The NRC Debate and Sins of Oversimplification

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Several years ago I saw an interview of a random Israeli person on TV (I apologise for not remembering where). His political affiliation could be called “left-leaning” as he was a fierce critique of the governing Likud Party’s politics. But one fine day he wakes up to find that the town where he was born and raised, where his parents lived, has been declared as an illegal settlement by the UN. The interview took place both before and after his settlement was declared illegal and so you could see, hear and feel the shock, disappointment and finally the realisation that his HaAvoda based left-winged politics cannot realistically help him in that situation but instead it was with the right-winged Likud Party where his salvation laid.

After the final draft of the NRC (National Register for Citizens) was released on the 30th of July 2018, my situation started to resemble the Israeli person mentioned above as one after the other all opposition political parties from all over India made ridiculous statements about Assam and the NRC while the political party I totally dislike – the right-winged BJP, was largely making comments which showed some understanding of NRC and the context under which it was being carried out in Assam. Add to this Assam basically being “penalised” by the rest of the country for carrying out the NRC because there was lack of any national concern regarding the terrible flood situation that Assam was facing before, during and after the final draft of the NRC was realised. One liberal commentator who has millions of subscribers and viewers in social media went as far as condemning Assam for not proving relief money to Kerala to help people suffering from the flood situation there![i] Also the only mainstream media outlet that covered both the NRC related news and news about the floods in Assam in equal measure was the BBC!

Don’t worry I don’t go stark raving mad and turn into a right winged extremist here, but I do express my profound disappointment with the left, liberal and centre-left politics and media in this article. The main aim of this article is to show how extremely complicated the whole NRC issue is and why neglecting them while writing patronising Op-Ed pieces in various news outlets could be very misleading.

This article has been structured in the following manner: I have tried to counter the falsehood and misleading information peddled mostly by the left winged media in the next section, while in the section following that I have shown how the right winged politics is mostly responsible for creating the said falsehood. The rest of the article (i.e. most of it) tries to explain the extremely complicated history behind the NRC.

“What Surrounds the World? Ignorance.”- Mahabharat

Let me start by telling you about things which I have most annoying about the opposition stand on the NRC.

Firstly, it is only in Assam, through the Assam Accord of 1985 and via the current NRC drafting process that you will be considered a full citizen of India if you could prove that you or your ancestors were present in any place in India before 24th March 1971, in any capacity, even as a refugee. For the rest of the country this cut-off date is on or before 26th January 1950. So, most of the people criticising the NRC process are doing so from states which have far stricter citizenship laws than Assam.

Secondly, as I have mentioned above that if you can prove that you were in India before 1971, you can become a citizen of India in Assam. But that means the other states and Union territories of India has to cooperate to produce a correct NRC. But no, there is clear negligence in providing any information to help the NRC process. Guess which state is the biggest defaulter in providing NRC verification data— Bengal.[ii] Bengal, Assam’s neighbouring state, as everyone knows is the pivotal state if there has to be a correct NRC, and the people who were drafting the NRC knew this and so they even had staff sent from Assam to Bengal to collect the required information, but there is very little to show for so much effort.[iii]

Thirdly, there is this one thing that the liberal media is doing almost every day since the final draft of the NRC was released like a procedural cop drama on TV which is that every day they will find some person whose name is not there in the draft NRC and write a story about them. The NRC has more than 20 million names in it and there are around 4 million people who did not find their names in it. So, should the right winged media begins to start writing stories on the people who have been included in the draft NRC? Who is going to win that contest? Is this a sensible way to go about things?

Fourthly, the media is portraying that “strong evidence” is required to prove your Indian citizenship to get your name included in the NRC. I gave my PAN card to prove that I was my father’s son. They refused to let me enter to see the Taj Mahal when I showed them my PAN card. Few weeks back I went to Kolkata for some personal work and the “private” hotel I stayed in did not accept my PAN card as a valid proof of identification.

As we are talking about cards, let us get the following out of our way as well. Citizens of India from Assam like me face regular difficulties related to the issue of “proving our citizenship” in other states because vast majority of us have no Aadhar cards. Since the NRC process started in Assam the Government of India has almost entirely frozen the Aadhar card scheme in Assam as a result of which citizens of Assam face several hardships in getting everyday needs fulfilled if they move to any other place in India. Earlier this month my brother went to a different state in India to continue his higher studies and wanted to open a bank account, but the bank authorities said, “no Aadhar no bank account”. So, when other states cannot be bothered to consider the legitimate rights of bonafide citizens of India, why does opposition political leaders from other states want Assam to make special exception for everyone- regardless of their citizenship?

