Assam’s NRC process mired in ad hocism and prejudice

Millions of people becoming stateless in their own land is totally unacceptable

By Sanjoy Hazarika
Published: Wednesday 01 August 2018
Assam NRC
We need to understand what could happen should radicalisation, born of prejudice and a sense of injustice, take root. Credit: Carol Mitchell / Flickr We need to understand what could happen should radicalisation, born of prejudice and a sense of injustice, take root. Credit: Carol Mitchell / Flickr

The first thing that strikes us about the numbers that have emerged from the protracted exercise, spread over several years and known simply by its acronym, NTRC or National Register of Citizens, is just the scale. Four million. This does not mean that all four million, as some mentioned on Twitter, are to be ‘deported’ to Bangladesh. Nothing of that sort is going to happen as it has not been proven that all of these are Bangladeshis. They just haven’t made the draft second list.

Let me give you a few examples: I am not on that list, neither is anyone from my immediate family, although, according to the family tree, our ancestors migrated to Assam in the 16th century from Kanauj in Uttar Pradesh. That is little further back in time than 1951 that the Assam government is insisting upon. We did not apply because the NRC exercise was limited to Assam and we do not live there, although my parents, my brother and I grew up in Shillong and have a home there. We also have a property in Assam valley.

Lakhs of Assamese, who live in other parts of India, are in the same situation because of the confounded approach of this exercise where those residing in the state were encouraged to apply. My cousin, her husband and daughter are not on the list; the little girl piped up the other evening, “Are we going to be sent to Bangladesh?” Their names were excluded from the list because of a spelling mismatch of the grandfather on the husband’s side. In addition, one of the state’s best-known novelists found that while she was on the first list, which was published at the end of December 2017, her sons and a daughter-in-law were not. That has since been remedied. I personally called the NRC coordinator to ask what kind of an exercise he was running when true-blooded Assamese, who were Indian citizens, were being left out.

This is not an exception. I am sure many lesser mortals have faced the same fate, those who have known no home apart from Assam. They have been given three months to resolve the problem. But it is the State and its minions who have made a mess; they should be bending over backward to fix it. At least a year’s time should be given to enable course correction.

Another crucial point needs to be made with regard to possible deportations to Bangladesh: this simply cannot happen. India has no deportation treaty in place with Dhaka. Deportation is not a unilateral process. There has to be acceptance of the deportees! But the media, in its hasty rush to judgement, has failed to research its facts.

That this could adversely impact relations with a friendly neighbour that the Narendra Modi government has been at pains to cultivate and placate is obvious. It would certainly provide major ammunition to opponents of the pro-Delhi regime of Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League in national elections there later this year, with accusations of her failing to speak up for and protect the rights of Muslims in India as she has done with the Rohingyas of Myanmar. That silence is seen as an outcome of her closeness to the BJP government. People in Dhaka speak of a growing fear that many would be pushed across the border into Bangladesh.

What happens now to the draft National Register of Citizens? It will undergo a further revision. Assam’s law minister told a BBC reporter that those who don’t make the cut would have to leave the state. But they can’t be deported to Bangladesh. So where would they go? There is absolutely no clarity on where they would go as few states barring West Bengal’s mercurial Mamata didi (Banerjee), have shown any interest in welcoming them. Actually, no state apart from West Bengal has even said anything about the need to resettle them.

Too many critical questions unanswered

New Delhi is absolutely silent about the disastrous spectacle of millions of people becoming stateless in their own land, a totally unacceptable condition. In a weak argument, Swarajya, the RSS mouthpiece, said that they could be sent to the hills and dry terrain of other states; but on what basis? Who would send them? Which state government would accept them amid local furore? Would panchayats issue documents of settlement? Will it not make them, although second class, citizens of another state? There are too many unanswered questions because the whole process is not coherently thought through. It is mired in ad hocism, prejudice and political profit. The poor and vulnerable, as always, are the worst sufferers. The affluent and connected will get out of the mess as they always do.

Other critical questions arise. What would, for example, happen to families in case parents (or a parent) are defined as foreign nationals? Where will they be kept? The thought of ripping children apart from parents is brutal. What would happen to lands they have cultivated for generations or for decades?

In geographies such as char lands (temporary islands) on the Brahmaputra River, many cultivators and settlers live without proper documentation. Again, that doesn’t make them illegal immigrants. They produce much of the vegetables and fish that are brought fresh to bustling urban and village markets. Their economy is market-driven, another source of competition and clash with local farmers whose production goals are subsistent.

When Narendra Modi declared in the run up to the elections of May 2014 that all Bangladeshis would have to pack up and go, it sent a chill through a highly sensitive state where communal anger has been steadily stoked and have burned for long. Thousands have died in riots and sweeping slaughters in Assam on religious and ethnic lines over the past 35 years. The younger generation has not seen what hatred and unbridled prejudice can do except in bits and bursts in the past decade or two.

But if we cast our minds back to the 1980s, and especially 1983, when not less than 3,000 persons were killed, mostly Muslims of Bangla origin who had lived in the Assam valley for generations and were not Bangladeshis by any stretch of the imagination, we would understand what harm and violence can overwhelm many pockets of our small and diverse state. That these killings took place during the midst of an anti-immigrant agitation that sought to detect and deport Bangladeshis is no coincidence. The atmosphere of fear and mistrust was such that little eruptions were taking place everywhere in February 1983. I witnessed some of this, which most pundits sitting in Delhi or Guwahati are clueless about.

Is there a plan for what lies ahead? 

We have seen that deportation is not possible. In the tumult that is growing, within and without the state and India, we are likely to lose sight of why the NRC process was launched—to prise out illegal immigrants who had come from Bangladesh after 1971.  This is a long-standing issue that goes back decades and is rooted in fear of the Assamese and other smaller ethnic groups of being overwhelmed by a changing demography. There is a prejudice that has grown toward the Muslims of Bangla origin as well as Hindus. The fact that immigration is happening, largely a labour flow, is undeniable. It is the scale which is disputed or even unknown. The NRC was supposed to fix it, but instead, it has thrown up a host of new, potentially irreconcilable issues. 

In my view, out-migration into Assam from Bangladesh has dropped extensively in the past decades as our neighbour’s economic conditions have improved significantly.

I have a deep sense of foreboding about the next years and this is not mitigated by reports of large spaces being acquired for detention camps. Hundreds who have not been able to prove their citizenship though other processes but are still fighting court cases remain incarcerated. There are multiple legal fronts: the Foreigners Tribunals which have been functioning since the 1980s and the D-voters (Doubtful) categorisation. The latter has been extremely arbitrary with people suspected to be of doubtful origin being taken off voters’ lists.

About 93,000 have been declared foreigners in over 30 years. Many of them, according to the police, are 'missing’.

The Supreme Court chose a role for itself as an oversight body in the NRC process. It is now embroiled in a highly sensitive and politically charged issue that has far reaching social, political and even security implications. There should not be any crowing over the temporary figures presented by the NRC. We need to understand what could happen should radicalisation, born of prejudice and a sense of injustice, take root. In the process, the issue of who is a citizen or what makes a foreigner would diminish.

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