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Legalising Xenophobia In Assam

Legalising Xenophobia In Assam

In sixty days, or the end of September, some fear there could be as many stateless persons in just one Indian state, Assam, as are refugees from Syria in the whole of Europe and west Asia. September 28, 2018, is the deadline given by the government of Assam to the nearly 40 lakhs, or 4 million, people, mostly Bengali speaking, and among them, overwhelmingly Muslim, to prove they have third generation ancestors who were citizens of Assam. This will give them the right to live in the state as citizens, and not to be deported.

Deported where, is a question no one knows the answer.

Bangladesh, from which these people have allegedly migrated over the decades since that country’s formation in 1971, does not acknowledge parenthood. Despite years of rhetoric, the border remains porous – blamed as much on the riverine terrain where the waters of the mighty rivers Brahmaputra and the Ganges intermingle, as on corrupt border guards. And there never will be a wall such as the one US president Donald Trump wants to keep out Mexican illegal migrants.

The government has been quick to allay fears of large scale detention camps – which some in the opposition and in the minority communities have picturesquely conjectured as those built by the Nazis – the ugly and cruel fact is that several such camps exist. These are for people caught in earlier sorting of foreigners in the state, men separated from their wives, and children not knowing where their parents are held captive. Activist Harsh Mander examined some of these camps this year as an advisor to the National Human Rights commission, and resigned when his report on the reality was not found acceptable to the authorities.

A few Assam ministers have spoken words to calm passion.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, looking at a national alliance to challenge Mr Narendra Modi, the prime minister, in the general elections in 2019, has accused him and his party, the Bharatiya Janata party, of playing with communal fire. “What do they want? Do they want a civil war,” she asked in typical Mamata rhetoric on the side-lines of her address at the ironically titled “Love your neighbour” conclave organised by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India in Constitution club.

The Prime Minister has remained typically silent. He was grim faced during the Rajya Sabha debate. He left it to his party chief and lieutenant, Amit Shah, to venomously declare in the Rajya Sabha that the Modi government was ready to do what the Congress and other governments, presumably including the seven year one of Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, had been afraid to do – to throw out all alien intruders who posed a threat to national security.

The exercise of the Draft National Register of Citizenship is a consequence of the 1985 Assam accord signed between the Rajiv Gandhi government on the one hand and leaders of the All Assam Students Union and the Assam Gunasegaram Parishad on the other. The solitary opposition came from the Minority Students front, and they were silenced.

The AASU and AGP had led an often violent, always xenophobic agitation against “foreigners” in general and Bengali speaking people in particular. Initially, the movement was religion neutral, but it was a matter of time before the religious minority became the specific target. The Union Government's effort to hold a constitutionally mandated election to the state assembly in 1983 led to its near total boycott, a complete breakdown of order, and the worst killings since 1947 based on tribal linguistic and communal identities. Nearly 3,000 people died in state-wide violence.

AASU leader Prafulla Mahanta went on to become Chief minister of the government formed after the post-pact elections as the Congress did not put up much of a fight, and the BJP could be said to have supported the AASU cause. Bhrigu Pukhan, the deputy leader of the AASU, became state home minister. He died a few years later in a Delhi hospital of jaundice, but Mahanta, now in his late sixties, remains a politician, without his old hold over the Assamese people.

The slogan of demographic change, infiltrators and national security, when used together, are the dog whistle the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have used over the years to identify Muslims in general and specially Bengali-speaking Muslims, all of whom it claims have come in from Bangladesh. They, it says, have changed the political demography of Assam and Bengal, and of areas like Delhi which have large endemic Bengali speaking populations, where they are used as vote banks by the Congress and Mamata Banerjee.

Mr Shah in his parliamentary address did not explain how the BJP won in Assam despite such “hostile” voters. He did not have to. His party men, and the official spokespersons on television debates, have said the   catching of these 40 lakh foreigners has been to ensure national security. “Say you are against national security,” Mr Sambit Patra and other spokesman harangued their opponents. TV Anchors in Republic and other channels have posed the same question to everyone who has wondered about the methodology of the process through which people have been declared as non-citizens, or out of the National Register of Citizens.

Most BJP spokespersons and followers have gone a step further. They have said the exercise should be extended to every state, every “alien” detected, and thrown out. India needs to be cleansed, they have said.

Easier said than done.

The process is clumsy, the science behind it very suspect even if the entire exercise is being monitored by the supreme court of India. No one has been able to explain it to the satisfaction of the media, or of the common man. Apparently, a person must identify a forefather or mother who has incontrovertible proof, mostly by way of land records, that he   was a bonafide citizen of India. A virtual family tree is then constructed involving all his descendants. Each one of them is then asked to submit documents, which must all match. If they don’t, the person is kept out of the register. This can separate child from mother, sibling from sibling, and, often enough, a citizen father from children declared non-citizen. Among them are relatives of former President Fakrhruddin Ali Ahmed, the only President to come from the North East, and families of hundreds, if not thousands of soldiers in the military and paramilitary forces.

