Assam’s finance minister and a powerful voice in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government, spoke to Zia Haq in Guwahati about the good and problematic aspects of the National Register of Citizens’ (NRC), the government’s objections to the NRC process itself, the possibility of any legislative intervention and a proposed citizenship amendment bill. Edited excerpts:
You have expressed strong opinions on the outcome of the National Citizens’ Register (NRC), which many say virtually amounts to a rejection of the exercise. Is that correct?
No. We have not rejected the NRC process because we all along felt it was a step in the right direction. Assam and India need a citizenship record, which excludes foreigners but, at the same time, includes every Indian citizen irrespective of caste and creed. Our opinion is that the result of the NRC is a mixed bag. Neither I am happy nor I am sad in totality. Yes, there is an element of sadness.
You at least questioned the rigorousness of the processes followed. Please explain.
First, I’ll explain why I am happy. Ultimately, Assam will now have a register of citizens and it will be impossible for anyone to come to Assam and claim citizenship. There will be no new immigrants because he (a new immigrant) will now have to give a reference to the NRC. The second positive side is what Assam has gone through is a learning experience for the rest of India.
What went wrong then?
Now what has gone wrong is first, during the NRC exercise, somehow, the NRC coordinator and his team did not accept the refugee certificates and citizenship cards issued to Bangladeshi Hindu refugees who migrated to India prior to 1971. I am not saying anything about post-1971. NRC authorities asked these people…okay, you have given a refugee certificate, now let us verify it. Now, from where can you verify it? At that point of time, when the army allowed them to enter India, or when refugee camps were established, there was no register book (a reference to the time of creation of Bangladesh). These people have gone through a thorough process of harassment because the NRC did not accept refugee certificates.
You have also pointed to inclusion and exclusion errors.
What was in the report of the former governor SK Sinha (1998) -- it said the population growth in border districts had grown disproportionately compared to other districts. In those areas, the census report shows, the population growth is abnormal. The SC in the Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union of India case observed that this abnormal growth clearly established illegal migration.
We found that in a district like Karbi Anglong, which is a 6th Schedule district and completely inhabited by tribal people, the rate of exclusion was 16%. In contrast, in border districts, the rate of exclusion was 6-7%. And within that 6-7%, many indigenous communities, like Koch Rajbongshis, were there. So we had requested the Supreme Court that if we do not correct this, people will raise questions on the bonafide of the NRC.
At heart of the dispute is the sort of re-verification you wanted and the one actually undertaken...
We said let us do 20% [population] re-verification in border districts, and along with that, 10% in remaining districts. The government of India supported us. But our NRC coordinator went to the Supreme Court and said, ‘I have already re-verified 27% of the population’. Now, what is the result of the re-verification? We do not know. The SC will obviously believe the coordinator because he is a court-appointed officer. Now, the final result is much more difficult to digest because in border districts, the rate of exclusion has further come down to 2%, 3% or 1%. [Sarma clarified he was not quoting any official figure but from internal surveys from his party’s “own political channels”]
Is there anything else that you contest in the NRC?
There are some petitioners [in the NRC case] who have said there are some glaring faults in the software. They pointed it out to the NRC coordinator and he refused to rectify. This is not my allegation, but that of one of the petitioners, Assam Public Works.
But one presumes no outsiders had any access to the software. Did they?
Yes, I think, because they have been involved in this issue for four-five years… because the software is very simple. I’ll tell you if a person’s legacy is included in 1951 (NRC), his legacy will also be included in 1966 and 1971 and 1977 and 1983 (voter rolls). Suppose I am one Jehirul Islam, I will give the legacy data of 1951 and my name will be entered. But my name is also there in 1966 voter list. So, somebody else may also claim that Jehirul Islam was his father and his origin will be shown with effect from 1966. Now to link up these two, whether I am the same Jehirul or different, the software is silent about that. This is why lots of manipulations have taken place. The NRC process should have said there should be continuous presence, whether you were continuously present or not. All voters should have been linked up. This is the allegation. I have not verified this, but it is in the popular discourse.
Post-NRC, will the government adopt any measures of its own to check the validity of citizenship?
Is it [NRC] the only process to identify foreigners? No. Other mechanisms to identify foreigners will continue. The border police have an inherent power. In an administrative process, you can’t take anything as final. Suppose you have an Indian passport, that doesn’t mean you are an Indian citizen. Prima facie you are an Indian citizen. So, people in the NRC are presumed to be Indian prima facie, unless the border police can give sufficient evidence that you are not. So, if the border police pursue someone who is in the NRC, they have to have the strongest evidence against him. You can’t stop border police from pursuing any case. They can pursue me also. That is my understanding of the law.
So, we could potentially see another round of legal battles?
Nothing is final in this NRC till the SC accepts this NRC or till the SC gives its seal of approval. Now the coordinator has to go back to the SC and report back. The government will definitely put its views on the floor of the court. Various petitioners will go to court also and, of course, the coordinator will defend his part of the story. After hearing these parties, when SC gives its seal of approval, only then can we say this is final.
Given your doubts, going forward, what will be your options or interventions?
Our affidavit is already there [in the Supreme Court], only that the court had rejected our view. We have to press it again. So, we will do that and it is for the lordships to decide. If the plea for re-verification is accepted and a large error is revealed, then the court can take a note of it. If that doesn’t reveal any large error, the court can declare it as the final NRC.
If your plea is rejected by the SC, will you accept it?
Definitely. You cannot do it forever. It is they [the court] who mooted the idea of re-verification. It was not our idea.
The idea had fallen from the lordships. [If the court rejects it] Fine; we have to [accept it]. There are other democratic ways like parliamentary intervention. But so long as this NRC is concerned, if the SC rejects the state government’s plea, the state government should and will graciously accept the verdict.
You have to live life sometime with tragedy and sometime with joy. In this case, we should not stretch it too far.
Many of your party leaders have said there was always a legislative route available and laws can be enacted as a remedy to unfavorable judicial verdicts?
If the SC rejects something, then Parliament enacts some laws also to intervene. But in this case, I am not envisaging such a thing; I am completely ruling out those kinds of interventions. The NRC is not that exceptional a case and the NRC doesn’t fall in that rarest-of-rare examples. Finally, our assessment is that once the process of citizenship amendment is done, there will be a population register or there will be an NRC in the entire country. I think that Assam, being an integral part of the country, will get another opportunity in some way to be a part of that NRC process.
When is the citizenship amendment bill coming?
[In the] next Parliament session, we should have it. I think so, because there is no objection from any quarters now, and after NRC, almost 1.4 million something [excluding roughly 400,000 who didn’t file any claims after being excluded] has been ousted. So those people [non-Muslims] who entered India post-1971 will not be more than 250,000 or so. The citizenship amendment bill is no longer a significant issue.
But there is opposition to the bill in Assam. There were huge protests.
I don’t think Muslims will be angry if you give citizenship to Hindu, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Parsis who have faced religious persecution.
The election results [Lok Sabha 2019] have conclusively proved that there is no objection in Assam because we have fought both panchayat and parliamentary elections on the issue. So, it is an endorsement.
That means, by and large, Assamese people have said ‘we don’t have any objection’ and after the NRC, the number will be so less, it will be hardly 200,000 to 250,000 people, that this is an insignificant number. Don’t assume Assamese aren’t aware of the persecution of non-Muslims in Bangladesh and Pakistan.