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Political Destiny of Immigrants in Assam

National Register of Citizens

Akhil Ranjan Dutta ( teaches political science at the Gauhati University, Guwahati.

Updated under the close scrutiny of the Supreme Court, the release of the first part of the draft National Register of Citizens for Assam has been long-awaited by the indigenous people in the state. The process, however, has been plagued by constitutional and legal hurdles that have questioned the validity of citizenship and heightened political differences on the issue. Amidst this larger debate, the fate of illegal migrants remains undetermined.

The author acknowledges the assistance received from University Grants Commission’s Special Assistance Programme granted to the Department of Political Science, Gauhati University in developing the present article.

The release of the first part of the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam on 31 December 2017 did not bring much jubilation to the people of the state. The partial draft, incorporating names of only 1.90 crore persons out of 3.29 crore applicants, despite the looming deadline for a full draft, has upset many people and evoked strong reactions from the Bengali-dominated districts of the Barak Valley (Telegraph 2018). The NRC, touted as the most authentic effort to detect illegal migrants in the state, has been a long-awaited aspiration of the indigenous people of Assam. The disappointment over the partial release of the register was exacerbated by the systematic attempts by the incumbent union government (having both religious and linguistic overtones) to facilitate new waves of immigration, with guaranteed citizenship, by amending the Citizenship Act of 1955. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 intends to remove the tag of “immigrants” from relevant rules under the Foreigners Act, 1946 for six religious minorities: Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. One can sense the disappointment and even anguish in the state, by looking at the day-to-day political developments which have unfolded in the run up to the release of the NRC.

Amending Citizenship

On 28 December 2017, just three days prior to the release of the NRC, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), now an ally in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government, reiterated that the party would not accept the proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act. The party considers the planned amendments to be detrimental to both the main contents of the 1985 Assam Accord, and the peaceful, secular foundation of the greater society in Assam (Amar Asom 2017). This was hardly surprising, as the AGP was born following the signing of the Assam Accord, from the womb of All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the organisation which led the six-year long anti-foreigners agitation, and which was a principal signatory to the Assam Accord. People were disappointed in Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, a former president of AASU—considered a jatiya nayak (national hero) for his historic role in getting the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act, 1983 quashed—who is now a steadfast supporter of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. In December 2017, a group of leading intellectuals, educationists, and leaders of a number of nationalist and ethnic organisations in Guwahati held a Jatiya Adhikar, Swabhiman Aru Sanskriti Rakshar Sangram (citizens’ convention on the struggle to protect nationality right, self-pride and culture) to reaffirm their pledge to undo the bill. Recent events thus indicate a new phase of political contestations and polarisations in the state.

Assam’s politics has long been dominated by contestation over citizenship, resulting primarily from unchecked illegal migration from across the border, particularly from the erstwhile East Pakistan. Migration/immigration has been a burden of history, one imposed by the colonial regime.

Assam has been plagued with the problem of migration since it became part of British India in 1826. The Britishers brought in migrant labourers,—mostly tribals from the Chota Nagpur plateau and its adjoining areas covering present-day Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and parts of Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Telengana and Andhra Pradesh to work in the newly-opened tea plantations from the mid 19th century … The colonial authorities also encouraged the migration of Muslim farmers from East Bengal since late 19th century and in early 20th century. (Kashyap 2018a)

The issue of migration had been constantly debated in the Assam Legislative Council since 1912, and subsequently in the legislative assembly since 1937.

Warranting the NRC

After independence, the issue assumed an even wider proportion, which was evident from the debates in the legislative assembly. Prior to the enactment of the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955, the intensity and accompanied apprehensions surrounding immigration into Assam from across the border forced the Government of India to enact the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950. In fact, the first ever National Register of Citizens in India was also prepared for the state of undivided Assam in 1951 against the backdrop of cross-border immigration, following partition (Gogoi 2012).