Fifthly, the left-winged media is trying to infer that there was no migration from East Pakistan or present day Bangladesh and that we Assamese just have xenophobic feelings towards Bengali speakers. Have a look at the following two figures. Does anything seem weird to you?

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Fig 1: Population Growth rates in Assam and India (data taken from census of India)
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Fig 2: Population Density in Assam and India (Data taken from census of India)

Why is there a sudden and abnormal spurt in growth of population in Assam before India experienced a “population explosion”? Why does Assam’s population density which was less than the national average suddenly became more than the national average after 1971? Oh, I know the left winged media loves reports from international bodies like the UN, didn’t you see how quickly they gobbled up the accepted as “eternal truth” the UNHRC report on Kashmir? But the UNHCR also reported that 10 million refugees had come over from East Pakistan to India. Selective amnesia? Also, “no migration to India” thesis will make the East Pakistanis and Bangladeshis the only people in the world to not try and escape war, destruction and mass murder.

Sixthly, on August 9th 2018, leaders of 9 opposition parties met the President of India and handed him a memorandum in which they referred to all the 40 lakh people excluded in the NRC’s final draft as “Indian citizens”.[iv] The UPA and the NDA 2 (of which most of these parties were formerly member or supporter of) had spent crores of rupees trying to determine who is and who is not an Indian citizen in Assam and till now we are not totally sure about the correct answer. But suddenly these opposition parties without the backing of any alternative facts or figures are sure that everyone left out in the NRC are Indian citizens. Be that as it may, coincidentally on the very next day, i.e. 10th August 2018, India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress (one of the supporters of the above mentioned memorandum) decided to raise the issue of fake voters in the electoral rolls of Madhya Pradesh in the Supreme Court of India. So, when there are fake voters in the electoral rolls in other states it is problem but when there are fake voters in Assam’s electoral rolls we are just supposed to keep quite?

Finally, there is this accusation that the NRC is “anti-Muslim”. I have dealt with this insinuation later in this article in detail (under a separate sub-heading) because it deserves total refutation.

Political Discourse in Present Day India

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So, how did the NRC debate manage to reduce the intelligence, perception and understanding of so many intelligent, perceptive and sympathetic people? I found the answer while reading about another important judicial debate— the one regarding Article 35A and Kashmir. It was then that I realised that Assam’s NRC debate has fallen victim to BJP’s propagation of what can be called reductive nationalism, a form of nationalism which for the sake of “more unity” tries to negate the enormous differences amongst Indians. In the recent years BJP has been very dominant politically but reductive nationalism has been influencing the national political discourse since BJP first came to power in the centre in the mid-90s. Such political discourse is so influential now that when opposition political parties try to put forward their points they unconsciously end up using the framework created by reductive nationalism.

To understand reductive nationalism you have to understand the RSS’s (BJP’s parent body’s) doctrine of Akhand Bharat whose literal translation is “One/United India”, but it actually has several components in it. For example- one component of Akhand Bharat is the belief that all Indians are Hindus. Yes, there might be hundreds of millions of Muslims, Christians or people belonging to other religions or faiths but according to the RSS doctrine they or their predecessors have been forcefully converted into those other religions and if given a choice they would revert back to Hinduism. Another belief under the doctrine of Akhand Bharat is based on language, according to the RSS Hindi is the lingua franca of most places in India, so it should be made the only national and official language of India.

As you can see from above, RSS’s views on a “unified” India demands significant negation of the diversity amongst us. The doctrine of Akhand Bharat is actually a strategy in part of the RSS. They also know quite well that the diversity amongst Indians is massive but their thinking process goes somewhat like this- only a united India is a strong India and the only way to truly construct a united India is through negation of our social and cultural differences. RSS’s Akhand Bharat is basically the anti-thesis to the Nehruvian doctrine of “Unity in Diversity”.

