Editor’s note: This is the third article in a multi-part special series done by Firstpost where we document several problems of illegal immigration and ethnic turmoil that authorities in Assam face.
The publication of the partial draft of the updated National Register of Citizens in Assam scheduled for 31 December is likely to bring the issue of deletion of names of foreigners’ from the electoral rolls to the centre stage in the state. Latest political developments over the process of updating the NRC indicate that the state is likely to witness a flurry of political activities over the filing of claims and objections during the summary revision of electoral rolls in the month of December 2017 and in January next year following publication of the partial draft of the NRC. Ensuing panchayat polls in the state, which are likely to be held in January-February, next year are also expected to spur such intensified political activities as political parties and groups are likely to raise the demand for electoral rolls free from foreigners’ names for conducting the panchayat polls.
The draft electoral roll for 2018 in respect of Assam, with 1 January 2018 as the qualifying date, was published on 16 October. The process of the Special Summary Revision of the electoral roll, 2018 has already started in the state and the Election Commission has notified 12 January 2018 as the date for publication of the final electoral roll, 2018.
The office of the State Coordinator, NRC, Assam, on the other hand, has issued a public announcement leaflet stating that those applicants whose names are not included in the draft NRC will have a further opportunity for a period of 30 days after publication (i.e. till 30 January 2018) to submit claims for inclusion of their names in prescribed format along with necessary documents. There will also be a provision for filing objections, the leaflet adds.
In accordance with the schedules for special summary revision of the electoral roll, 2018 notified by the Election Commission in respect of Assam, the period for filing claims and objections was fixed from 16 October till 15 November. The commission has fixed 15 December for disposal of claims and objections. As both the processes will precede the partial publication of the NRC draft and the last date for filing claims and objections in respect of the names included or excluded in the draft NRC, there will be no scope for filing claims and objections on the basis of the names included or excluded in the NRC unless the Election Commission decides to extend these dates.
A person who is not a citizen of India cannot be registered as a voter. Article 326 of the Constitution read with Section 16 of Representation of the People Act, 1950 clarify the point, says the Election Commission. The leaflet issued by the office of the State Coordinator, NRC categorically states that only Indian citizens will be included in the NRC update process with 24 March ( midnight), 1971 as the cut-off date in accordance with the provisions of the Assam Accord. It was the demand for an electoral roll free from foreigners’ name that formed the crux of the six-year-long Assam agitation demanding detection, deletion of names and expulsion of illegal migrants from the state which was spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union and the erstwhile All Asam Gana Sangram Parishad that culminated in signing of the Assam Accord in 1985.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has decided to contest the panchayat polls alone to test the waters ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha polls if the party is capable of registering an electoral victory on its own. In 2016, the BJP came to power in the state for the first time riding piggyback on the regional parties. The saffron party has, however, decided to dump its two coalition partners — Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People’s Front in the ensuing panchayat polls. State Election Commission, which conducts the panchayat polls has indicated that polls to the three-tier Panchayati Raj institutions are likely to be held post-Magh Bihu (post-harvest festival in Assam which is celebrated in mid-January).
This means, the electioneering for panchayat polls, if poll schedules planned by the SEC holds as indicated, will coincide with the publication of the final electoral rolls, 2018 and filing of claims and objections in respect of the draft NRC to be published on 31 December. There is every likelihood that the issues such the vexed foreigners’ issue, preparation of an error-free NRC, deletion of names of foreigners from voters’ lists and detection and expulsion of those whose names are excluded in the final NRC may overshadow other issues such as development issues which normally dominate electioneering in panchayat polls. Spin doctors in BJP hopes that such political issues might help it overcome any anti-incumbency that may have set in with opposition parties running the campaign that developments have taken a back seat, roads and highways are in dilapidated condition and the BJP-led coalition government headed by Sarbananda Sonowal has failed to curb rise in prices of essential commodities in the state.
Speculations are rife in political circles if the BJP wanted the publication of the NRC draft to precede the panchayat polls so that development issues get overshadowed by vexed foreigners’ issue. The Supreme Court, while hearing a writ petition by Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha, stated in its order on 13 July 2017 that State Coordinator, NRC, Prateek Hajela “though had submitted before the Court at one point of time that the date of publication of the draft NRC would be sometime around 31st March, 2018 has now stated in his report to the Court that the draft NRC will be published on 31st December, 2017.” The division bench of the apex court comprising Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman further stated in the order: “We wonder whether the stand taken by the learned State Coordinator is pursuant to the statement made by the Hon’ble Chief Minister of the State of Assam that the draft NRC would be published on or before 31st December, 2017. We do not appreciate why any other authority is intervening in the matter of preparation and publication of the draft NRC when this Court has been in seisin of the matter for a fairly long time and has been monitoring the process” and directed the all budgetary revisions as stated in the report of the State Coordinator, NRC to be approved and implemented and requisite funds made available so that the process of publication of the draft NRC is completed on or before 31st, December, 2017.
The NRC issue appears to be a double-edged sword for the Sonowal government as all eyes will now be on how it handles the political developments post publication of the final electoral roll, 2018 and the draft NRC. For, the draft NRC and the final electoral roll, 2018 will keep Assam’s political pot boiling.
The author is a senior journalist and editor of NEZINE.