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Assam NRC – a state sponsored identity crisis or a zero sum game

M M Ali
The deadline for publication of the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) scheduled for July 31 has been delayed by a month till August 31, but uncertainty prevails over the fate of those who would remain out of the list and eventually declared foreigners.
Scores of people among those 40 lakh excluded from NRC had already committed suicide while political rhetoric hurling abusive words and threat calls of deportation continues amidst demand by a section of ruling elite to introduce the NRC process in various provinces particularly those in the bordering area.
Supreme Court of India (SCI) considering these people as security threat is also putting pressure on the government for engagement with Bangladesh regarding their deportation, while in case of Chakmas and Hajongs the Indian government granted nationality under SCI directives.
‘People are losing their patience over the NRC. All these reports suggesting suicide due to NRC are not only tragic but very disturbing as well,’ wrote the Wire on October 27 last year.
Question arises why the union government of India spent billions of rupees and intends to spend even more in the days to come for identity verification of people, where the GDP is far below the national average. Indian investments in security measures such as the NRC as against infrastructure development, trade and business and above all the well-being of the people also needs to be assessed in the region that experienced cycles of insurgencies and is connected to the main land only through the narrow stretch of Shiliguri corridor.
Silence of the Indian establishment over increasing suicide rates in the area coinciding with the NRC process will bring forth the question to what extent the executive, administration and judiciary of India contributed in spreading fear, anxiety, trauma, humiliation and intimidation among a section of people in Assam?
Are they the victims of state terrorism or they preferred deathas a protest over ignominious life? Does it expose a state failure of worst kind or will it take some other course may be seen in the days to come?
National Register of Citizens (NRC)
The NRC prepared at a cost of over Rs. 12 billion will now cause further expenses on tax payers’ money for setting up hundreds of Foreigners Tribunals to hear the grievances of those left out of the list and house those who would finally fail to fulfill the required criteria, according to Indian media.
The draft NRC published on July 30 last year contained 28,963,877 names and left out over 4 million people as ineligible for inclusion. The preparation of the list was undertaken in 2013 on the Supreme Court’s orders, with the objective of identifying and deporting illegal immigrants.
The Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India under the Union Home Ministry, published the final draft list of the NRC on July 30, 2018 to segregate Indian citizens living in Assam from those who had illegally entered the state, with a cutoff date on March 24, 1971, one day ahead of the crackdown of Pakistani army on the unarmed population of Bangladesh.
The biggest ever citizenship drive
The NRC first made in 1951, is now being updated since 2014, is in progress only in Assam that borders with Bangladesh. Assam and its adjoining six other provinces – Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh – are connected to main land India through a narrow 22 km strip of land known as the Shiliguri corridor, or the chicken’s neck. Nepal and Bangladesh are located on either side of the corridor.
The citizenship drive in Assam, the biggest of its kind in India, and perhaps the world has ‘brought to the fore some of Assam’s deepest social divides—exacerbated by the religious rhetoric of the current Hindu majoritarian ruling party,’ wrote the Time on Aug 14, 2018.
The NRC did not provide a demographic breakdown, but within a week, it was clear that most of those excluded were Bengali-speakers, both Hindus and Muslims. The Indian Minister for Home Affairs said people would be able to appeal their exclusion. No one would be subject to punitive action, detention or deportation, he added — at least not yet.
Conceived of by other parties, but now led by the ruling Hindu nationalist BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP), the update of the citizens list is an attempt to detect undocumented immigrants.
Other countries’ attempts to redefine what constitutes nationhood have created controversy. When the Dominican Republic in 2013 retroactively stripped 200,000 persons of Haitian descent of their Dominican nationality, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said it was arbitrary and in violation of international treaties to target persons of a certain descent and make the migratory status of parents a condition for nationality.