Additionally, the doctrine of Akhand Bharat is an umbrella concept with various fields of study like History falling under it. Historians affiliated with the Sangh Parivar (i.e. RSS and affiliates) have been trying to present a more “unified” version of Indian history for decades. For example when I was studying history in high school, the history text books released during NDA 1 tried to link the Indus Valley Civilization with the Vedic Age by claiming that both were part of the same civilization. But this claim is false because as everyone knows Indus Valley Civilization was an older urban based culture but the Vedic Age which followed it was a rural based culture, so, why the devolution?

It is this simplification of history and negation of the diverseness of India which is the main culprit in totally muddling up the whole NRC debate (how? Find the answer below).

From Yandaboo to Independence

Mahatma Gandhi visiting Assam
Mahatma Gandhi visiting Assam

Believe it or not there is a strong historical parallel to the situation that the Assamese people now find ourselves in. The historical parallel that I am talking about are the events surrounding the Partition of Bengal (1905). Assam came under the British rule after signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826 and Assam was incorporated into the British province of Bengal. Within 50 years after the annexation of Assam massive estates producing tea were established in Assam and oil was discovered. But Assamese people soon realised that these two new precious resources which seem to make some people very rich were not only taken to Calcutta to be traded but most of the these resources were controlled by companies established in Calcutta. Assamese people were powerless to do anything about it because the administrative capital was also in Calcutta. So there arose a demand to create a separate state of Assam.

But I think I need to provide a qualifier here- I accept that the there was hardly any resources redistribution amongst the population of Bengal from the resources being exploited in Assam by mostly British controlled companies. These resources just made a few Indians and a few Europeans very rich while the benefits for almost everyone else were minimal. But I want you to think about the optics—what did the situation look like to ordinary Assamese people living in late 19th century and early 20th century Assam.

Let me help you by telling you the story of how one of my ancestors used to go to Calcutta to study for his law degree, around the time of the Partition of Bengal. He was from a village near Tezpur around 180 kilometres North East of Guwahati in the North bank of the Brahmaputra. The total amount of luggage that he could take with him was something which he could carry with one hand held straight up above his head. This luggage would also have to consist of a cooking utensil and some beans and peas. He would go with his luggage to the Brahmaputra shore and wait for a cargo vessel like a barge usually for 2-3 days as he slowly consumes the beans and peas. Once he sees a boat coming he will shout asking whether they are going to Calcutta and if they answer yes then he will quickly take off his clothes, except his loin clothes, put them into his luggage pouch and since there was no port or even a jetty he would swim towards the boat with one hand held high over his head as the boat would slow down to pick him up. How do you think such a person would react when he reaches Calcutta for his studies? He would have seen a huge bustling city with its own port, train station, tram service for local transport, huge Victorian and Edwardian buildings, educational institutions, medical establishment, rich and powerful merchants and political, cultural and scientific leaders of global stature all in the same city.

Coming back to my point, Assamese people were seeing a myopic picture where their precious resources were being taken to Bengal and in turn while Bengal gets richer by the day Assam gets nothing in return. So, the demand for a separate province of Assam began to grow from the 2nd half of the 19th century. Finally in 1905 the long held demand of the Assamese people for a separate province started to come close to reality as the British rulers decided to separate Assam from Bengal and to create a new province called “East Bengal and Assam”. But this decision was condemned by Indian nationalist from all over India and Assamese arguments for the separation like need for administrative autonomy, better economic management, cultural, social, religious differences of the people of Assam and North-East were all thrown into the dustbin of history by leaders of the rest of India as they reduced the whole issue to the British trying to creates disharmony between the Hindus and the Muslims.

So, the first similarity with the present NRC debate and the Partition of Bengal of 1905 is reductive nationalism. Second similarity between the two events is the motive assigned by the opposition then and now behind the said actions which was that these were actions taken to create communal disharmony. The third similarity is how following both the events Assam proved the Cassandras of Doom wrong  by maintaining peace and calm.[v]

Following the Partition of Bengal in 1905, Assam was made a separate state in 1912 and especially after the coming of Mahatma Gandhi into the national scene Assamese people actively took part in the national freedom struggle. Even the annual Indian National Congress session of 1926 was held in Guwahati and Assam welcomed important national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Ballav Bhai Patel, Madan Maohan Malaviya, Sarojini Naidu, Abul Kalam Azad, S. Srinivasa Iyengar, Muhammad Ali and Shaukat Ali.

