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National Register of Citizens

Old Divides and New Fissures

Sajal Nag ( teaches contemporary history at Assam University, Silchar.

Fault lines of the dispute over National Register of Citizens can be traced back to the continuing politics of demography in the history of Assam. Anti-immigrant agitations and violence has been its recurrent feature. The persistent sense of fear of being taken over by immigrants is used to achieve communal polarisation.

Five Bengali Hindus were massacred by unknown gunmen on 2 November 2018 raising the spectre of potential violence that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) could unleash. It brings back the memories of the anti-Bengali riots of 1948, 1954, 1955, 1960, and the murder of Rabi Mitra, Anjan Chakraborty, Nellie and Gohpur carnage that occurred during the anti-foreign national movement. While all sections of people have condemned the violence, the Assamese are steadfastly behind the updated NRC which has listed 4,00,707 persons, most of whom are Bengalis, both Hindu and Muslim, to be illegal migrants to Assam and face the prospect of being deported or declared stateless. Interestingly, while there is widespread criticism against the move across the world, none of the Assamese intellectuals, of any ideological shade, have critiqued it indicating their support. Statelessness is being seen as a profound violation of human rights which is one of the most urgent humanitarian concerns of the 21st century. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that “Everyone has the right to a nationality” and that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.” Despite this guarantee, the prospect of living without a nationality or citizenship is a growing concern all over the world and now Assam joins the scenario.

Politics of Demography

The Assamese had to contend with Bengalis within their territory since 1824 due to colonial territorial redistribution. In the course of time, Bengali Hindus emerged as the cultural “other,” while the Muslims were seen as a political threat. The Assamese not only contested the social dominance and cultural exhibitionism of the Bengalis who entered Assam as colonial functionaries, they were also viewed as conspirators in the persecution of the Assamese language when Bengali was introduced as the official language in Assam (1837) in preference to Assamese. They were also seen as the originators of the idea that Assamese was a dialect of Bengali. The transfer of three Bengal districts—Sylhet, Cachar and Goalpara—in 1874 not only increased the number of Bengali speakers but also their dominance in Assam legislature. The last straw was the colonial sponsorship to immigration of farm settlers in the wasteland in Assam from the famine-stricken districts of eastern Bengal.

The initially reluctant trickle of an landless Bengali Muslims soon grew into an unending stream despite protests from the Assamese. The province that had negligible Muslim population had now boasted of a sizeable Muslim population. The colonial state which itself had sponsored this migration, cautioned the Assamese about being “invaded” and “swamped” by Bengali Muslims. This was a ploy to achieve communal polarisation. The colonial propaganda about this swarming population proved real when Assam was demanded in the proposed Islamic state of Pakistan in the Lahore Resolution (1940). A panic-stricken Assamese desperately wanted the expulsion of the immigrants to escape the possibility. It was seen as a threat to Assamese identity and hegemony to which the only solution was the reduction of Bengali population in Assam, both Hindus and Muslims. The transfer of Sylhet to Pakistan in 1947 relieved the pressure to some extent but the return of Bengalis as refugees from East Pakistan almost neutralised the situation. There were regular anti-Bengali riots expressing the hostility of Assamese towards the Bengalis.

The politics of demography and demand for deportation of the immigrants had been the dominant theme of politics in Assam since then. There were 2,74,455 refugees in Assam during 1946–51. By 1956 it rose to 3.90 and by 1961 to 7.26. During 1971 about 0.3 million refugees came in Assam and some of them were suspected to have stayed back even after the formation of Bangladesh. Responding to the situation, Chief Minister Gopinath Bordoloi evicted a large number of Muslims and deported them to Pakistan after independence. But due to the Nehru–Liaquat Ali pact (1950) they came back in 1951–52. Soon Chief Minister Bordoloi began to see Bengali Muslims as a better bet as they were willing to assimilate to Assamese as well as act as Congress vote bank as against the Bengali Hindus who “considered themselves culturally superior and unwilling to assimilate.” His refusal to rehabilitate Bengali refugees in his state provoked strong criticism from Prime Minister Nehru that “the prefer(ence) for Muslims of East Bengal to Hindus of East Bengal ... is a narrow minded policy.” Simultaneously under initiative of Asom Jatiyo Mahasabha and leaders like Ambika Giri Raichoudhury, these immigrants declared themselves as Assamese speakers thereby inflating the demographic strength of the Assamese in the census of 1951. But a perpetual threat haunted the Assamese that these immigrants might revert to their Bengali mother tongue at any time reducing the Assamese Hindus into a minority again. In 1960 a bolder step was taken when Assamese was sought to be imposed as the official language to consolidate the assimilation. But it backfired leading to the balkanisation of Assam into several states. It has to be emphasised that there was almost an equal number of immigrants in the form of indentured labour in Assam but there was little hostility against them as they were not voters until 1947 and did not pose any cultural threat to the host community.

