We’ve Borne The Burden Long Enough, Says Assam Finance Minister On NRC

Parliament will have to decide the fate of those not on the final draft of Assam’s national register for citizens, the state’s finance minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, said.

Sarma told BloombergQuint that the people of Assam have borne the “burden” of illegal immigrants for long enough and that Indian politicians and the rest of the nation will now have to decide on the matter.

The BJP-run Assam government has faced the ire of the opposition after the final draft of the register excluded the names of over 40 lakh people living in the state. Those who have been left out can fall back on a claims and objections process. There’s no clarity on what will happen to those excluded from the final draft.

If the country wants to deal with them (the people excluded from the NRC) on humanitarian grounds, they can be sent to other states. India can convince Bangladesh to take them back.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, Finance MInister, Assam

Edited transcripts from the interview:

Why’s NRC issue being politicised? It’s not just the opposition but even the BJP, including some of its top leaders, are doing it...

In Assam, we don’t know why the issue is being politicised because the Assam Accord was signed back in 1985 when it was declared that foreigners coming into Assam after 1971 will be detected and deported. The accord was signed by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Subsequently in 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided that the citizenship register will be updated to detect foreigners. In 2013, the Supreme Court took it on itself to monitor the upgrade the process and specifically asked the government to not interfere with it. It was done under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court, which also laid down the guidelines. So, there’s hardly any scope of politicising the issue.

The issue is serious because the names of over 40 lakh are missing from this list. That’s a huge number...

When the Assam agitation started in 1979, it was estimated that 80 lakh people had entered into Assam. Over two decades later in 1993, then Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia had pegged the number of foreigners at 30 lakh. The former minister of state for home under the UPA regime, Shriprakash Jaiswal, once said in Parliament the number of immigrants was 50 lakh. Thus, the number has been varying continuously since 1978. The NRC has now put it at 40 lakh.

People in Assam aren't very happy. They know it's a draft. When the final list comes out, this number will reduce massively because many references haven't come from other state governments. West Bengal hasn't responded to our queries and files in this regard are pending with the Rajasthan government.

They will be unhappy?

Yes. This was intimated by Jaiswal in Parliament. This was sometime in 2008 or 2009.

Are you saying all those excluded from the NRC aren’t citizens of Assam and that the number is correct?

What I’m trying to say is 853 people have been martyred because people of the state know that its demography has changed. The local population’s share is down to almost 50 percent. It’s not that a secret has been outed. The Congress has said on record, in Parliament, the number will be not less than 50 lakh, but nobody from the BJP has projected a number. But the register has detected only 40 lakh immigrants. I stress that the names of many citizens are in it because references from other states haven’t arrived. Once the number reduces, it’ll be difficult for us to convince the people of Assam. We’re facing a different type of challenge in the state.

Currently, there are reports of BJP leaders in Assam whose names are not on the list. They include the wife of one party leader. The kin of a former President is unable to find his name on the list. The Congress, including former Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, blames this on the inefficient manner in which the list has been compiled.

The Congress’ stand on the issue is a bundle of contradictions: while they’re opposing the NRC in Delhi, they welcome it in Guwahati. They resort to chest-thumping by claiming credit for the register’s upgradation. But the Supreme Court has laid down certain guidelines on what kinds of people can make it to the list... even if they’re Assamese or the indigenous people. Once the draft’s over, the claims and objections process will start and we’ll consider genuine people who have been excluded.

According to the criteria, if a person has come from Rajasthan to Assam, for instance, if it’s my wife, then the Rajasthan government has to certify that the woman hails from the state. Without that reference, the Assam government can't update names on the draft list. The fact that there have been no protests on the streets is proof that the people understand the process. They know that if their name isn’t on the draft, it will be a part of the final list because they’re Indians. That’s the conviction the people have. And it was only yesterday that the Supreme Court said it will monitor the claims and objections process as well.

What will the Assam government do to dispel fears that Bengali-speaking people and minorities will be targeted?

Whoever has come from Bangladesh will obviously be a Bengali speaker; we don’t have Assamese speakers in Bangladesh. 1.35-lakh applications are pending before the West Bengal government and we’re sending references. If a person claims to be from West Bengal, then we immediately forward an application to the West Bengal government, which has to affirm it.

Another key question being raised is the cut-off date of 1971. Many people won’t be able to provide paperwork dating back to that year. There are also those born after that year and have lived entirely in Assam since then, even if their parents are outsiders... Would it be fair to deem them illegal immigrants?

People who’re raising these issues are ignorant about the citizenship law of India, which states that if anybody enters India illegally, they won’t be accorded citizenship even if they’re born in India. If Parliament changes this law tomorrow, the Assam government will be obliged to include names of such persons in the draft. What’s my option as long as that’s the law?