Let us now talk about the 1940s. From the 1940 to 1947 there were several incidences of communal violence between the Hindus and the Muslims in both West Bengal and East Bengal as a result of which of which thousands of Bengalis both Hindus and Muslims started pouring into Assam. Some Bengalis also came to Assam during this time fleeing the ravages of the Great Bengal famine of 1943. Although this migration is now presented by some as the beginning of communal tensions between the Assamese and Bengalis in Assam, it is not correct. But I can see why this misunderstanding can occur since the three real political issues that Assam was facing during this time can be easily obfuscated with the “fleeing Bengalis of 1940s” problem. These three issues were firstly, nostalgia of some politicians from the “Partition of Bengal” movement who wanted to “reunify” Assam and the North East with Bengal. Secondly, demand from leaders of the Muslim League, to “reunify” Assam and the North- East in the “East Bengal and Assam” province which was formed after partitioning Bengal into two parts in 1905. Finally, the third grave issue that Assam was facing during this period was the call of several tribal leaders from other places in the North-East like Angami Phizo of Nagaland to secede entirely from the Indian Union and create a new independent state comprising of Assam and the rest of the North-East.

The above mentioned first problem gave rise to regionalism in Assam politics and the second problem allowed the RSS for the first time to establish its roots in Assam as it went all over Assam holding public meetings and fairs with the main theme being stopping Assam and the North- East from becoming a part of the Pakistan. But it is the reaction or the handling of the third problem which is more relevant to our topic under discussion because the threat of the earlier two problems did not materialize.

When time came close to independence several other leaders of North-East told the leaders of Assam that they had no interest in joining the Indian Union. According to them the people of North-East did not share any common history, language, culture or social norms with the rest of the country so the North-East should be allowed to go its own way. Also, there were two other things which sacred these leaders. First was the huge number of Bengalis coming into Assam and the North-East mostly due to high levels of communal violence in East Bengal and the resulting instability. Secondly, as the date of independence and partition came closer it became clear that plebiscites will be held in different parts of the country allowing people to decide whether they want to go with India or Pakistan. Several leaders of the North-East were afraid that with so many people from Bengal already living in North-East and the indigenous population being so scant a plebiscite could easily end up making Assam and the North-East a part of Pakistan. Finally plebiscite was held in one district of Assam- Sylhet, and people there decided to go with Pakistan.

Although the leaders from Assam agreed that the North-East had a different history, culture and society from the rest of India and shared several fears of the other leaders of North-East, but they had great faith in the “India project” which promised to respect diversity, not suppressed it. So, they wanted to remain with India and thought that the other leaders from North-East could be placated if concessions were inserted into the Indian constitution which was being drafted. Thus, began lobbying by Congress leaders from Assam to create exceptions in the Indian constitution which would protect the unique culture and heritage of the North-East. This lobbying ultimately led to the successful creation of the 5th and 6th schedule of the Indian Constitution. Most of the people in North-East accepted these provisions which guaranteed their cultural and social autonomy and to an extent political autonomy, but by the time these were discussed in September, 1949 and the constitution accepted in November of that year it was too late to placate the Nagas and the insurgency there had already started.

We need to understand that the special provisions made to protect the cultural uniqueness of the North-East in the Indian Constitution does not only signify the rights or privileges of the people of the North-East but also the duty of the Indian Union to protect those rights. It is because of the those protections and guarantees that are enshrined into the Indian constitution that the North-East’s accession to India was largely peaceful as people then and now saw/see their future as citizens of the Indian Republic.

From Independence to the Assam Accord

Jawaharlal Nehru visiting a Children's Hospital in Pasighat, (then NEFA, now Arunachal Pradesh) accompanied by the then Governor of Assam Jairamdas Daulatram
Jawaharlal Nehru visiting a Children’s Hospital in Pasighat, (then NEFA, now Arunachal Pradesh) accompanied by the then Governor of Assam Jairamdas Daulatram

We cannot enjoy those rights and privileges guaranteed in the Indian constitution for the North-Eastern people if we do not have certain amount of freedom to decide our political, social and cultural destiny. Let me explain.