The Immigrants Act was primarily enacted to “provide for the expulsion of certain immigrants from Assam.” The act mandated to expel those residents

who entered Assam, either before or after the commencement of the Act, from territories outside India, and whose stay in Assam was considered detrimental to the interests of general public of India or any section thereof or of any scheduled tribe in Assam.

However, the act was not applicable to

any person who on account of civil disturbances or the fear of such disturbances in any area now forming part of Pakistan has been displaced from or has left his place of residence in such area and who has been subsequently residing in Assam. (GOI 1950: 1)

This was the provision which ensured that not all immigrants from across the border could be expelled. The persecution and atrocities in erstwhile East Pakistan by the Pakistani government forced a huge influx of migrants to Assam, which the Indian government could not expel despite the act. Therefore, while the issue of immigration continued to provoke debates and resistance, the influx continued as well, even after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971.

The Assam Accord of 1985 attempted to achieve a political resolution following a six-year long mass agitation. The accord extended the constitutionally mandated cut-off dates of granting Indian citizenship to immigrants, resulting in the enactment of the first ever amendment to the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955, which was adopted in 1985. This particular amendment incorporated Section 6A into the act, allowing for the extension of the date of granting citizenship to immigrants from the constitutionally mandated cut-off date of the “day of enforcement of the Constitution,” that is, 26 January 1950, to 24 March 1971. This provision made the state an “exception,” as far as granting citizenship to immigrants was concerned, and as such, warranted the updating of NRC, 1951 for Assam.

Updating the NRC and Clause 6A

Although updating the NRC for Assam was a mandate of the Assam Accord, the process was set in motion only after the intervention by the Supreme Court through its combined judgment on three writ petitions filed by Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha (2012), Assam Public Works (2009) and All Assam Ahom Associations (2014). The judgment laid down a definite time frame to prepare the final NRC draft (Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha & Ors v Union of India 2014). The hearing on the second petition began in 2009, and subsequently the hearing on the first petition was also combined with it. With regard to the third petition, notices were yet to be served to the respondents at the time of judgment. The judgment dealt with two fundamental issues: the constitutional validity of Clause 6A, and updating the NRC for Assam. However, it refrained from giving any verdict on the former, on the grounds that the issues associated with it “are substantial questions which need to be answered by an appropriate bench as most of them are substantial questions as to the interpretations of the Constitution” (2014: para 33) and therefore, referred it to a constitution bench. Deeming Section 6A of the act valid, the Supreme Court made a detailed note of the progress in implementing various clauses of Assam Accord, and issued directions to the appropriate authorities to undertake necessary measures to expedite the process (2014: paras 35–47).

While considering the writ petition filed by Assam Public Works, the judgment laid down a time schedule to govern the process of updating the NRC. It gave the state 11 months to finalise the updated NRC, which was to be completed by 1 January 2016 (2014: para 48). From this point, the NRC updating process came under the close scrutiny and monitoring of the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Ranjan Gogoi and R F Nariman.

The NRC updating process has been both complex and contentious. The modalities for the updating of the register were developed by the Government of Assam through a cabinet subcommittee in July 2013, and were approved by the union government in November 2014. Under those modalities, a total of 16 documents were identified to assert eligibility of the applicants, in order for their names to be included in the updated NRC. Out of the 16 documents, 12 are main documents. These are: extract of NRC, 1951; extract/certified copy of electoral rolls; land/tenancy records; citizenship certificates; permanent residential certificate; refugee registration certificate; Indian passport; Life Insurance Corporation of India insurance policy; licence; service/employment records under government/public sector; bank/post office accounts and birth certificates. The four supporting documents are: certificate issued by secretary of the village panchayat; educational certificate issued by boards/universities; ration cards; and records/processes pertaining to court (Manowara Bewa v Union of India 2017: para 43.1).

