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India: Tripura State Hopes to Follow Assam in Establishing National Register of Citizens

(Nov. 5, 2018) The working president of the Congress Party in the Indian state of Tripura, Pradyot Debbarman, filed a petition before India’s Supreme Court on October 24, 2018, requesting that a National Register of Citizens be compiled for his state. Debbarman’s petition is the second one filed on this issue with the Supreme Court, the first being a petition by the regional Tripura People’s Front political party heard by the Court on October 8. (Seema Guha, National Register of Citizens: Foreign Hand, INDIA LEGAL (Oct. 28, 2018).)


Tripura is an impoverished former princely state in Northeast India that, until it joined India in October 1949, was dominated by 19 major, culturally similar tribal groups. (Biswajit Ghosh, Ethnicity and Insurgency in Tripura, 52(2) SOC. BULL. 221, 226 (Sept. 2003), JSTOR website (by subscription).) Even before it joined India, the state received many migrants from Bengal, but relative unity between the tribal and nontribal peoples was maintained. However, since the mid-1960s an anti-Bengali tribal insurgency has evolved aimed at the retribalization of Tripura through, among other things, stemming the influx of migrants and the influence of their Bengali language and culture, and restoring tribal lands that had been illegally transferred to or settled by Bengali refugees. (Id. at 229.) This insurgency has undergone various phases, from tribalism and cultural protest to ethnic violence and terrorism to attempts to unite the tribals as a political force. (Id. at 230, 233, 239–40.)  Ultimately, however, “the unchecked influx of migrants has completely changed the demographic pattern. The original inhabitants of Tripura have long been reduced to a minority by Bengali Hindus from both West Bengal and Bangladesh.” (Guha, supra.) According to scholar Biswajit Ghosh,

[a]lthough these refugees have contributed to the economic development of Tripura in many ways, the marginalization of the tribal peasants and elite has created a psychological trauma of being reduced to a minority in [a] ‘tribal state’. Due to such a demographic imbalance, the density of the population in the state has increased . . . [and t]he numerical domination of the Bengalis in Tripura has gradually translated into their cultural, economic and political domination with a corresponding pressure on the tribes for survival. (Ghosh, supra, at 230.)

National Register of Citizens in Assam

The Tripura People’s Front and Debbarman’s move to establish a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Tripura parallels developments in Assam—which shares a border with Tripura and is currently the only state in the Indian union to maintain an NRC—to update its citizens’ register. The compilation of Assam’s first NRC in 1951 was driven by Assamese leaders’ fears that Pakistan was planning a demographic change in the state after India’s preindependence Muslim League party failed in its efforts to have Assam included in East Pakistan. (Anupam Bordoloi & Abdul Gani, NRC Update: Assam Grapples with Fear, Confusion and Hope, OUTLOOK INDIA (July 26, 2018).) The purpose of the NRC was to distinguish Indian citizens from undocumented immigrants from East Pakistan, which ultimately became the independent state of Bangladesh on March 25, 1971, during its civil war with West Pakistan. The eligibility cutoff date for Indian citizenship for the NRC update is March 24, 1971, in accordance with the 1985 Assam Accord signed by the Indian government and Assam Movement. (Abdul Gani, Assam: Some Four Million Left Out of Final India NRC Draft List, AL JAZEERA (July 30, 2018).)

During the past year, Assam’s update of the NRC has been called

[a]n exercise massive in scale, controversial in methodology and debatable on potential outcomes . . . [that] has divided Assam on religious and linguistic lines, sparked concerns over human rights and prompted a United Nations body to seek clarifications from the Centre [federal government]. Monitored by the Supreme Court, many consider the NRC as the holy grail of all efforts to resolve an issue that has brutalized Assam and structured its polity for years—starting with a six-year-long agitation against illegal immigration between 1979 and 1985. Assamese people have grown up with primordial fears of their land being grabbed, their jobs taken and their culture and language wiped out by Bangladeshi immigrants. For many people in Assam, this constitutes the core issue in politics. (Bordoloi & Gani, supra.)

