The Final Draft of State Sponsored Statelessness: NRC and the 4 million ‘stateless people’ of India

NRC Assam

40 lakh people have been excluded in the final draft of National Register of Citizens which was prepared jointly by Central Government and State Government of Assam and monitored by Supreme Court. The total expenditure incurred till date for conducting NRC is reportedly Rs1200 crore with a half lakh people engaged in collecting data and processing it which includes both government employees and outsourced workers. Altogether 3.29 crore applications were received and the team of RGI found that 40 lakh among the applicants are ineligible. The ‘ineligible’ also includes 2.48 lakh ‘D-voters’, ‘doubtful’ voters, who will be referred to foreigners’ tribunals. The excluded people can file fresh claims to make into the list and if once again rejected, they have the right to go to the tribunal and if rejected again, subsequently to High Court or Supreme Court. The Election Commission denied right to vote for D-voters till their names are cleared as Indian citizens. The expensive exercise, which separated illegal immigrants into Hindu and Muslim and aiming to deport the latter and making the former legal citizens of the nation, questions the basic values of justice, equality and empathy.

For many this is just a ‘news’ which is going to initiate hours of debates in the newsrooms of channels, filling the columns of newspapers flooded with opinions from the intelligentsia and another hash tag or ‘sympathy status post’ moment for social media users. For those people, who didn’t find their names in the registers, are now ‘stateless’. Last year around this time, the whole world was condemning the ‘Rohingya exodus’ and human rights violations against those ‘stateless’ communities in Myanmar. The 4 million people don’t have the right to vote, a constitutional right of an Indian ‘citizen’. The successors of the illegal migrants who are born and grown in Indian soil are also excluded in the NRC just because they didn’t have with them the so-called ‘documents’.

‘Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any State’ (UNHCR). There is an estimated 10 million stateless people across the globe, according to the latest Global Trends Report. Now 4 million is added, with clear ‘statistics’, to the list. The political self-interest game played by the forces in power for electoral gains, once again, proved that the elite and powerful class dominates the ‘democratic India’.  Why India need such a NRC to recognize the people living in Indian soil for decades as the ‘citizen’ of this country? At this juncture, once again retrospection is inevitable.

Historical Context

For making a registry of all legal Indian citizens, a National Registry of Citizens was created as per the 1951 Census, the first Census of Independent India. Assam, the northeast state down the Eastern Himalayas, has a very different demographic constitution. The earliest settlers were Austroasiatic and Dravidians speakers, followed by Tibeto-Burman, Indo-Aryan speakers, and Tai–Kadai speakers (Mohammed Taher in The Peopling of Assam and contemporary social structure). According to some scholars, the Turks and Arabs, who were traders came to the Darrang region and settled there in the 8th century. There are several ethnic groups including Ahom, Bodo, Chitias, Karbi, Tea Tribes, Mishings, Koch Rajbongshi, Sonowal Kacharis, Rabha, Hajong, Rengma Naga, Chutias, Kalitas, Kaibarta, Tiwa, Dimasa, and so on. The state also includes indigenous ethnic groups belonging to other states and many people migrated from the other states, particularly from Bihar and Bangla (West Bengal).

Tirthankar Roy in his book India in the World Economy: From Antiquity to the Present illustrates that following the discovery of Camellia sinensis in 1834, Britain allowed companies to rent land from 1839 onwards which ultimately lead to mushrooming of tea plantations in Eastern Assam. In order to work in plantations many people were brought in to Assam from central and eastern parts of India, often forcibly. The conflict between Ahom kings and Maomorias, the Maomoria Rebellion (1769-1805), even though suppressed by the kingdom, led to the weakening of the rulers. The three Burmese invasions between 1817 and 1826 and the repressive rule that followed, led to flight of people to Bengal (then ruled by the British) and to other neighboring kingdoms. Britain gave Upper Assam to Purandar Singha (in 1833), the last Ahom King, and took control of Western Assam following Treaty of Yandabo (1826), which ended the First Anglo-Burmese War. A decade later British annexed the entire region and the territory was made a part of Bengal Presidency. After many merging and splitting, the Assam Province, one among major eight provinces in British India, was established in 1912.

The 1911 Census showed the increase in the number of migrants, specifically in Goalpara district where it was increased to 118,000 from 49,000 back in 1891. ‘In the 1920s, the ‘Line System’ had been introduced, as part of the British divide and rule policy, under which an imaginary line was drawn to segregate immigrants from the indigenous tribals’ (Economic Times). In the first three decades of the twentieth century, the proportion of Muslim population in the Assam saw a rapid increase from 13.6% to 22.8%. The tensions between the indigenous population of Assam and the Muslims began during those times.