Issue of Panchayat Certificate

Except for the NRC 1951 and the residency certificate issued by the village panchayat’s secretary, the other documents would be valid only if issued up to 24 March 1971. The village panchayat certificate is issued to women who have migrated to other villages after marriage. In the case of urban areas, certificates issued by jurisdictional circle officers would be accepted. In the case of four districts comprising the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), where there is no panchayat, the Lot Mandals have been allowed to issue such certificates. These certificates have to be countersigned by the circle officer/revenue officer/executive magistrate. The actual process of updating the NRC began with the invitation of applications in May–June 2015. The last date of submission of applications was 31 August 2015. The provision for online applications were also made available, and the entire exercise culminated with the receipt of 3.29 crore applications.

The decision to publish the partial draft of the NRC was accepted due to the order of the Gauhati High Court in February 2017, in which it declared the certificate issued by the village panchayat secretary to be an inadmissible public document (Manowara Bewa v Union of India 2017), and also due to the non-receipt of verified documents sent to various authorities, including from state governments and foreign governments.

The Manowara Bewa judgment indeed caused controversies and confusions. The court order cited a number of grounds while declaring the said certificate invalid as admissible public documents. It argued that the Assam Panchayat Act, 1994 does not authorise the village panchayat secretary to issue such a certificate, and, under the India Evidence Act, 1872, such a certificate is not a public document. Besides, the court asked why an exception had been made in the case of the panchayat certificate, when the cut-off date was 24 March 1971 for all other documents. The order rendered around 48 lakh applications—which had certificates issued by village panchayat secretaries, revenue official, and the Lot Mandals as supporting documents—invalid. The order thus created a huge challenge to the process of updating the NRC which was nearing completion at that time.

The judgment of the high court was challenged in the Supreme Court through a number of special leave petitions. Through its order dated 5 December 2017 (Rupajan Begum v Union of India 2017b) the Supreme Court finally set aside the judgment of the Gauhati High Court and reinstated the validity of certificates issued by the village panchayat secretaries as a supporting document. The Supreme Court pointed out that the certificate in contention was accepted as a supporting document in consultation with all the stakeholders involved in the process, including civil society organisations, which subsequently was approved by the state government, union government and the Registrar General of India. Besides, the document itself is not proof of citizenship; it only establishes a link between the certificate holder and the person with whom legacy data is claimed. The Court also pointed out that the certificate would thoroughly be examined, before it was accepted even as a supporting document.

Question of Original Inhabitants

Amidst all this, the issue of “original inhabitants” also cropped up. In its order dated 24 August 2017, based on information received from the NRC project coordinator, the Court recorded that of the disputed 48 lakh applicants,

about 20 lakhs claims [would be] in respect of original inhabitants, a fact, which if proved, will not require any further proof or inquiry and all such persons will be included in the draft NRC. (Rupajan Begum v Union of India 2017a)

The Court ordered the NRC state coordinator to explore and segregate the original inhabitants of the state from the 48 lakh applicants. The inclusion of the category of original inhabitants in the NRC was challenged in the Court by Kamalakhya Dey Purkayastha, Congress member of legislative assembly from Barak Valley, through a special leave petition. The Court, after thorough examination, removed the original inhabitants tag from the NRC updating process in its order of 5 December 2017. The Court argued:

The exercise of upgradation of NRC is not intended to be one of identification and determination of who are originally inhabitants of the State of Assam. The sole test for inclusion in the NRC is citizenship under the Constitution of India and under the Citizenship Act including Section 6A thereof. Citizens who are originally inhabitants/residents of the State of Assam and those who are not are at par for inclusion in the NRC. (Kamalakhya Dey Purkayastha v Union of India 2017)

Thwarting the hindrances in the whole process, the Supreme Court finally facilitated the release of the first part draft of the NRC on 31 December 2017. However, a few challenges still remained. The Court, in its order dated 5 February 2018 referred the matter relating to the issue of validity of Section 6A of the Citizenship Act to a constitution bench, which is expected to take up the issue in March 2018 (Assam Tribune 2018a). On 6 February 2018 10 organisations of indigenous people of Assam requested the Supreme Court

to issue an order staying the ongoing process of updating the National Register of Certificates (NRC) in Assam ... until the cut-off date for the purpose is finalised by a Constitution Bench of the apex court. (Assam Tribune 2018b)

The Supreme Court in its order dated 20 February 2018, however, directed the NRC state coordinator to complete the verification of all pending applications and fixed 30 June 2018 for publishing the final list of the NRC (Assam Tribune 2018d).

