GUWAHATI, Assam – On 6 September, a writ petition for inclusion in the final National Register of Citizens, filed by Anupam Mukherjee, a logistics operator in a private company, was dismissed by the Gauhati High Court as ‘infructuous’ or unnecessary.
Carried out over five years since 2015, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was conducted under the close supervision of the Supreme Court bench of Justice RF Nariman and the former Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi. After several rounds of verification, the list meant to identify bonafide Indian citizens excluded 19.2 lakh applicants.
Mukherjee holds an Indian passport, but his name is out of the NRC in Assam. In his petition, he had prayed for inclusion in the NRC as he was yet to receive any ‘speaking order’ for his exclusion.
A ‘speaking order’ or rejection slip from the NRC authorities, which provides the reasons for a person’s exclusion from the list, is necessary to file an appeal before a quasi-judicial court called the Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) that has been ruling on citizenship in Assam since 1964. In the two years since the NRC was published, the rejection slips based on which appeals were needed to be filed in 120 days before an FT were yet to be issued to the 19.2 lakh excluded residents, leaving them in a state of limbo.
The petition filed by Mukherjee is the only one that the Gauhati High Court (GHC) has so far heard for issuing the speaking order so their name can be included in the final NRC list. Mukherjee had argued that his non-inclusion in the absence of any communication of a ‘reasoned order’ was ‘illegal’. Mukherjee also said that he has not been able to get an Aadhar card because his biometrics have been locked with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), as a part of the Standing Operating Procedure of the NRC.
In its order, which came out on 10 September, the High Court said that ‘both parties’ admitted that ‘only a draft National Register of Citizens is available and the same was published on 31.08.2019’. Further, the court noted that the ‘concerned authority’ responsible for issuing the Aadhaar card was not made a party in the present proceeding. However, Mukherjee’s petition categorically argues against his exclusion from the ‘final’ NRC.
Calling the order “disappointing,” Mukherjee said that he never agreed that the NRC was a draft list. Moreover, he asked that if the 2019 NRC was still a draft list, then why is there no verification being done?
“I read somewhere that neither the NRC nor the Aadhar card can confer citizenship. So, why is my biometric data locked?” he told us. “What about my fundamental rights?”
The court’s dismissal of his petition on 6 September filled Mukherjee with the same dread that he felt the day he found his name was rejected in the NRC published online.
“My hands and legs were shaking with my phone in one hand and the NRC form in the other,” Mukherjee said. “The news had disturbed me so much that I ended up dropping the form in the garbage bag that was collected that day. I couldn’t eat or drink or go to my office.”
The next day at work, everyone was talking about their names in the NRC. Embarrassed, he told them that his name, too, was on the list.
Passport, but no Aadhar
Mukherjee became a casualty of a downsizing operation in his company, where he worked as a logistics operator for two years until the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year. He frantically started applying for jobs everywhere but the offers were retracted the moment he shared the disclaimer that has become the bane of his existence.
Mukherjee doesn’t have an Aadhaar card.
Not having an Aadhaar card comes as a surprise to most employers, but the biometrics of over 27 lakh persons in Assam have been locked with the UIDAI. Even those who made it to the final list are reportedly facing the same issue since they went through the claims and objections that NRC authorities adjudicated. Those who did not make it to the final ‘draft’ list had to prove their legacy and linkage to ancestors living in Assam prior to March 25, 1971. Reportedly, 2.5 lakh people in the draft list had to show their documents due to the objections (without reason) filed against their names in the list.
Worse, Mukherjee’s savings are also locked in a provident fund that is beyond his reach since KYC seeding with Aadhaar, PAN and bank account number is mandatory, a reply to his Right to Information (Act, 2005) request to the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation noted. For almost a year, he and his wife struggled to survive with the savings left in his bank account until he finally got a job this March.
“I told them upfront that I don’t have an Aadhaar but it’s in the process of getting made,” he told us.
Without an Aadhaar card, he had no choice but to accept the salary cut and continues to be on probation for almost six months since he started working in a private company in March.
Mukherjee has been fielding emails and calls from the Human Resources department to submit his Aadhaar every month.
“I kept putting them off until July when I told them about the petition I filed in the High Court explaining that my Aadhaar was delayed because of the NRC process,” he told us. “But the headquarter office in Gujarat can’t fully comprehend what is the link between Aadhaar and the NRC.”
Anupam married Sutapa Roy just two weeks before the NRC was published in August 2019. From that day on, they’ve barely had any peace of mind as they anxiously awaited the rejection slip, living on minimal savings after the loss of his job and running around for an Aadhaar card. Their plans to start a family have been on hold.
Sutapa Mukherjee echoes bewilderment, unable to understand why the NRC in Assam should affect his ability to get an Aadhaar card when he has a passport.
“We could not even avail any of the government schemes during the pandemic because either they ask for ration or Aadhaar card,” she said. “Thankfully, the government did not make it mandatory to get the COVID vaccine.”
Despite submitting his mother’s school certificate from 1965 and later, his grandfather’s land deed, Mukherjee was the only member in his family who didn’t make it to the ‘final list’. Earlier that year, his biometrics were taken by a volunteer at the NRC Seva Kendra in Noonmati during the claims and objection round.
“The person who took my biometrics told me that this wasn’t for Aadhaar but NRC only,” Mukherjee told us. “I was told that I will need to separately apply for Aadhaar.”
