minorities may be left out during the process of verification. Former Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi says this was a deliberate move, which will leave minority communities in the lurch. (The Congress and AAMSU, however, failed to explain their silence on the OI issue ever since the criteria was outlined by a two-judge committee on January 7, 2016.)
Following the protests, Hajela issued a clarification stating that in the draft and final NRC, nobody would be shown as OI or otherwise; they would be identified under only one category—citizen (or not). The fate of the 3 million people who submitted panchayat certificates but are not in the OI list will be decided by the SC on November 15. Meanwhile, fearing a law-and-order breakdown in the event of an adverse verdict, the state government has approached the Union home ministry for additional forces.
4.7 MN PEOPLE HAD PANCHAYAT CERTIFICATES; NOW 3 MN ARE AT RISK OF BECOMING ILLEGAL
WRONG ADDRESS? People queue up to file application forms at an NRC centre in Guwahati