Post-NRC Challenges

Over the years, Assam witnessed a growing political consensus on the provisions of the Assam Accord, particularly with regard to the cut-off date for the detection and deportation of illegal migrants, despite the substantial political and ideological differences that existed during the Assam agitation. However, in the recent past, with the ascendance of the communal Hindutva forces in the country and their penetration into Assam’s politics, this consensus has been shattered. The cut-off date agreed upon in the Assam Accord has already been challenged in the Supreme Court, and the issue is now pending before the constitution bench (Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha & Ors v Union of India 2014). The Citizenship Act (Amendment) Bill, 2016 if passed by Parliament, will be a big blow to the ongoing updating of the NRC. The incumbent government seems to be working in this direction. Therefore, there is no surety on when the next draft of the NRC will be published, or whether it will be published at all. Any delay in publishing the next draft will make way for political and linguistic polarisation. A section of Bengalis, particularly the Bengali Hindus in Barak Valley, have been indulging in such polarisation, and they are receiving political patronage from strong quarters, including the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. Predictably, this has met with strong reactions from the Assamese nationalist forces (Kashyap 2018b).

A critical issue, which has not yet come to the forefront, is the provision of citizenship by birth under the Citizenship Act itself. Under relevant provisions of the act, as amended till date, “every person born in India on or after 26th day of January, 1950, but before the 1st day of July 1987 … shall be a citizen of India by birth” (GOI 1955: Section 3). According to this provision, any person born even to illegal migrant parents after 24 March 1971, but before 1 July 1987 will be a citizen of India. However, as per the modalities of the NRC, they are unable to apply for citizenship, as they have no linkages with valid documents issued till 24 March 1971. The AGP-led government in Assam complained about this provision. However, the central government refused to acknowledge their concerns. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, a signatory to Assam Accord and two-time AGP chief minister of Assam stated that such a provision will create a state of confusion, where these persons will be citizens of India having all political rights, including voting rights, but will not find their names included in the NRC prepared for Assam.1 A few intervention petitions on the issue have been filed in the Supreme Court, which have also been referred to the constitution bench, to be examined along with the constitutional validity of Section 6A of the Citizenship Act.

Fate of Illegal Migrants

The most important challenge with regard to the NRC, will be the deportation of those found to be non-citizens. In 2013, the Government of India signed an extradition treaty with the Bangladesh government to extradite persons connected with criminal offences. The treaty cleared the way for the deportation of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) general secretary Anup Chetia to India. The expulsion of undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh, allegedly residing in Assam, has not yet been raised in bilateral talks (Baruah 2018). The division bench in the Supreme Court, in its December 2014 order, concerned itself with the issue of deportation, and asked the Union of India to engage with the Government of Bangladesh and to expedite the process (Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha & Ors v Union of India (2014): para 46-III). No significant initiative on the matter has been taken yet. The issue did not figure in either the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Bangladesh in 2015 or in Bangladesh Prime Minister’s visit to India in April 2017, during which a whopping 22 memorandum of understandings (MOUs) were signed in relation to defence, nuclear energy, information technology, cybersecurity and the construction of community clinics in Dhaka (Financial Express 2017).

With the changing nature of regional and global politics, it is unlikely that India will raise the issue with Bangladesh, particularly in the wake of the growing influence of China in South and South-east Asia. India is likely to stick to its “neighbourhood first” policy to counter China’s increasing geopolitical ambition. The Government of India recently argued that the issue of illegal migrants has been raised through different bilateral mechanisms like

the Joint Consultative Commission, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary-level talks, Joint Working Group on Security and Border Management, Joint Task Forces on Human Trafficking and Fake Currency Notes. (Assam Tribune 2018c)

However, it cannot be ascertained from such a position whether Bangladesh will accept the huge number of undocumented illegal migrants detected in India.