Congress politician and scholar from Assam, Rejaul Laskar explains the fears in a detailed statement to this correspondent: “Nobody is opposing NRC per se. The question is of the bias in its preparation. Applicants were segregated into two categories: "Original Inhabitants" and "Others", with those fortunate enough to be termed as "Original Inhabitant" were treated most leniently and included in the NRC Draft even if they were not able to produce any valid document whereas those who were not accepted as "Original Inhabitant" had to go through one of the most complicated and gruelling verification procedure including "family tree" verification process and many of them did not find their name even after submitting all the required documents. The most appalling aspect is that no objective criteria was laid down for determining who is "Original Inhabitant" and it was left to the personal discretion of the petty bureaucrats to decide who is "Original Inhabitant". Not a single Muslim was put in the "Original Inhabitant" category even though there are historical evidence that many Muslims were residing in Assam even seven centuries back. The Hajo Puwa Makka mosque near Guwahati itself is about five hundred year old. While titles given by Ahom Kings (like Bora and Saikia) were accepted as Assamese titles, titles given by Cachar Kings (like Laskar and Barbhuiya) were not accepted as Assamese titles even though present Assam includes the whole of Medieval Cachar Kingdom. To add insult to the injury, people's name were not included because some of the "linkage documents" to prove that they are the children/grandchildren of the person included in the legacy data released by NRC Authorities were sent to the issuing Authorities for verification and the issuing Authorities has not replied yet (interestingly more than one crore PAN cards has been sent to PAN Card issuing Authority for verification, my guess is they will take decades to verify all these). These and many other gross discriminatory and unreasonable procedure used to prepare the NRC is what is objectionable. Otherwise every caste and community in Assam accepts preparation of an NRC based on Assam Accord of 1985 based on a fair, impartial and transparent procedure.”

The final draft of NRC, with the names of all Indian citizens who have been residing in Assam before March 25, 1971, was released amid tight security. It   incorporated names of 2.89 crore people out of 3.29 crore applicants. Over 40.07 lakh people were not included and government did not comment on their citizenship status. 

Registrar General of India Sailesh said 2,89,83,677 people were found to be eligible for inclusion in the complete draft of the ambitious NRC out of a total 3,29,91,384 applicants. “This is a historic day for India and Assam. The exercise is unparalleled in the size. It is a legal process done under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court,” Sailesh was quoted saying at his press conference in Guwahati. He said, “The process for making claims and objections will begin on August 30 and continue till September 28. An adequate and ample scope will be given to people for making objections. No genuine Indian citizen should have any fear.”

NRC State Coordinator Prateek Hajela, when asked about the rationale of keeping so many out of the citizenship register, said, “We are not going to make the reasons public. It will be informed individually. They can find the reasons by visiting NRC Sewa Kendras (NSK).” He said people belonging to four categories were not included in the draft as their eligibility were put on hold by the Supreme Court. “These four categories are ‘D’ (doubtful) voters, descendants of ‘D’ voters, references pending at Foreigners Tribunals and descendants of the references pending at Foreigners Tribunals,” he said.  “No one will be sent to detention camps,” said Assam’s finance and health minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma. “Rights or privileges will not be taken away from them just because their names have not appeared in the draft NRC.”

The BJP now rules in Assam, its victory masterminded by former Congressmen, as it rules in Tripura, which became a Bengali majority state long after the partition.

The presence of Bengalis in Assam has always been an issue since the British first partitioned the gigantic Bengal into a Muslim dominated East and a Hindu majority West Bengal and Assam, and then carved out East Pakistan in 1947. The evacuation of millions of Hindu Bengalis during the 1971 war of liberation to Bengal, Assam and Tripura, and the massive influx of economic refugees from the nascent and struggling Bangladesh thereafter, added to the smouldering tinder.

Assam had barely reconciled before that to the hundreds of thousands of Santhal brought from what is now Jharkhand and adjoining parts of West Bengal to work in their tea estates, the first stateless people in India without any papers of Identity, their migrant history locked in the strong rooms of the tea companies in London.

Although the Supreme Court and the government have said the people, rendered citizenship-less, and therefore state-less in real terms, have several layers of review and appeal opportunities in the months’ time given to them, it is quite clear that if they have not been able to prove their right to citizenship in the first round, they will face mounting difficulty getting corroborating documents; especially so if they are poor, in remote rural areas, or socially discriminated for reasons of ethnicity, language, religion and poverty. The better-off will soon get the precious certificate, and not others. This is where the rub lies. 

Human rights activists find it very disturbing that governments and the ruling BJP party continue to call these people a security threat. How are poor – even if they are refugees or stateless – a security threat unless you are saying in a secret language that one linguistic or religious community, and perhaps a community which gets stigmatized for both religion and language, poses a security threat. That means stigmatising the Bengali speaking Muslims living at present in areas in Assam bordering West Bengal and Bangladesh and it has serious consequences.

It fits into the polarising platform which is becoming so apparent in the run up to the general elections. It cannot be condoned, or accepted.

Janata Dal (Secular) spokesperson Tanveer Ahmed said “The central government is troublingly and irresponsibly silent about what will happen to those who are ultimately unable to prove their citizenship. Will they be pushed into an unwilling Bangladesh, which will push them back, perhaps accompanied by state violence? Will they be detained indefinitely in concentration camp-like detention centres, with children separated from parents? Or will they continue to live without rights, as marked people in a hostile social and political environment?”

No one has an answer.

(Published on 06th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 32)