India Today - - UPFRONT - —Kaushik Deka

While the rest of the world wel­comed 2018 on Jan­uary 1, there were ser­pen­tine queues in As­sam at mul­ti­ple places from early morn­ing. Anx­ious peo­ple waited to find their names in the first draft of the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of Ci­ti­zen­ship (NRC) that was re­leased by the state gov­ern­ment as the clock struck mid­night. This was the sec­ond time NRC has been pub­lished any­where in the coun­try—the first time was in 1951.

Po­lit­i­cal par­ties and so­cial ac­tivists may have rushed to con­grat­u­late the peo­ple of As­sam—19 mil­lion have found their names in the NRC while ver­i­fi­ca­tion is go­ing on for 13 mil­lion—but the credit for mak­ing the up­date of the NRC a re­al­ity goes to two cit­i­zen lit­i­gants: Pradeep Bhuyan, 85, and Ab­hi­jit Sarma, 43.

One of the sig­nif­i­cant clauses of the 1985 As­sam Ac­cord, signed be­tween the Union gov­ern­ment, the As­sam gov­ern­ment and lead­ers of the As­sam ag­i­ta­tion, was to up­date the 1951 NRC so that the state had an ac­count of le­gal citizens. But the clause re­mained on pa­per and an­other tri­par­tite agree­ment was signed in 2005 be­tween the Cen­tre, state gov­ern­ment and lead­ers of the All As­sam Stu­dents’ Union. The new agree­ment de­cided to up­date the NRC and the state gov­ern­ment started two NRC pilot projects in 2010 in two districts. The project, how­ever, was aborted as mem­bers of a mi­nor­ity stu­dents’ group re­sorted to vi­o­lence.

In Jan­uary 2009, Bhuyan, an alum­nus of IIT Kharag­pur, ap­proached Sarma, an en­tre­pre­neur-turned-so­cial ac­tivist, to file a PIL in the Supreme Court seek­ing dele-

tion of 4.1 mil­lion ‘il­le­gal vot­ers’ from the voter list. A case was reg­is­tered in the apex court on July 20, 2009. The pe­ti­tion­ers ap­pealed to the court to mon­i­tor the process of up­dat­ing the NRC in­stead of di­rect­ing the gov­ern­ment to do it. On April 2, 2013, the case reached the bench of Jus­tice Ranjan Go­goi and H.L. Gokhale. Work on the NRC started in May 2015 and the court fixed De­cem­ber 31, 2017, as the date for the pub­li­ca­tion of the first draft of the NRC. “Such work needs ded­i­ca­tion, hon­esty and courage. That’s why I ap­proached Sarma,” says Bhuyan, who avoids me­dia at­ten­tion. He wrote the draft of the first pe­ti­tion and used his own money to fight the le­gal bat­tle. Bhuyan re­mained be­hind the scene and Sarma and his NGO, As­sam Pub­lic Works (APW), founded by 36 busi­ness­men in 2000, be­came the front of this cru­sade. “APW’s first bat­tle was against the ULFA. After 2008, we picked up the is­sue of il­le­gal im­mi­grants,” says Sarma.

Sarma is aware that the bat­tle is not over yet. The cur­rent up­date of the NRC has been done based on the As­sam Ac­cord that ac­cepted 1971 as the cut-off year for any­one to be de­clared an il­le­gal im­mi­grant. In De­cem­ber 2012, Matiur Rah­man, pres­i­dent of the As­sam San­milita Ma­hasangha, filed a writ pe­ti­tion in the Supreme Court, de­mand­ing that the cut-off year be changed to 1951, a de­mand that has the sup­port of the RSS and As­sam fi­nance min­is­ter Hi­manta Biswa Sarma. The hear­ing on that case is likely to be­gin in April. If the court de­cides in favour of Rah­man’s pe­ti­tion, the NRC up­date process will be­come in­valid.


THE NAME QUEST (Above) Ab­hi­jit Sarma; anx­ious res­i­dents queue up to check their names in the list

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