On July 30, the final draft of the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) was completed in Assam that listed 2.89 crore citizens, out of 3.29 crore applications for citizenship. As many as 40 lakh people were excluded from the NRC. This has created great concern about the future of these people, their lands, homes and other physical assets, their livelihood, physical security and freedom of speech, movement and political participation.
As hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas languish in temporary shelters in Bangladesh and, relatively fewer, in India, away from their homes in Rakhine state (Myanmar), this looks similar to the Rohingya human disaster waiting in the wings to happen. Although leaders, from Union home minister Rajnath Singh to Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, have assured the affected people that they would be given enough opportunity to appeal their cases in the Guwahati High Court and the Supreme Court of India.
So far, it is not a communal issue, even though most of the people who are going to end up finally as non-citizens would surely be Muslims. In the present scenario, both Hindus and Muslims find themselves among the excluded, but finally the Hindus will get citizenship. In 2016, the Modi government brought an amendment bill to the Citizenship Ordinance of 1955. According to it, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh would get citizenship. This bill is basically meant to protect Hindus from Bangladesh in Assam.
As is the case with BJP in other spheres, this move, too, would especially target Muslims. The RSS takes all Hindu immigrants from neighbouring countries as de facto rightful citizens and all Muslim immigrants as infiltrators. The BJP politics is based on a more refined plank of this perspective. This is why the NRC is fraught with dangers. There are serious ethnic and linguistic implications also, which the NRC is likely to aggravate. The number of Bangla speakers has grown more dramatically than Assamia speakers over the last couple of decades. It is not the Muslim Bengalis alone that speak Bangla, the Hindu Bengalis too speak the same language. Even if there are going to be fewer Muslim Bengalis in years and decades ahead, the ethnic and linguistic issues will not go away. The only solution is a broad-minded acceptance of religious, cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity.
Even today, Assam is one of the most diverse states in the above respects. As the United States is a nation of immigrants, Assam happens to have similar character within India. The dominant group in Assam (like the Anglo Saxons in the US) are also immigrants, from Myanmar, who came to Assam only a few centuries ago. Till then it was a land of hundreds of tribes. The vast majority of Muslim Bengalis were brought in by the British to situate large, empty areas in the 19th century.
The British wanted to raise revenue by bringing in Muslim Bengalis from what was East Bengal (later, East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) because they were superior in farming, animal husbandry and poultry, and could bring in vast tracts of land under cultivation, thus raising revenue for the British government. The Assamese in those areas were not as good in farming, animal husbandry and poultry as the Bengalis, mostly Muslim. However, once they had enriched the land over the years with their work, the rivalry with the locals grew.
The influx of Bengalis continued over the years, increasing the worries of Assamese Hindus, Muslims, Christians and tribals, which provided an element of ethnic dispute to the entire equation. The Partition of India brought an unprecedented effect on the equation. Today’s NRC is not the first such document. Within four years of Independence and Partition, in 1951, the first NRC was produced to keep tabs on Assam’s population and inflow of Bengalis from the erstwhile East Bengal. To be fair to the Assamese, the inflow of immigrants from East Pakistan continued till 1971, when India had a policy to allow East Pakistani refugees into neighbouring Indian states of what soon became Bangladesh.
A section of the refugees stayed back even after the war and the return of most refugees to Bangladesh to start life afresh in their emancipated homeland. The worries of the Assamese grew when the state’s population grew by 36 percent between 1951 and 1961 against the national average population growth of 22 percent. Between 1961 and 1971 it grew by 35 percent against the national average of 25 percent. This was pinned down to inflow from East Pakistan/Bangladesh.
A great movement began against the Bangladeshis in 1979 to identify the foreigners, update the 1951 National Register of Citizens and act against the foreigners. By 1985, the situation had become explosive. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the Assam Accord to defuse the situation by agreeing to launch an illegal migrant detection tribunal. To cut the story short, the decision to update the 1951 NRC was taken in Assam Accord of 1985, but the work on the new register was initiated by the Supreme Court of India in 2015.
The final draft of NRC is extremely deficient. In hundreds of families the wife has been excluded and the husband included, or vice-versa. In some cases the children have been excluded and parents included. In the first draft, 1.5 lakh people, who were included, have been excluded in the final draft. Even the former President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad and his family have been excluded. A lot of government servants like teachers, policemen and other government staff (serving government for decades) have been excluded, while their family members have been included. In most cases entire families living for generations in Assam have been excluded on the ground that they do not have proper documents. Even many of those who cast their vote in last election will no longer be citizen. The authorities say they do not have proper documents.
It is not easy to maintain documents in a place like Assam where recurring massacres and dislocations of Muslims is a regular affair. In 1983, following a provocative speech by Atal Behari Vajpayee, more than 2,000 Bengali Muslims were killed swiftly in Assam’s Nellie in Morigaon district. It was the day when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was inaugurating a summit of CHOGM prime ministers in Goa. In Kokrajhar violence in 2012, 400,000 Muslims were driven out and their homes, their property and documents destroyed. How can such people preserve documents?
The 1985 Assam Accord established 25 March, 1971 as the cut off mark for citizenship. People who came in before that mark and their descendants would have citizenship rights provided they can show documents as proof. Preserving documents will not be easy. Meanwhile, a citizens’ group of Assamese Hindus and Muslims has petitioned the Supreme Court to annul the Assam Accord’s cut off mark arguing it would allow Bengalis coming in between 1951 and 1971 to become legitimate citizens, which would adversely affect the Assamese interests.
Finally, this is not the time for taking maximalist positions, or rushing things precipitately. At the back of mind one has to keep the fact that the world is made of immigrants. Also, there is no need for exclusively Muslim politics in Assam, or anywhere else. However, there is a need for social workers and community groups to help the affected people in filing claims and other legal procedures. Chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal must remember that the security officer at his residence, Shah Alam Bhuiyan, was declared a D-voter at one stage. Mr. Modi and Mr. Sonowal must ensure that innocent, genuine citizens are not made to suffer in this huge exercise, which is so prone to mistake.