State sponsored anti-immigrant riots
Borders in this region were drawn and redrawn over a century, creating and recreating newer alignments. In the first instance East Bengal and Assam merged into a single administrative unit in 1905 only to be split again after six years. East Bengal returned to Bengal while Assam with present day six other north eastern states of India and Sylhet constituted Assam province. Later East Bengal and north western part of the sub-continent together emerged as Pakistan in 1947 with the end of British colonial rule. During this time Sylhet, a part of Bengal amalgamated with Assam since 1874 joined East Bengal through a referendum, though a sizeable portion of its territory was given away to Assam.
Study on partition of Assam that received little attention compared to the partition of Bengal and Punjab in 1947 will be relevant for an understanding of the ongoing NRC process in the state, under supervision of the SCI.
Time pointed out : ‘Riots and state-run anti-immigration programs by various parties, including the Indian National Congress, have often targeted Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus who have lived in the region for generations..
‘Violence reached its peak during a six-year anti-outsider agitation in the ‘80s, known as the Nellie Massacre. Machete-wielding Assamese youth killed 2,191 “suspected immigrants”—all descendants of migrated Bengali Muslims—in one February morning.
Incidents of many such violent riots may be traced from the pages of Assam’s history – soon after the food deficit province with jungles infested by wild animals was turned into the bread basket by immigrant Bengali Muslims from East Bengal in the early 20th century.
When, why and how these Bengalis came to a region with largely Bodo tribes and Assamese-speakers? When, why and how the Assamese and Bengali relations went sour?
Did their clash over control of resources, take shape of cultural and linguistic primacy?
A zero sum game
The process of proving legacy has not been simple for many people. Paperwork was not a prevalent practice in the relevant time-frame, a factor that is common among landless, remote tribal, and poor individuals and communities. Environmental hazards like – floods, soil erosion, earthquake etc. – present another dimension to lose their documentation.
Households had to trace their ancestors, find paperwork linking them, and submit intricate family trees listing siblings and grandchildren over four generations. NRC officials conducted more than 900,000 hearings with large families to identify, and thus verify, each other as descendants of the same ancestor.
This register has polarized debate in Assam state and across the country. But few questions have been asked about the fundamental idea of stripping the nationality of a people half a century after they laid roots in India, and of generations who have spent their entire lives there.
Fear of Muslim population
According to the Time, there has been a ‘palpable alarm about the growing Muslim population—rising from 28 to 34 percent of the state population from 1991 to 2011, according to the last census.’
Why the increase in Muslim population is assumed to be the result of illegal immigration from Bangladesh?
Did the NRC emerge only from fears of local Assamese, that changing demographics would make them and their language a minority in Assam or was there something more to it?
Why the cultural identity of the Assamese is being so strictly scrutinized through ancestry, requiring legacy, i.e. residence permit, or linkage to someone who was part of the 1951 NRC, or any electoral rolls until March 24, 1971?
Did Bengali Muslims identify themselves as Asamiya-speakers and help the ‘indigenous’ Asamiyas to extend their hegemony over the population, both tribal and settled?
Did the Muslims of East Bengal descent, tired of the long years of insecurity, decide to report themselves in the census as Bengali-speakers rather than Asamiya-speakers?
How true is the claim of a threatening, and continuing influx since Independence, and more particularly since the all-important cut-off year of 1971?
Is Muslim migration as massive?
What was Assam’s economic status prior to the arrival of migrant workers?
With intensified propaganda centering identity crisis are not Indian ruling elite resurrecting old tensions and distrust? A glimpse of it is given below:
‘We are not prepared to go to Bengal because we have an affinity with the Muslims of the Assam Valley; these people cannot live in a hopelessly microscopic minority,’ said Munawwar Ali while opposing for transfer of Sylhet to Bengal in the Assam Legislative Council in 1928.
The statement recorded in the proceedings of the Assam Legislative Council almost a hundred years ago brings into light that migration of people was not linked to 1947 or 1971. Amidst the religious and ethnic divide of the people of Assam, Ali was elected for the first time, at that time called, Assam Legislative Council after Assam became a Governors province under the Government of India Act 1919.
[Mizan Ali is a Dhaka-based freelance journalist]

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