21 January 2020

A Basic Understanding of NRC and the Assam Accord

A month back I wrote an article on the Citizenship Amendment Act. Today's article is on the NRC and the Assam Accord

What is the National Register of Citizens (NRC)
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) has become another political football. The BJP’s decades-old stand on the NRC has remained the same. From the party’s manifesto in the 1996 general election to the 2019 general election, the BJP has remained firm on completing an NRC to curb illegal migration into India, especially in the north-eastern states from Bangladesh.
In the 1996 manifesto, the party articulated three Ds: detection, deletion, and deportation – detection of illegal immigrants, deletion of their names from the electoral rolls, and deportation to the country of their origin.

In the 2019 manifesto, the party declared that: “There has been a huge change in the cultural and linguistic identity of some areas due to illegal immigration, resulting in an adverse impact on local people’s livelihood and employment. We will complete the National Register of Citizens process in these areas on priority. In future we will implement the NRC in a phased manner in other parts of the country. We will continue to undertake effective steps to prevent illegal immigration in the north-eastern states. For this we will further strengthen our border security.”

What is the Assam Accord?
The reader must note that the NRC idea is not the BJP’s baby. The NRC idea, first proposed in 1951, took root in the 1970s when the All Assam Students Union (AASU) launched a mass movement after its scrutiny of the local electoral rolls revealed names of a large number of illegal Bangladeshis. The AASU protested vehemently with its ‘Ds’ demand: detection, deletion, and deportation – detection of illegal immigrants, deletion of their names from the electoral rolls, and deportation to Bangladesh. The protest gained popular traction as it touched a raw nerve of the locals: they had been impacted adversely, especially demographically and economically, by the presence of illegal Bangladeshis.

However, it was only in August 1985 when the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress Government and the AASU signed the Assam Accord. The central feature of the Assam Accord were the 3 Ds: detection, deletion, and deportation – detection of illegal immigrants, deletion of their names from the electoral rolls, and deportation to Bangladesh.

Under the Assam Accord, the Citizenship Act was amended to include clause 6A that provided for the classification of immigrants in Assam: 
  • those who came before 1966 (including Hindu refugees who fled East Pakistan during the 1965 war); 
  • those who came between 1966 and 24 March 1971 (when war with Pakistan officially commenced); and 
  • those who came after 25 March 1971 (war refugees and later illegal immigrants). 

Citizenship was to be given to all those who migrated before 1966 from east Bengal and east Pakistan. Those who came between 1966 and 1971 were to be disenfranchised and granted citizenship after due process. Those who came after 24 March 1971 were to be detected and deported.

Subsequent governments at both the Centre and in Assam failed to complete the NRC. Fed up with the indifferent attitude of the state government, the AASU knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court, which ruled that the NRC, promised under the Assam Accord, must be completed under its supervision.

Now, it is clear that the NRC in Assam was (i) a provision of the Assam Accord, to which the Congress was a party; (ii) held in the state after the Supreme Court of India called for its implementation and (iii) the central government has had no role in its completion.

The draft NRC in Assam registered 2,89,83,677 out of the state’s 3.3 crore population (census-based). The rest were left out; in other words, they could be classified as ‘illegal immigrants’. It is here that the Bangladesh Government comes in; in case, Bangladesh refuses to acknowledge these four million as its own citizens, they run the risk of being labelled ‘stateless’.

For now, the BJP’s flip-flop has only muddled the NRC debate. Things get murky when the ruling party does not lend clarity on its current stance, especially considering the several misgivings about documentation and proof of citizenship.

Identifying illegal foreigners – whose job is it?
The Central Government is vested with powers to deport a foreign national under section 3(2)(c) of the Foreigners Act, 1946. These powers to identify and deport illegally staying foreign nationals have also been delegated to the State Governments/ Union Territory Administrations and the Bureau of Immigration under the Foreigners Act, 1946. Detection and deportation of such illegal immigrants is a continuous process. Statistical data of cases regarding illegal immigrants is not centrally maintained.

I think the BJP should run a better PR machine with focus on three central aspects of the CAA: 
(a) that the CAA is an amendment to the existing Citizenship Act, 1955, (b) that it only speeds up the process of granting citizenship to members of certain communities, and (c) that it does not relate to the citizens of India.

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