Solving a Trilemma — The Way Forward for the NRC

This is a guest post by Alok Prasanna Kumar. He is the Co-Founder and Lead of Vidhi Karnataka. His areas of research include judicial reforms, constitutional law, urban development, and law and technology. He has also previously practised in the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court.

The preparation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for the State of Assam, carried out under the supervision of the Supreme Court of India — between 2014 and 2019 — has been a source of much anguish. Not just for the tedious procedure it involved, but also the eventual consequences on those left out of the list. Out of Assam’s estimated population of 3.3 crores, 3.1 crore, or so, were included in the list; but approximately 19 lakh people were left out. There is no legal certainty for the residents of Assam who have been left out of the NRC.

Merely being excluded from the NRC does not amount to cancellation or loss of citizenship. That can only be done by the Union Government on the recommendation of the Foreigners’ Tribunal under the Foreigners Act 1946. The Foreigners’ Tribunal, set up under the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964   can, on the basis of evidence before it, render its opinion that someone is a “foreigner”, and, therefore, not a citizen.

Those left out from the NRC are in a state of limbo — being persons whose citizenship status is now in doubt. Section 9 of the Foreigners Act places the onus of proving citizenship on the person whose citizenship is in question. Failing to do so will render the person stateless unless they can show some connection to  another country (under Section 8 of the Act) – which might not be possible for most since there is little hard evidence to connect them with any country beyond. What the NRC has done is create a population of 19 lakh trishankus — the figure from Hindu mythology who was unwanted, both in heaven and on earth, and therefore suspended upside down between the two realms.

Following the publication of the NRC in August 2019, things have remained at an uneasy status quo. Neither the Union Government, the Assam State Government, nor the Supreme Court has charted a clear way forward. There have been attempts to “reverify” the NRC but they have come to nought. A recent effort was made to remove more names from the NRC but the same is under challenge in the Supreme Court.

As it stands, the only path that seems obvious is the one of inertia — as the law stands, simply being left out of the NRC does not cancel one’s citizenship. A Foreigners’ Tribunal has to adjudicate on the merits of each person’s case before arriving at that conclusion. Is the judicial route —  often the path of least resistance in India — an appropriate way to address the future of the 19 lakh persons left out of the NRC?

The task of addressing the citizenship claims of 19 lakh people before a Foreigners’ Tribunal is a gargantuan one. To give some perspective: the total number of cases referred to the Foreigners’ Tribunals between 1985 and 2019 (over 34 years) was 4,68,905. In 2018, the last year for which complete data was available, only 14,552 cases were disposed of by the Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam. Needless to say, at the present capacity, FTs are woefully ill-equipped to handle 19 lakh cases, in any reasonable period.

Implicit in the discussion about the people left out of the NRC, so far, has been that:  a lot of genuine citizens have been left out of the list, for a variety of reasons. If we assume that approximately half the people on the list can prove, in some manner, that they are in fact citizens of India, that still leaves nearly 10 lakh people who are now rendered stateless.

But, they are not entirely without remedy —  they can still approach the Gauhati High Court, through a writ petition, and challenge the order finding them to be non-citizens. Even assuming that only half of the persons rendered stateless may have the resources or the capacity to approach a higher forum, this would mean, about, five lakh cases flooding the Gauhati High Court, over a period of time. For a Court that, as on date (according to the NJDG portal), has only about 52,000 pending cases, this is a veritable tsunami it will be unable to handle. Even if the cases are staggered over ten years, it would amount to more than double the annual number of cases filed in the High Court!

The judicial process is not going to provide any clarity, in any reasonable period of time, to those left out of the NRC. Rather, it is likely to compound their misery as the financial, emotional and psychological costs of litigation will take a severe toll on them. 

Should, then, the NRC be junked as a whole?

There is one school of thought that argues that the entire NRC exercise is entirely illegal and unconstitutional. One argument is that the NRC, sought to be done under the Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Card Rules 2003, is contrary to the Citizenship Act 1955, and therefore ultra vires. There is also the argument that contends: creating a separate citizenship regime for residents of Assam would be unconstitutional. The latter question especially, in so far as Section 6A is concerned, is pending adjudication in the Supreme Court, before a Constitution Bench.

This certainly raises the question as to why the Supreme Court proceeded with overseeing the NRC exercise when fundamental questions about its legality and constitutionality were pending. The Supreme Court itself has clarified that the NRC updating exercise will be subject to the orders in the pending challenge to the constitutionality of Section 6A and other provisions relating to citizenship, applicable only to Assam.

