TWO MEN AND A LEGAL LIST
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