While there may have been lulls aplenty, the next twist or turn in the long-running saga of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) update for Assam is never far. The latest seeks to imbue a sense of finality to the exercise, though it has come from what is only a quasi-judicial body. A Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) in Karimganj district of southern Assam, while removing the ambiguity around a man’s citizenship, has pronounced that there is no doubt that the NRC published on August 31, 2019, is the final one. The exercise left out over 1.9 million from a list of around 33 million applicants, whose citizenship would be determined at the FTs. The entire updating process was monitored by the Supreme Court and executed by the State’s administrative machinery. Unsurprisingly, its publication annoyed political parties across the ideological divide, with some alleging it victimised document-less Bengali Hindus and indigenous Assamese people and others that it targeted the State’s Bengali-origin Muslims. In the run-up to the publication of the final document, Assam and the Centre had petitioned the Supreme Court for re-verification of a sample of names included in the draft NRC — 20% in the border districts and 10% elsewhere — but this was dismissed after Prateek Hajela, the State NRC Coordinator, said re-verification of 27% names had been already done. In May this year, the State NRC authority, now led by Hitesh Dev Sarma, filed a petition in Supreme Court seeking re-verification of the August 31, 2019 list, citing inclusion of ineligible names and exclusion of eligible ones, and other errors. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is already on record as having said the State government wants 20% re-verification in the districts bordering Bangladesh and 10% in others.
The crux of the matter is that post-publication progress on the NRC has been excruciatingly slow, and not just due to the pandemic. The new NRC Coordinator’s petition is still pending, as is another by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind. More crucially, on the execution side, the issuance of rejection slips to those left out of the NRC has not begun, a necessary step to file appeals in the FTs. Another iteration of the NRC, whether led by the judiciary or the executive, would rely on the same administrative set-up. The system has demonstrated dynamism: the list of excluded in the NRC draft released in July 2018 was nearly 4 million, an additional list in June 2019 left out 1,00,000 more, but the final draft absorbed 2.2 million of those. While a Registrar General of India notification has not conferred the stamp of legality on the NRC yet, that, along with kick-starting the appeals process, is perhaps the most prudent path ahead. Mounting another gargantuan exercise at a colossal cost may only yield a new set of discontents.