Under Gopinath Bordoloi, who later became the first Chief Minister of the state, Assamese supported INC and India’s anti-colonial struggle. In 1947, after the declaration of Independence and partition, Assam became a state of the Indian Union. A portion was given to East Pakistan which at present is the Sylhet district of Bangladesh. Many Muslims fled to East Pakistan following the partition. From 1963 to 1986, Assam was torn to pieces. The governments at Centre unilaterally created new states such as Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. Even though there have been several waves of migrations to Assam from Bangladesh, the Bangladesh War of Independence of 1971 forced millions, predominantly Muslims, to migrate to Assam (and Bangla too).

The population of the state gradually increased at times owing to different reasons .The population grew from 3.29 million in 1901 to 6.70 million in 1941. It increased to 14.63 million in 1971 and 22.41 million in 1991 (Statistics of Assam, 2002-03). The by-election to Mangaldoi Lok Sabha constituency, which was vacant because of the demise of Hiralal Patwari, saw a dramatic increase in the number of registered voters. All Assam Students Union (AASU) demanded identification and deportation of illegal immigrants which triggered the Assam Movement, aka Assam Agitation in 1979.

AASU along with All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) led the agitation and it was ended in 1985 following the Assam Accord. The Nellie Massacre, in which a mob of indigenous Assamese people killed 2191 suspected immigrants in 1983, was a darkest chapter in India’s post-independence history. Indira Gandhi government passed Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act (which was later struck down by Supreme Court in Sarbananda Sonawa v. Union of India Case in 2005) in the same year, applicable exclusively to Assam only, which made  provisions to ‘detect and expel’ illegal immigrants. After a series of negotiations, the historic Assam Accord was signed in the presence of Rajiv Gandhi. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who led the Assam Movement, became the Chief Minister of Assam when his ‘Asom Gana Parishad’ party sworn in to power in the same year.

Lifting the veil

‘Assam Accord of 1985 that states all illegal foreigners who came to Assam after 1971 from Bangladesh irrespective of religion have to be deported. This accord also fixed March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for deportation of all illegal immigrants irrespective of their religion’ (Financial Express). Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, introduced in Lok Sabha in 2016, had provisions to give citizenships to illegal migrants of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan based on their religion. This move was opposed by Asom Gana Parishad who argued that the proposed amendment will nullify the NRC. The bill once again made waves to initiate speed for the NRC process in Assam. Narendra Modi’s poll promise to make Assam, migrant-free (Muslim-free) was seen as the political strategy of the party in Assam.

India hosted around 420,400 refugees which include about 110,000 from Tibet, who fled since China’s 1951 annexation and 102,300 Tamil Sri Lankans, who came to India following a civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan armed forces. In 1964, the Buddhist ethnic groups, Chakmas and Hajongs, from East Pakistan comprising some 36,000 people fled to Arunachal Pradesh in 1964. Reportedly, there are 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India now.

On July 30, 2018 the final draft of NRC was released and shockingly 4 million people, majority Muslims, were left out in the list. Now, 12 % of the state’s population are ‘stateless’. The intention of the Central government is clear. Considering the politics they played in the last State Assembly elections by promoting the anti-Muslim and anti-migrant narratives, the current move signals that the ‘religious fire’ is going to drive the party in the 2019 general elections. The government is adopting or imitating the far-right ideology which has already gained currency in Europe. The emergence of far-right parties in Europe upholds the anti-migration narratives and is creating anti-Muslim sentiments in the Christian dominated countries. Similar waves and agendas are created in Assam by the right-wing political forces. The state-sponsored statelessness can’t be justified on any grounds. ‘National Security’ is not the license to do whatever the power centers wish to do. Such doctrines must also consider the basic human values. Almost a half century after the flight, the government is taking action against the next generation of those 1971 refugees. The change in India’s commitment to protect refugees is visible earlier on the government stance on Rohingya refugees.

Supreme Court, who also faces criticism now due to its intervention on the process, must take urgent measures to protect the life and liberty of those 4 million migrants. The India Government should rethink about its policy towards refugees as well as the migrants in Assam. India may not be signatory to 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol, but there is always a need to respect International Law. The government must need to work on a new legislation to deal with refugees and migrants. The extreme measures such as deporting all the unlisted migrants will create a never ending chaos in the South Asian region. The national security is important for the civil society, but NRC is not the right way.

Gokul K.S is Currently, a Post-Graduate student in International Relations and Politics at SIRP, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam and also writes articles in


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