After independence migration from East Pakistan to the North-East continued. From the 1950s to 1970s East Pakistan faced something resembling the “First they came for the Jews” problem. Immediately after Partition, the Hindus were viewed with deep suspicion and discriminated against so many of them decided to migrate to India and due to the resultant disturbance and tension several Muslims from Bangladesh also decided to migrate to India. This resulted in the percentage of the Hindu population in East Pakistan decreasing from 22% of the total population to 13% between 1951 and 1974. Then in the 1960s the Muslims of East Pakistan realised that just being a Muslim is not enough to guarantee equal treatment in a country controlled by the West Pakistani elites. This resulted in the rise of regionalism in East Pakistan but these movements were heavily suppressed by the Pakistani establishment and basically converted East Pakistan into a severely repressed police state. This created a situation of clearly demarcated “us” and “them” groups. On one side you had the Urdu/Punjabi speaking members of the Pakistani military while on the other side you had Bengali speaking people of East Pakistan. This situation in East Pakistan resulted in probably the most under-reported genocide in modern history which according to estimates killed at least 500,000 people and at the minimum got 200,000 women raped as Bengali speaking women were declared “public property” by some extremist religious leaders. The Result: according to the UN High Commission for Refugees 10 million people entered India to escape the violence in East Pakistan.[vi]

Before we talk about Assam again, let us consider the impact on the migration from East Pakistan on another North-Eastern state –Tripura. Its Chief Minister during the 60s was Sachindra Lal Singh who regularly voiced his concerns regarding the violence being meted out to the inhabitants of East Pakistan and as such people fleeing the said violence went into neighbouring Tripura as they were met my a welcoming political environment. I do not want to get too deep into the politics of Tripura but North-Eastern people view the impact migration had on Tripura with considerable alarm. The Tribal population now is a minority comprising of 30% of Tripura’s population and as such it has significantly lost its political clout. Secondly, non-tribal people control 90% of all land in Tripura (that does not belong to the government), which means the tribal population has lost control over their economic destiny as well.[vii]

Due to the North-Eastern states being so thinly populated, I can understand that the above mentioned demographic problem is quite difficult to comprehend for people living outside the North-East. For example I hardly think 10 million people would make a significant dent in Uttar Pradesh which has a population of 200 million. Similarly, the whole “societal and cultural uniqueness” issue does not arise if those 10 million people from Bangladesh go into West Bengal.

Let us come back to Assam. Immigrants and refugees continued to come into Assam after the partition of 1947 from East Pakistan. Although it was in considerably large numbers but since it happened slowly over many years the migrant issues did not yet become the dominating political issue it now is.

Let me also mention here another event that symbolised the “neglect of Assam” for at least two generations of Assamese— the “Chinese Aggression of 1962”. The people of Assam felt a great sense of betrayal when during the 1962 India-China War, Indian Armed Forces retreated from Assam leaving Assam defenceless and open to Annexation by the Chinese troops who had already captured Arunachal Pradesh. Add to this Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Indian Prime Minister broadcasting a radio message to the people of Assam saying how sorry he was to see Assam being taken away from India by China. Thankfully this did not come to pass and soon China of their own volition went back to their starting position at least in India’s North Eastern sector.

By 1965-66, troubles started brewing in East Pakistan and this time unlike the previous period a huge number of people (10 million) came into India (mostly into Assam, Tripura and West Bengal) as refugees within a span of 4 or 5 years. You might ask why so many people from East Bengal decided to come into Assam instead of going to West Bengal where they would be more comfortable with the culture and society? The answer is twofold- firstly, what was happening in East Pakistan at that time was genocide and mass rape so people fleeing it took the quickest routes out of Bangladesh. Secondly, Assamese and Bengalis share a history of “active” interaction which goes back hundreds of years, so when an artificial separation of land is done through something which is as crude as the Partition of India it leaves communities divided. This is a common phenomenon in Africa and the Middle East where nations were drawn up by some Europeans drawing up straight lines across the map. So, what we ended up having all along the Assam side of the border with East Pakistan now Bangladesh is the community we regard as Bengali Assamese or Assamese people who speak Bengali. So, places where the refugees arrived were not as foreign to them as you might think.