The option adopted by the government, under such circumstances, has been the detention of detected illegal migrants. Assam has six detention camps so far and the state has also planned to develop a full-fledged detention centre for foreigners in Goalpara district. However, the pressing question is whether detention ought to be the solution. Can a person declared a foreigner, be detained in a camp forever? Will this not be a violation of human rights by the state, in the eyes of the international community? Furthermore, why should such detention camps be maintained at the cost of public money? If by amending the Citizenship Act, Hindus and other religious minorities are granted citizenship, will only illegal Muslims be forced to live in detention camps? Urgent measures need to be undertaken to avoid such eventualities. The immediate tasks in this regard should be: the intensification of combined efforts to compel the union government to withdraw the Citizenship Act (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in order to prevent further polarisation of the state along religious and linguistic lines; completion of the NRC update process within a definite time frame; and exploration of all possible means to rehabilitate the detected illegal migrants. Apart from this, deportation through extradition, issuing of work permits, and the possibility of engaging illegal migrants in productive labour by both by India and Bangladesh through bilateral agreement ought to be explored (Pisharoty 2017).


1 Personal conversation with Prafulla Kumar Mahanta on 25 January 2018.


Amar Asom (2017): “Asom Chuktir Kono Karanate Sangshodhan Hobo Noware,” 29 December, Guwahati.

(2018): “Nagarik Panjir Gosar Ranjan Gogoi-r Adalatar Para Sthanntarar Ashonka,” 2 January, Guwahati.

Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha & Ors v Union of India (2014): Writ Petition (Civil) No 562 of 2012, Supreme Court judgment dated 17 December.

Assam Tribune (2018a): “SC Refers Matter to Constitution Bench,” 6 February,

— (2018b): “Indigenous Bodies Seek Stay on NRC Work Order,” 7 February,

— (2018c): “NRC to Contain Genuine Indians’ Names: Minister,” 8 February,

— (2018d): “Publish NRC Final List on June 30: SC,” 21 February.

Baruah, Sanjib (2018): “Stateless in Assam,” Indian Express, 19 January, viewed on 19 January 2018,

Financial Express (2017): “Sheikh Hasina Visit: Full List of MoUs Signed between India and Bangladesh,” 8 April, viewed on 2 February 2018,

Gogoi, Akhil (2012): Bideshi Samashya Aaru Jatiya Andolanar Path (Study on Immigration and Nationality Question in Assam), Guwahati: Akhar Prakash.

GoI (1950): “Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950,” Government of India, New Delhi.

— (1955): “The Citizenship Act, 1955,” Government of India, New Delhi.

Kamalakhya Dey Purkayastha v Union of India (2017): Writ Petition (Civil) No 1020 of 2017, Supreme Court judgment dated 5 December 2017.

Kashyap, Samudra Gupta (2018a): “Assam NRC: All Happy With First Part Draft, But What Happens Next?” Indian Express, 3 January, viewed on 1 February 2018,

— (2018b): “Assam Fumes over Mamata Banerjee’s Remarks on NRC, Fir Lodged against Chief Minister,” Indian Express, 5 January, viewed on 1 February 2018,

Manowara Bewa v The Union of India (2017): Writ Petition (Civil) No 2634 of 2016, Gauhati High Court judgment dated 28 February.

Pisharoty, Sangeeta Barooah (2017): “Policy for Those Found Non-citizens after NRC Update in Assam Still Undecided,” Wire, 15 December, viewed on 29 January 2019,

Rupajan Begum v Union of India (2017a): Special Leave Petition (Civil) No 13256 of 2017, Supreme Court order dated 24 August.

— (2017b): No 20858 of 2017, Supreme Court judgment dated 5 December.

Telegraph (2018): “NRC Worry in Barak Valley,” 1 February,

Updated On : 23rd Feb, 2018


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