The rationale behind the update is that those who are unable to present acceptable documents dated up to March 24, 1971, such as land/tenancy records, passports, government licenses/certificates, and documents showing employment by the federal or territorial governments or the companies owned by them (Public Sector Undertakings, PSUs), will be easily detected as illegal immigrants. (Id.) On November 1, 2018, the Supreme Court extended the deadline for filing claims and objections to the list of legitimate citizens drafted for the update, moving it from November 25 to December 15, and also allowed the use of five previously excluded documents to be used as proof of citizenship: the 1951 NRC, citizenship certificates issued till 1966, ration cards, refugee registrations certificates, and voters lists issued till March 24, 1971. (Assam NRC: SC Extends Deadline for Filing Objection to Dec 15, Allows 5 More Documents for Claim, DNA INDIA (Nov. 1, 2018).)

The actual process of the update, however, is reportedly “a logistical tangle as much as a social nightmare” with widespread allegations of  “procedural flaws and a systematic attempt to leave out Muslims and Bengali-speaking Hindus” that has resulted in the exclusion of four million people (12% of Assam’s population) from the draft NRC and, in numerous instances, seen some members of the same immediate family included on the list while others are excluded, and some people who present the proper documents to prove their citizenship still left off the list. (Id.; Gani, supra; Satya Prakash, Indians Who Moved to Assam from Other States to Be Included in NRC: Centre to SC, TRIBUNE (Aug. 14, 2018).) Reportedly, the Congress Party in Assam is raising its voice in support of the thousands of genuine citizens excluded from the draft NRC and “questioning the process by which citizenship is being determined[,] as the poor and illiterate possess no documentation.” (Guha, supra.) Congress Party leader and former Chief Minister of Assam Tarun Gogoi, during whose tenure the NRC updating process started, himself condemned the practice of using the 2016 voters list only for excluding individuals from the NRC but not for including them in the list. In his words, “[a] large number of Indian citizens have been left out (in the first draft), so there’s apprehension.” (Bordoloi & Gani, supra.)

Those excluded from the list must prove their citizenship before Foreigners Tribunals (FTs), quasi-judicial courts that critics maintain have been filled by the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government with its anti-Muslim volunteer paramilitary affiliates from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). (Id.) According to one Assamese Muslim villager who is a past supporter of the BJP and whose family of Muslim converts have lived in the same village for five generations, “[t]he FTs sometimes identify as foreigners even those who can prove their citizenship. . . . The village head and witnesses are made to sign documents in English, which they cannot read. The very people who vouch for someone’s citizenship are shown as witnesses against them.” (Id.) However, in spite of the alleged anti-Muslim bias in the NRC process and FT’s decisions, Bengali-speaking Hindus have also been classified as illegal immigrants and sent to one of Assam’s six overcrowded detention camps, which are located in prison compounds. (India Assam: ‘I Won’t Die Before I Prove My Indian Citizenship,’ BBC NEWS (Sept. 3, 2018).)

Even if those tagged as illegal citizens by the FTs lose their appeals, it is unclear as to what will happen to them, as Bangladesh denies the illegal presence of its citizens in India and has no official treaty with India with regard to cross-border illegal immigration, thus making deportations impossible. (Bordoloi & Gani, supra; India Assam, supra.) The federal government is reportedly considering several possible solutions, including classifying the illegals as “stateless” and settling them in other states “in a phased manner, but without the right to vote or buy property”; granting them citizenship after several decades; and issuing “long-term working visas” to them, all of which leaves open the questions of whether those declared to be immigrants could access government healthcare and send their children to public schools, and whether the more outspoken Assamese organizations would accept such solutions. (Bordoloi & Gani, supra.)

Tripura’s Future

Because of the startling demographic changes in Tripura, every regional party there is now demanding that a separate state for the indigenous people be formed from the tribal districts. Pradyot Debbarman evidently does not support this move, believing that “[i]mplementing the NRC in Tripura will immediately dilute the demand for a separate state” and be a means of redressing the loss of indigenous land and rights and countering the threat to the tribals’ culture and very existence. (Guha, supra.) So, Debbarman has filed his Supreme Court petition, challenging the government to “tell us clearly if there are two sets of laws. One for the rest of the country and one for us.” (Id.)