Since then, each of the four times that he applied for Aadhaar, including once in Kolkata, the application was rejected on grounds of ‘duplication’. “In fact, they didn’t even take my biometrics on the day when I went to present my claim since the queue was very long,” he said.
Looking back now, Mukherjee regrets the diligence with which he made several visits to the NSK in Noonmati to get his biometrics registered. “I didn’t want to risk being excluded from the NRC,” he added.
A month earlier, the BJP government in the Centre and Assam had moved the Supreme Court for 20% re-verification in border districts and 10% in the interiors. The court dismissed the petition banking on a July 18 report submitted by Prateek Hajela, the NRC coordinator who conducted the exercise, which reportedly said that 27% re-verification had been done.
Since Hitesh Dev Sarma took over as the NRC Coordinator, after Hajela was transferred out, he has blamed the pandemic, then the floods in Assam last year, as reasons for the delay in issuing rejection slips.
However, in December 2020, Sarma told the GHC that the 2019 NRC was not final as he claimed to have found 4,795 ineligible names in the list, including doubtful voters, declared foreigners, and those with the trial pending in the FT. In his 148 page affidavit, he said that ‘the Registrar General of India (RGI) is silent on the publication of the final NRC, for which it is the only authority to take action, and till date, the final NRC is yet to be published…’.
Earlier this year in March, the Office of the RGI responded to the Secretary to the Government of Assam on the requirement of funds for ‘survival of NRC updation project in the State of Assam after 31 March 2021’. The RGI notified the government of the decision taken in a February 22 meeting chaired by the Union Home Secretary to immediately issue rejection slips for the correct cases. The cases, where there was a mismatch, would be referred to the concerned Deputy Commissioner. Moreover, the letter said, ‘the time and cost of completing the pending work and winding up the project has also not been explained in the proposal’.
But later in May, Sarma moved the Supreme Court seeking re-verification saying that 50,000 people who were eligible had not made it to the register, alleging that the family tree matching process during the field verification process was not done diligently.
With a batch of petitions asking for reverification of the NRC pending in the Supreme Court, which last heard the matter in January 2020, the biometric data of applicants like Mukherjee is stuck in limbo.
Before the final NRC was published, the Assam government reportedly started building a real-time biometric database or an e-foreigners’ tribunal for ‘suspected illegal foreigners’ to ensure that they aren’t issued government-approved identity cards.
Is the 2019 list the final NRC?
Before approaching the High Court, Mukherjee had knocked on every door from the NRC, UIDAI, RGI as well as the Home and Political department in Assam.
A letter dated February 20 issued by the Political department said that since the process of issuance of Aadhaar in Assam is not yet complete, his application for ‘jobs, banking services etc. may be considered based on documents other than AADHAAR’. On March 9, the Office of the RGI replied to him stating, ‘Only on publication of final NRC, for such persons who are included in the NRC, they would be given the usual Aadhaar number as applicable to legal residents in the country’.
Since the publishing of the NRC, the citizenship law was amended with the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 enabling fast-track citizenship to non-Muslims that have been residing in India before December 2014. A significant population of the 19.2 lakh excluded from the NRC in Assam is speculated to be eligible for citizenship under the CAA.
Subhash Chandra Keyal, the former Assistant Solicitor General of India for the State of Assam, told us that the CAA and NRC were separate issues and cannot be linked, especially since the rules are yet to be framed for the former.
“Regarding the NRC, the government is not going to accept it. That is what I’ve gathered,” he said. “No one is doing anything about the NRC”
However, lawyers that we spoke to contend that the published NRC is the final one, as the Supreme Court had acknowledged in an order dated August 13, 2019.
“Legally, there’s no doubt that this is meant to be the final NRC after an interim one was published in 2018. The whole point of it being judicially supervised is precisely that once you have it, it is the legitimate final list,” said Gautam Bhatia, a constitutional law expert.
Bhatia told us that the NRC may be politically open and could commence all over again depending on the Supreme Court. “But given that the bench had put their seal, it is the final NRC.”
However, he added, that the entire process itself hasn’t been strictly legal but politicized throughout. “The Supreme Court NRC judgment in 2014 itself became political when it started with the line that a prophet is without honour in his own country.”
For Mukherjee, the GHC was his last hope to resolve the limbo in his NRC status and the verdict had left him disappointed in a way that they did not look into his ‘plight’. Save a few colleagues, he hasn’t told the company officials that his name is not in the NRC because of the social stigma around it.
“It’s humiliating to admit in front of people that my name is not in the NRC. A colleague of mine sometimes says, tum toh Bangladeshi hai saala (You are a Bangladeshi),” he said.“He says it jokingly but it still hurts.”
Mukherjee said that even if the NRC excluded him, he should have been given the legal recourse to appeal his case. Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s defense of the CAA, which reignited ‘anti-foreigner’ protests in Assam, had also reassured him. However, he added, it wouldn’t be applicable to him since he anyway had pre-1971 documents.
“But after knocking on so many doors, the government seems to be indifferent to my problems,” he said.
Acutely aware that even some of those who made it to the ‘final’ NRC are deprived of Aadhaar benefits, like one of his office colleagues, Mukherjee agrees that biometrics should have been kept out of the purview of the exercise. Two days ago, he joined 98 people in a Whatsapp group named ‘We Want Aadhaar’.
“One of my Assamese friends, also, did not make it to the final list but luckily got his Aadhaar made before,” he said.
Mukherjee lives with this regret and dreads the next call or email from HR.