If the SC upholds the validity of these provisions then the present (unsatisfactory) status quo, continues. If the Supreme Court does not — and the entire NRC is held to be unconstitutional — it will not necessarily address all the problems.

Leaving aside what it means for the institutional credibility of the Supreme Court or the sanctity of the Assam Accord —  there is also the fact that the NRC has provided a measure of security to those who were included in it, from accusations of being “outsiders”. The fact that those who were accused of being “outsiders”, solely by virtue of their religion or language, are more confident of their status has become the basis for dismissing the NRC as “flawed”! There is no guarantee that a fresh NRC will in any way provide a solution to the problems of those included and those left out without causing an increased burden to all the inhabitants of Assam, once again. The existing procedure was traumatic for the economically vulnerable, and inflicting it on them again would not serve any purpose; it will only recreate an unhappy status quo.

The NRC itself is not a recent judicial or legislative innovation. Demands for its updation precede the Assam Accord itself, and it was intended to address concerns of indigenous people and native Assamese about the large-scale influx of people from Bangladesh (mostly illegally), and what that might do to the cultural and demographic character of the State. It would not behove anyone (let alone a savarna mainland Indian such as myself) to simply dismiss such concerns as “ethno-fascism” or xenophobia.

The demand for an NRC has its origins in the immediate aftermath of India’s chaotic partition — in 1947 — when peoples left their homes in panic, unsure of whether they will end up in Muslim-majority Pakistan or Hindu-majority India. Assam, which has historically seen the movement of peoples from what is now West Bengal and Bangladesh, was faced with an influx of people — in a manner that threatened to completely change the demographic and indigenous character of the state. The worries of both the native Assamese and the Bengalis, who had come over from what would eventually become East Pakistan, are reflected in the representations sent to the Constituent Assembly and the then Central Government on the question of citizenship. At the same time, there were Bengalis who had been living in Assam for generations who did not wish to be caught in this conflict over identity and citizenship and also sought the protection of the Government. The solution proposed was the National Register of Citizens, which was first prepared in 1951.

When the Assam Accord was signed in 1986, the Indian government shifted the cut-off date to 1971, effectively putting to rest the citizenship status of those who had come to Assam before that. Even for those who had entered the country illegally — between 1966 and 1971 — a process was provided for them to become citizens, with a few limitations on exercising franchise. This was reflected in Section 6A of the Citizenship Act. A total scrapping of Section 6A might, therefore, jeopardize the rights of even those who have benefited from it, and unravel the Assam Accord.

Here then is the trilemma which presents itself —  how to chart a path forward, with respect to the NRC, that addresses the human rights of those left out of it, without unsettling the rights of those already on the list, or scrapping a key part of the Assam Accord, which embodies a key demand of native Assamese and indigenous people of the region?

One way out of this is to offer a path of full citizenship to the individuals left out of the NRC, without fundamentally altering the demographics of the State of Assam, or disturbing the rights of anyone already deemed a citizen under the NRC. This would be a one-time measure available to those who sought inclusion in the NRC and did not get it. It would not be available to those who entered India illegally after August 31, 2019. Such a measure is already on the books in Section 6A of the Citizenship Act.

However, this does not fully address the concerns of genuine citizens of India who have not been able to get enlisted in the NRC. For them, the appropriate solution would be to widen the set of proofs; and the manner in which they can show residency, parentage, et al in a manner that would conclusively show their citizenship. The present list of documents permitted, to show proof of citizenship, is in no way exhaustive of the ways in which one can prove one’s citizenship in accordance with the Citizenship Act, 1955. Further, it privileges documentary evidence (a significant barrier) over oral and other evidence which are just as valid in law and might be easier for people to produce. It has to be kept in mind that citizenship is a legal fiction that comes into effect after certain facts are established and establishing these facts should not become an ordeal.

This should be offered as an option. Those who are confident of being able to prove their citizenship should be allowed to do so. Those, however, who are not going to be able to, for whatever reason, should be offered a pathway to citizenship.

A caveat is necessary here — the NRC and its fallout is the result of social and political processes more than a hundred years in the making. From colonial administrations which saw Assam as no more than a place to grow tea and extract oil to Hindutva right-wing parties looking to divide the state on religious lines for political ends — Assam has seen much turmoil and disturbance over the issue of immigration and ethnicity. Even as the Constitution of India attempted to give clarity on issues of citizenship across the country, this question was left unresolved in the context of Assam. Yet, the Constitution lays down certain principles that can guide us out of this thorny thicket and find a way out to protect the future of those left out of the NRC.