Fear of the ‘Foreigner’

The flow of immigration of Bengali Muslims that had started from the turn of the century had not really stopped. But a migration which was inter-district and legal had now become illegal infiltration. Since the 1950s there were complaints about continuous Muslim infiltrators in Assam. With the concurrence of centre, various mechanisms like the Permits System, Foreigners Act, 1946, PIP (prevention of infiltration of Pakistanis), the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964, the Foreigners (Tribunal) Amendment Order, 2012, the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, the Citizenship Act, 1955, the Citizenship (Registration of citizen and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, the Citizenship Rules, 2009, Foreigner Tribunal and Illegal Migrants (Determination Tribunal), the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 and the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act, a category of ‘D’ voters was used to detect, deport and intern the suspected infiltrators. Although there are various private and unauthorised speculations about the number of illegal immigrants in Assam, the white paper on foreign nationals prepared by the government report that during 1951–61 a total of 2,20,691 Pakistani infiltrators entered Assam of which 1,22,476 were detected and deported by June 1965. Between 1985 and July 2005, after the formation of IMDT a total of 1,12,791 persons were referred to as foreign nationals of which 12,846 were declared to be so and 1,547 actually deported (GOA 2012). Between 1985 and July 2012 a total of 61,774 persons were declared D voters, of which 6,590 persons were actually declared foreigners. Evidently there were endeavours to detect and deport foreign nationals all along the period.

The detection of a massive increase in Muslim voters during a by election in 1979 in Mangaldoi, sparked off the anti- foreign national movement which ended in 1985 with the Assam Accord which agreed to confer citizenship of India to all those immigrants who came to India up to 1971 with a caveat that those who entered between 1961 and 1971 would have to complete a term of 10 years before the conferment of citizenship. There was no mention of NRC in the Assam Accord. Since neither the Assam Accord nor the Asom Gana Parishad could deport any significant number of foreign nationals the issue continued to generate passion and was used for political mobilisations. Speculative claims were made that ranging from 30 lakh to a crore of Bangladeshi (erstwhile East Pakistani) nationals were staying illegally in Assam who would soon reduce the indigenous Assamese to a minority. The rise of Muslim population to 30% and in the number of Muslim legislators in the Assam assembly from 12 in 1952 to 24 in 1991 in a house of 126 only strengthened their conviction. It was propagated that it is only a question of time when the indigenous Assamese ethnic groups will be alien in their homeland and the next step will be demand for referendum on merger with Bangladesh. The real fear however was that if the Muslim legislators are united with the tribal, ex-tea garden, Nepali and Bengali Hindu members of legislative assembly, they could easily threaten the political hegemony of the caste Hindu Assamese which had to be prevented. In fact, the commissioner of linguistic minorities recently reported that the Assamese speakers constituted only 48.81% in Assam.

Questionable Legitimacy of NRC

The vexed foreign national issue was again raised by All Assam Students Union at a tripartite meeting with the government in which it agreed to update the NRC of 1951 for the first time in 2005. Following the Supreme Court direction (2014) in response to a petition the NRC updating process had actually started.

The NRC of 1951 was prepared as a secret administrative document on the basis of the census slips by the census enumerators, who were “unqualified or ill-qualified persons” (Roychoudhury 1981). It had many shortcomings like the names of the displaced were consciously not included in the register. While the Census Report of 1951 admits that

[a]n important innovation of this Census was the preparation of a National Register of Citizens in which all important census data was transcribed from the census slips with the exception of the Census questions No 6 (displaced persons), No 8 (bilingualism) and No 13 (indigenous persons). (Vaghaiwalla qtd in Roychoudhury 1981)


The NRC enumeration was a hurried one—having been completed in an impossible span of mere 20 days.

As explained by Anil Roychoudhury,

If due to under-enumeration in an area or otherwise the name of a person was omitted in the census, then his name was automatically excluded from the NRC also. And if a person was accidentally not enlisted, he had no opportunity to get enlisted in the NRC subsequently. He could also not file objections. As the NRC was not publicly exhibited and was not a public document, a person could not even know if his name was at all included. The whole matter rested on the whims of the enumerators or their supervisors—a completely one-sided affair. No indication was given to the people of the terrible consequences which might overtake them at some future date if their names were not included in the National Register of Citizens, 1951. (Roychoudhury 1981)

According to the Gauhati High Court, NRC cannot be accepted as the evidence in a court of law under the census rules and for other reasons:

National Register of Citizens is a contemporaneous register prepared by the officers appointed under the provisions of the Census Act in course of census operations. If so, section 15 of the Census Act will make such record of census not open to inspection or admissible in evidence … and notwith1standing, anything to the contrary in the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, no entry in any such book, register, record or schedule shall be admissible as evidence in any civil proceeding whatsoever or in any criminal proceeding other than a prosecution under this Act or any other law or any Act or omission which constitutes an offence under this Act. What is directly prohibited under section 15 of the Census Act cannot be let in by an indirect method through the agency of a private organisation. (Roychoudhury 1981)

Unfortunately no counter petition was filed in the Supreme Court highlighting the inadmissibility of the NRC as the basis of citizenship.


Thus with a stroke of pen, 40 lakh people were rendered stateless. What a century of campaign could not yield was achieved in two years of NRC update. The visible happiness of the Assamese at the NRC verdict prompted the political parties to rush for making capital out of it. While the Congress took credit as the originator of the idea, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) boasts of showing himmat to actually cleanse Assam of Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators, thereby fulfilling its election promise. Now it has started dangling the carrot of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 to the Bengali Hindus who were not listed in the NRC, saying that it would confer citizenship to them too after the bill is passed. Taken in by the lure, the Bengali Hindus are desperately holding on to the promise of BJP by showing support to the bill though the Assamese are fighting tooth and nail to oppose it. It has become desperate show of strength for both the parties thereby irreversibly polarising the communities. Even before declaring its final list the NRC has shown the dangerous potential for conflagrating the political situation in Assam.


GoA (2012): “White Paper on Foreigners’ Issue,” Home and Political Department, Government of Assam, 20 October.

Roychoudhury, Anil (1981): “National Register of Citizens, 1951,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 16, No 8, pp 267–68.

Updated On : 26th Nov, 2018


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