Guwahati, India – Authorities in India are set to announce the final draft list of citizens in the border state of Assam, amid fear tens of thousands of Bengali-origin Muslims might be excluded from the document.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is being updated after nearly seven decades as part of a campaign to identify undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh, but critics say those not finding their names in the list might be effectively rendered stateless.
The NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela told Al Jazeera that the list will be published at around 10am local time on Monday.
“People will be able to check their names through online and offline methods at 2,500 NRC Seva Kendras (service centres) set up across the state,” Hajela said.
The results can also be accessed via SMS on request, he said.
The final list will decide the fate of the 13.9 million people not included in the first draft that was published on December 31 last year – that first list designated some 19 million people, out of Assam’s 32.9 million population, as legal citizens.
The country’s Supreme Court – which is supervising the entire process – had initially set June 30 as the deadline to publish the final list. But this was postponed to July 30, as the massive exercise could not be completed.
What will happen to those who do not find names in the list?
Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said that the Indian citizens whose names are not included in Monday’s list need not worry.
“They will get adequate opportunities to file claims and objections pertaining to their rights,” Sonowal wrote in a post on Twitter.
Sonowal said that no one would be treated as a foreigner until the final updating of the NRC. He called upon the political parties to work as a team, adding that the government would provide all necessary support in filling claims and objections to genuine applicants.
Coordinator Hajela said that people can apply for these claims, objections and corrections from August 30 to September 28.
“If their names are not in the final draft, it doesn’t mean that these people are illegal,” Hajela told Al Jazeera.
“This is just a draft and I’m telling you that these people will be given ample opportunities for claims and objections. So, there is no reason to fear.”
Still, people of Bengali origin, including both Muslims and Hindus, are in panic mode, with several members of the community committing suicide in advance of the July 30 deadline for the list’s publication.
“We are uncertain. We had to struggle a lot to get our names cleared as Indian citizens. We have submitted all the documents needed,” Jaymati Das, a villager in Assam’s Udalguri district bordering Bhutan, told Al Jazeera.
“Now, I don’t know if our names will feature in the final draft or not,” said Das, 53.
A few weeks back, Jaymati’s husband Gopal Das, 65, had committed suicide after he was also served notice to prove his citizenship.
Their two sons were also asked to prove their citizenships by the Foreigners Tribunal – a specialised court that handles cases of undocumented immigrants.
Authorities put Assam on high alert, with section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code imposed in seven of the state’s 33 districts. Under section 144, assembly of more than four people is prohibited.
Some 300 NRC Seva Kendras (service centres) have also been marked as sensitive across Assam, while 55,000 members of the police forces have been called into action.
More than 22,000 additional paramilitary personnel have also been deployed across the northeastern state.
said security has been tightened up across the state.
“We appreciate the support of the people,” said Assam Director General of Police Kuladhar Saikia.
“So far it has been smooth … We have taken all the measures to avert all kind of untoward situation,” he told reporters in the state capital, Guwahati.
Authorities are also keeping a strict eye on online posts to check rumours and fake news.
Who is eligible to be included in the NRC list?
Unique to Assam state, the NRC document was prepared in 1951 to distinguish Indian citizens from undocumented immigrants from then East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh in 1971).
The cutoff date to be eligible for Indian citizenship is March 24, 1971,as per the Assam Accord signed in 1985.
The people or their descendants whose names appeared in the NRC 1951, or in any of the electoral rolls up to March 24, 1971, or in any of the other recognised official documents issued up until midnight of the same period should be included in the final draft.
Assam has witnessed prolonged protests against so-called foreigners, which includes both Hindus and Muslims.
The arrival of millions of refugees in 1971 – when Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan after a bloody civil war – brought the issue of so-called foreigners in national focus.
It ignited Assam’s biggest and deadliest anti-foreigners agitation between the late-1970s to the mid-1980s. The Assam Accord, which signed between the government and the protesters, was able to bring a consensus on the eligiblity criteria for citizenship.
Will NRC resolve the citizenship issue?
Activists and experts say the NRC process will unlikely solve the contentious citizenship issue as tens of thousands of people who have been marked as “Doubtful” or “D” voters, or their descendants ,or those whose cases are pending in the Foreigners’ Tribunal are not being considered by the NRC authorities.
India’s Election Commission introduced the concept of “D” voters in 1997 under which a person’s citizenship rights are stripped.
There are around 125,000 “D” voters and more than 131,000 cases pending in the Foreigners’ Tribunal.
In many cases, earlier documented by Al Jazeera, people have faced harassment and discrimination, with several individuals falsely marked “D” voters or declared foreigners.
Clerical errors or confusion over the legality of documents have also put suspense on the final list.
Earlier this month, Hajela had said that 150,000 people will be dropped from the first list as anomalies were found in their documents. More than 48,000 of them are women from rural areas.
Under the Bharatiya Janata Party government, which came to power in the state in 2016, some 15,000 people were declared foreigners last year alone – which means more than 1,000 per month.
Around 90,000 people were declared as foreigners between 1985-2016.
Student leaders appeal for peace
All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU), a students’ body, claimed that it suspects that at least two million people will be left out from the final list.
However, authorities have given no information on the much-awaited list.
The AAMSU leadership has also requested the NRC coordinator to help resolve the dropped cases so that genuine Indian citizens are not harassed.
“The NRC authorities should be careful in checking the documents properly. It’s ridiculous to see them saying that 1.5 lakh [150,000] names will be dropped as anomalies were found in the submitted documents,” said AAMSU President Rezaul Sarkar Karim.
“We want these cases to be dealt with properly without harassing the citizens and at the earliest,” he told Al Jazeera.
Karim also appealed to people in the state to maintain peace and harmony after the publication of the final draft.
All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the largest students’ body in the state, issued a similar appeal.
“Finally, we are on the verge of getting a list of genuine citizens after a long demand. We are hopeful. If anyone whoever has come here before the cutoff date of March 25 of 1971, is left out from the final draft, we will help them in getting their names cleared,” said Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharyya, AASU advisor.