What happens to those who cannot produce their paperwork from 30-40 years back?

The Supreme Court has specified a list of 26 documents, which if provided by the people will ensure their inclusion in the register. You are in if you can produce your name from the voter list of 1971. If you can also prove your forefathers were part of the list, you are in. There will be people will be unable to do so for factors ranging from old age, illiteracy or lack of documents. In such cases, our district magistrate will trace their origins, as per processes laid down by the Supreme Court.

You mentioned that the number of people excluded from the list will reduce greatly once the final list is out from the current 40 lakh. Do you have any estimate for the final number?

It’s difficult to say, but yes, I can say the number will come down because many people whose names are on the list have migrated to Rajasthan, Bihar and West Bengal. Their names aren’t on the list because those governments haven’t cooperated with us. The governments of those states will now realize that it’s important for them to verify and send the necessary documents back to Assam.

If that process is completed, probably three lakh people will get their names on to the citizenship register immediately. I can only say this number will come down significantly, but it's very difficult to predict because there is a counter-provision in the same order of the Supreme Court that you can still file an objection against somebody if you feel their name has been entered illegally in the list. The final result will depend on how many claims and objections succeed.

The reason I ask this is, say 3 lakh people will be verified by other states, there may be claims and objections, we can’t hazard a guess here. The key question is what are you going to do with the people excluded from the NRC..

The law of the land says that anybody who has entered into this country after 1948 will be an illegal immigrant. but when we signed the Assam Accord in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi forced us to take the cut-off at 1971. In contrast, the cut-off for states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab is 1948. Gandhi then urged the people of Assam to take in the people who have moved in from between the years 1951-71, while assuring that they wouldn’t be burdened with people who moved in after 1971. This was signed in the Assam Accord. If the country wants to deal with them on humanitarian grounds, the citizens can be distributed among various states. India can convince Bangladesh to take the people back because Bangladesh has been routinely taking back people who’ve been declared illegal immigrants.

While you query about the fate of those who may be excluded from the register, think about us, the native Assamese. How are we living, how our land is getting encroached, how our resources are being consumed. We're in a circle of poverty and unable to develop because we don’t have land. Our monasteries, temples and have been encroached upon, our language has been compromised. Our political power has been snatched from us because we have taken the burden of two decades, which could be another 8 million.

You say political power has been taken away but your party has had a historic victory in Assam?

I’m not talking about the party, I’m speaking as a citizen of Assam. If we’ve to accommodate illegal immigrants of two decades, don’t you think our seats are getting reduced? People of Assam have acted wisely. No other Indian state has done that. Has West Bengal taken the responsibility of these people? We have taken responsibility and made those people ministers and MLAs in our state Assembly.

Who are ‘those people’?

Those people who have entered this country from 1951 to 1971.

How will you convince those who think what you and your is party saying is basically a dog-whistle for majoritarian politics, that the target is people of a certain religion?

It’s not the people of a religion, that’s what the people in the country aren’t understanding, These 40 lakh people are not Muslims. It is fifty-fifty. Who is saying these are Muslims? It’s very wrong. This is a secular list. Out of 40 lakhs, if you remove people who have come from Rajasthan or Bihar out of the net list, the Hindu-Muslim division is almost fifty-fifty.

The issue has been dominating proceeding in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha over the last few days...

How must we be bothered about what’s dominating in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha? 900 people have laid down their lives for this. We’re bothered about our culture, about our people, about securing Assam for our future generations. We laid down our lives. People of India have acknowledged the Great Assam agitation. Whichever government comes—Congress or BJP—everybody has assured that no foreigner after 1971 can stay in Assam. This is an all-party assurance.

What will happen to those who are left out of the list. You talked about two options. They could be distributed among other states or they could go back to Bangladesh?

You people decide that, you people have given assurance that we are not going to take burden of people after 1971.

What do you mean by ‘you people’?

You people mean those who’re speaking in the Parliament. The Indian Parliament has assured that we don’t have to take the burden. The Parliament has approved the Assam Accord, so the Parliament will find a way. Why are you asking the Assamese people? We’ve already taken the burden of two decades.

Whatever the decision finally is but the whole process of displacing 20 or 30 lakhs of people will clearly have an impact on the society they live in and on the state they currently reside. What do you think that impact will be?

There will be no impact. People, irrespective of their caste or religion, are very happy that finally we’ve implemented what was assured to Assam by the late Rajiv Gandhi. We want closure and Parliament should decide what they want to do with these people, with humanity and dignity. Parliament has ensured that Assam doesn’t have to take the burden.