CHIRANG, Assam — When the first round of Assam's updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published on 30 July 2018, 40 lakh residents of the state were left off the rolls.
It was a time of great kheli-meli, of confusion. What would happen to those left out? The air was rife with rumours of mass deportations to the Bangladesh border, detention camps and worse.
There is still a great deal of uncertainty over what will come to pass.
Now is the time for appeals and objections: A 60 day window has opened for those left out, to make one last effort to be included on the rolls.
On 17 September, the Supreme Court considered the possibility that those left out of the updated NRC could be allowed to produce additional documents to prove that they were legitimate residents of Assam, and as a corollary, legitimate citizens of India.
The court had its reservations: the original standard operating procedure did not allow for this submission of fresh documents. Allowing people to produce fresh documents, the honourable judges felt, would mean that the whole process of the NRC would have to be repeated from scratch—albeit for a smaller set of people.
But putting 40 lakh people in legal limbo is no joke, even here in Assam.
So, given the magnitude of the crisis, the Supreme Court relented: Fresh documents could be submitted, for now, up until the next court date on October 23.
October 23 came and went, the court gave a fresh date — November 1.
Only the court knows what will happen on November 1. Till then, best to get your documents in order.
This new, abbreviated list of allowed documents show a pronounced bias towards those who own land, have the means to acquire a passport or a life insurance policy, or are fortunate enough to have a government job.
For those less fortunate, the new list has triggered off another mad dash for documents they never thought to collect. It has always been very difficult for anyone to get documents out of Assam's bureaucracy in the best of times. In these dark times, a ray of hope appears in the form of women like Shaher Banu, who have been blessed with a gift for paperwork.
The Angel of Paperwork
Yet sometimes, even having someone like Shaher Banu around does not help.
Subhas Upadhyaya, who found his name omitted from the 30 July list, even as his four sisters were included, said the NRC office in his area was particularly inefficient. He went to the offices several times and met many officials and insists he has all the necessary paperwork. He went for five hearings as well, but all that work has come to nought.
"You see, I enjoy a good argument," Upadhyaya said. "But to have an argument, there needs to be a ground of logic. With the NRC, it is not about logic, it's about emotion. And that is the problem."
Myth of efficiency
Till recently, no one held any illusions about Assam's bureaucracy—babus are babus. But since the NRC process began, public intellectuals and the press have taken to the mythical figure of the efficient, hardworking bureaucrat who works night and day, through over-time and public holidays, to process the stacks and stacks and stacks of documents demanded by the NRC process.
In opinion sections of the press, this myth has spawned a set of lesser legends—that of a transparent, corruption-free, NRC process, and of the unreliable 'illegal migrant' applicant being given a "second chance". Those excluded, this reasoning goes, have been left out due to their own shortcomings.
Meanwhile, the hope that being included in the NRC would finally dispel the prejudice of being labelled 'Bangladeshi' is fast receding. Already, there are murmurs that too many illegal migrants have found a place in the rolls. If you want to register a complaint against a name in the NRC draft, you can do that as well — this is, after all, the season of appeals and obections.
Read the rest of Parismita Singh's illustrated dispatches on the NRC: