Assam is in turmoil. An ostensible exercise to detect foreigners in Assam through the updation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has resulted in endless agony, resentment and uncertainty. Thousands of families have been split. Many who lived in Assam for decades are now not citizens of the country though they voted in numerous elections, held jobs and contributed to the local economy. Nineteen lakh people suddenly had no identity. The NRC list claims to have names of people who moved into Assam before 24th March, 1971. The date is significant as it was a day before Bangladesh was born breaking away from West Pakistan.
Many in the list could be Bangladeshis who crossed over many years ago trying to build a life as there was so little that their country promised in terms of education, job and prosperity. But many of them have been in government jobs all these years, some even in the armed forces who fought wars for India. One of them was Mohammed Sanaullah, a decorated army veteran. He spent 11 days in a detention camp set up to house foreigners.
Clearly, it was a case of careless misrepresentation, manipulation of records on and the shoddy way in which the register was drawn. Charges were flying of how there was a witch hunt against minorities in the north-eastern state.
The NRC in Assam ended up creating new faultiness as so many have been excluded despite having proof in terms of documentation that they were Indian citizens. Insecurity and uncertainty hangs in the air as families struggle to deal with a new reality. The fear is that the new list will whip up more xenophobia leading to clashes, riots and killings.
However, one cannot ignore narrow political interests which in the last seven decades encouraged cross border migration mainly from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal. These illegal migrants swelled to become a vote bank and saw numerous governments come and change. In fact, early Congress governments in the state wilfully kept the Assam border porous so that poor migrants from Bangladesh could come in as the state badly needed labourers. The Assamese were not ready to work as labourers in the tea gardens, mines, fields and do menial jobs.
As the situation in Bangladesh was pathetic many chose to cross the border hoping for a better life. As their numbers swelled it gave rise to the Assam agitation where the prime demand was to remove the foreigners and ensure that sons of the soil got their due in terms of facilities and jobs. It was spearheaded by students of the All Assam Students Union led by Praful Kumar Mahanta and Bhirgu Phukhan. The Assam agitation ran on the premise that the state was being overrun by illegal migrants from erstwhile East Pakistan and later Bangladesh disturbing the state's demography.
The six year agitation claimed so many lives and whipped up communal tension as we saw in Nellie where even children were hacked to death. Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister managed to bring in some peace with the 1985 Assam Accord which promised that the NRC version of 1951 would be revised.
With the BJP riding into power for the first time in Assam, one of the first things they wanted to do was to drive out Muslim migrants who had come from erstwhile East Pakistan or later, Bangladesh. A large number of names are from areas which have a Muslim population. This has triggered charges that it is being deliberately done to change the demography of the state.
Well-known film critic Ajit Duara who was originally a resident in Assam, told Indian Currents: “Being a part of the north-east, Assam is an area of multiple ethnic identities. Even within Assam itself there are hill tribes and caste Hindus, tea garden workers and Ahoms. There has been a history of language riots as well. In this sense NRC is a powder keg, because every individual who is not in the list is now identified and so is vulnerable to ostracism, or worse.”
This is one defining fear that is dominating the Assam landscape today. There is fear of discrimination, communal cleansing and riots. And, being relegated to detention camps specially set up for those who are not on the list.
R. Jagannathan, a leading business journalist and commentator who is also the editorial director of Swarajya magazine, says that most migrants in India are here because the country's economy needs them in some way. "Migrants play an important role in any capitalist economy for they are willing to do what other citizens are not. Or, at any rate, are willing to work for wages that employers find viable," he feels.
To the embarrassment of the ruling party in Assam, the final list has even Bengali Hindus, Nepalis and some tribals from the state. It will be interesting to see how the government now tries to get these back in the list. Obviously, we have not heard the last of the NRC. BJP leaders are now openly attacking the very NRC they supported earlier.
Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal has said that he would explore legislative measures to rectify mistakes in the NRC. A lot of BJP leaders and activists are ironically upset at the results that the NRC has thrown up as they expected larger numbers who would be excluded. In July 2018, when the final draft of the NRC was published, BJP leaders charged that lakhs of Bangladeshis have been included in the list instead of excluding them. Ostensibly, the NRC was to help identify and weed out illegal immigrants from citizenship rolls.
As the whole issue is now unwieldy, chief minister Sonowal is saying that exclusion of names does not mean that the person has become a foreigner as the ultimate decision has to be taken by a tribunal that would follow a legal process. No immediate deportation or curtailing of political rights will happen, he said.
The BJP has realised that among those excluded are a huge number of Hindu Bengalis and not want that to affect their vote base. The right wing logic that wanted the NRC now finds itself checkmated.
As many as 3.29 crore people applied to be considered worthy of being included in the NRC. Of them, less than six per cent have now discovered that they are not Indian citizens. Many of them have seen their family members included and wonder if they are foreigners, how come others in the family made it to the register.
The ironies are all over. Some children have been included while their parents’ names are missing. In other cases, the parents are in and the children’s names are missing. All this after employing over 62,000 workers and spending Rs. 1,100 crore on this exercise. The next three months are going to be crucial as those excluded from the list can appeal before the Foreigners Tribunal. It is likely that the deadline will be extended as authorities have the humungous job of issuing certificates citing reasons to all those who have been excluded.
Imagine 19 lakh people filing cases in India’s overburdened courts where litigants wait for decades to get justice. BBC said that journalist Rohini Mohan who analysed more than 500 judgments by special courts set up to detect foreigners in Assam had found 82 per cent of people on trial declared as foreigners. Shockingly, 78 per cent of the orders were delivered without the accused being heard, the BBC said.
As numerous answers to questions in parliament about the presence of illegal migrants show, there have been various figures given without any backing. They have also been retracted. One of them was when former home minister Sriprakash Jaiswal in July 2004 said that there were 50 lakh illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam. Soon after, the statement was retracted as it was not based on any study but was hearsay!
Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President, has written in his autobiography how Assam had huge tracts of land which was not cultivated and just lying there even though there was enough water. Muslims from Mymensingh in undivided Bengal therefore came in large numbers and started cultivating it and in course of time, it became their land. They came to Assam as Mymensingh was very thickly populated and it was much easier to make a living in a sparsely populated area where the soil was fertile and farming was easy. Similarly, a lot of Biharis from Chapra who were farm labourers started cultivating the land that was unclaimed and later it became their land. Prasad had made these observations way back in the mid-1920s. So, the matter is not as simple as it seems. It is quite complicated and there are no easy solutions.
It is not just enterprising hardworking Muslims who came in to till the land. Bengalis were as enterprising and hardworking as they worked on the land and eventually made Assam their home. In fact, the Bengalis started coming in the mid-19th century to till the fertile land and convert huge tracts into farms. The Assamese also could have done it but did not and even in areas they populated, they got migrant Bengalis and Biharis to work in their fields.
The inherent flaws of the NRC should now become an opportunity for the government to wear a different lens. Instead of selectively targeting communities to label them stateless for political gains, it should instead go about creating a system of issuing work permits to those from other countries and ensure that they do not bribe officials to get themselves into Indian record systems. The government needs to ensure that international borders are not porous. Strong checks should be there on those manning the borders do not take bribes to let illegal migrants in. The larger idea is to allow migrants to work and not vote so that they do not later on dictate what suits them or change the demography. If that is done, a lot of present xenophobia would die down as it would take off the fear that the ethnic population would be marginalised.
All over the world, migrants have actually helped societies evolve and prosper holistically as they contributed to boosting the economy and also giving the place they live in a diverse rich culture where tolerance and accommodation were the rules of the game. There are enough examples that eloquently demonstrate that. Let us not forget that over 180 million Indians today live and prosper in places where they were not born.
Even in India, people from one state have enriched the state they migrated. That has seen rich diversity progress along with the economy. Think of Gujaratis in Maharashtra, Marwaris in West Bengal, south Indians in north India, north-eastern tribals in Delhi and Bengaluru, Biharis in Mumbai and so on. Take them out of this scenario and see how society crumbles like a cookie. Think of the idea of India.
BJP leader and Home Minister Amit Shah compared migrants to termites. Even if this is his personal view, it is not okay for a country as diverse as India to have someone of his stature say something like this. Being a Gujarati, he should know how Gujaratis have prospered and enriched so many countries of the world with their entrepreneurship. They could do this only because they were accepted as immigrants. In a modern world, does it help to look inward or see a larger picture? If the NRC process is advanced to every Indian state as many right wingers want, it will lead to the kind of tragedy and chaos that we cannot even imagine today. We need to ask ourselves one moot question: What is the kind of India we want to leave behind for our children?(Published on 09th September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 37)