The national president of Bharatiya Janata Party, Mr. Amit Shah mentioned in a speech in the Rajya Sabha that National Register of Citizens (NRC) is the soul of the Assam Accord. Mr. Shah went on to declare, “The Assam Accord says that illegal infiltrators would be identified and deleted from our Register of Citizens, and a correct National Register would be prepared.” Mr. Shah was holding a bunch of papers and appeared to be reading from it. This gave the impression that he was reading the text of the Accord. Does the Assam Accord mandate updation of the NRC?

It does not. The Accord document, available online, does not even have the phrase “National Register of Citizens” or any oblique reference to it. It mentions deletion of foreigners’ name from the electoral rolls (clause 5.4). We need to remember, Assam Movement which culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, had started with the demand of deletion of suspected foreigners’ names from the voters list. It is natural that the Accord will refer to the electoral rolls. If there is a soul of the Accord it resides in a corrected voters list. The National Register does not enter the picture.

Which legal instruments the Accord proposed to use to nab foreigners? If not NRC updation, how did the Accord intend to filter out infiltrators? This is not clearly mentioned. However there are at least two reasons to believe it was to be done by the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983. In clause 5.9 the government promised to consider the issues raised by the AASU/AAGSP regarding implementation of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act. The second reason, from 1985 till 2005 when it was scrapped and replaced by the Foreigners’ Act, IM(DT) was in use to detect foreigners.

The first agreement on NRC updation happened quite late in the day, at around 2005, a full twenty years after the Accord. The claim that updating the NRC was mandated by Assam Accord is thus false.

The idea of NRC updation

Mr. Shah was economical with the truth. Why is it important to highlight this particular untruth? Because it make a big difference if the NRC or the Foreigners’ Act is used. How big? More than three crore people big – the entire population of Assam. Under the Foreigners’ Act the police, the court act on specific information. A person is charged and she has to prove that she is an Indian. This is problematic in itself. There is presumption of guilt here. It goes against the spirit of natural justice that nobody is guilty unless proven so.

On the other hand, in the NRC everyone has to prove that she is legal. There is presumption of guilt, plus, it is presumed that the entire population is guilty, the entire population of the state has infiltrated! This is why claiming NRC updation is mandated by the Assam Accord is not only incorrect, it is ominously incorrect. However, it would be wrong to charge only the BJP for this prevarication. There has been a concerted campaign to conflate the Assam Accord with the NRC. It has become a part of common sense.

Forget Assam Accord for the time being. What about the argument that existing bureaucratic-legal infrastructure of Assam is insufficient for nabbing infiltrators, which is why one needs the NRC? This leads to two questions. Is the NRC prepared in 1951 a reliable document? This is important because the 1951 NRC is a benchmark document to prove one’s legality. Binayak Dutta, faculty member of history at NEHU, has shown that the 1951 NRC was prepared in a shoddy manner. It was completed in twenty days straight! In 1970 the Gauhati Court observed that the 1951 NRC was not even “admissible in evidence”.

Second question, how many infiltrators are there? If the number is not large it does not make sense to spend massive resources on it. Not to speak of the manpower of thousands of government employees who have been directed to NRC work. There is a lack of solid research on this. In 2004 the Central Government said there were five million illegal Bangladeshis living in Assam in 2001. It is unclear how this figure was arrived at. A research paper by noted econometrician Vani Kant Borooah found between 1971 to 2011 there were hardly any net illegal infiltration into Assam (according to the Assam Accord foreigners who migrated since 25 March, 1971 are illegal). My own rough estimate, through a different method, arrived at a similar conclusion. The growth rate of population of Assam has been less than that of India after 1971. This raises doubts about the existence of massive infiltration.

In sum, first, a benchmark document for NRC updation is flawed, and second, there does not seem to be lot of infiltrators at all which may warrant this mammoth task.

What is to be done?

Four million people could not find their name in the NRC. Most of them are likely to be poor, working class, Bengali Muslims or Bengali Namasudra (a Dalit sub-caste) Hindus. The less-privileged, being uninformed and uneducated, were more vulnerable in this bureaucratic citizenry drill, as always. A saner society would have decided what to do with its non-citizens before embarking on this distressful exercise. Moving forward, we need to consider the fate of these four million, whom Mr. Shah has termed infiltrators, with clarity and composure, and without doing violence to their human dignity. We also need to ask if this has been a show of sound and fury after all. Except that, in this circus to distract us from the question of bread, the poor and marginalised are being fed to the lions.

[A different version of the article has appeared in Firstpost.com]