The War ended and Bangladesh was created and Assamese people expected that people who fled the disturbances would go back or at least expected the refugees to be distributed throughout India like what was done with the Tibetan refugees. Do you think the Indian government allowed the Tibetans who fled the annexation of their lands via Kashmir to settle down in Kashmir? No, they didn’t. Instead they were redistributed throughout the country. But due to myriad of reason not very relevant here the Central Government turned a blind eye towards the demands of the Assamese people, while on the other hand not only did the refugees from Bangladesh did not go back to their countries but instead more people from Bangladesh kept coming in because of the following two reasons. Firstly, because the new state of Bangladesh proved to be politically quite unstable hence physical, economic or social security could not be guaranteed. Secondly, Assam unlike West Bengal, was thinly populated, had a lot of uncultivated lands and significant labour requirements which presented a picture of golden opportunity for the new arrivals.

It took almost 5 years since the end of the 1971 War for the situation to assume critical mass in Assam. Unhappy with the governmental inaction social groups in Assam started a mass movement demanding the total and complete expulsion of all Bangladeshi migrants. Soon by the end of the 1970s a group of extremists believing that the Indian Union has violated the original terms of Assam’s accession into the Indian Republic and fearing that the unique culture and heritage of Assam was in danger, took up arms to fight for the complete independence of Assam from India leading to the creation of  the United Liberation Front of Assam or ULFA.

So, when Assam, the state which led the rest of the North-East to join the India was looking doubtfully at its role and place in the Indian Union as the promise to protect and preserve the culture of the indigenous people was being violated by the Central government, the rest of the North-East also erupted in violence. Insurgencies led by various separatist armed groups cropped up in Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and the already bad insurgency situation of Nagaland became worse.

The Central government reacted in the typical heavy handed nature that you would expect. They imposed AFSPA and sent in the military and paramilitary forces; things escalated to such an extent that even the Air Force was used for the purpose of aerial bombardment. But despite all these no true attempt was made to engage with the Assamese society.

The Assamese civil society always tried to establish the distinction between the violent struggle of ULFA and their peaceful protest. But nevertheless the police and the military actions against peaceful protestors lead to the death, maiming, injury and jailing of thousands of people. People in the rest of the country often comment about how terrible the two years of Emergency were but in Assam we experienced nearly 10 years of emergency as the AFSPA remained in force and the civil rights and freedoms of people were restricted. Newspaper articles were blacked out in Assam and journalists were arrested. Only mainstream media outlet which broadcasted dependable news about the ongoing Assam Movement was once again the BBC which was partially banned in Assam but its radio signals still got through.

But the problem was intrinsically a political problem so even if there was a military “victory” in this situation, we would have still needed a political solution to the problem and it came in the shape of Assam Accord 1985. According to this Pact signed between the leaders of the Assam Andolan (Movement) and the Indian Government. It promised that a National Registry of Citizens (NRC) would be created and those who came to Assam after 1971 would be deported. Till such a time when the NRC is created a foreigners’ tribunals would be established for the identification and deportation of illegal immigrants in Assam. Following the Assam Accord the first peaceful elections were held in Assam in nearly a decade’s time and the leader of the Assam Andolan Prafulla Kumar Mahanta became India’s youngest Chief Minister and we lived happily ever after. Or so we thought…..

After the Garden is Gone

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There were four problems that Assamese people faced with regards to the Assam Accord. First, the Congress Party had no interest in implementing the Assam Accord and used the resulting situation (post-Accord) for vote bank politics. Secondly, the foreigner’s tribunals was toothless and could not do anything on their own. Thirdly, Assam’s regional parties formed out of the Assam Andolan were inept (hardly any step was taken to fulfil the conditions of the Assam Andolan), corrupt (could not pay salaries to state government employees like my father while the leaders went on extensive foreign tours) and given to bouts of violence (in the mid-90s Assam went through a political purge that we now call Gupta Hatya or “Secret Killings”).

But the greatest barrier to the fulfilment of the spirit of the Assam Accord was the science of demographics. Let me explain. You have could have recently heard the US administration talking about “chain migration” to explain that people tend to migrate to places where people of their home country already live. But that is only half the story regarding chain migration. In demographics, the classical example of “chain migration” is Germany. After the Second World War Germany was in dire need of labour and so started the process of inviting gästarbeiters or guest workers into Germany many of whom came from Turkey. Germany at first experienced the first phase of chain migration, Turks migrated into places where other Turk were already working or staying. Moreover, most of these workers were men who have left their families back in Turkey. By the 1970s the guest worker program ended for the Turks and both the German public and the political establishment expected the Turks to go back to their homeland. But the Turks had no intention of going back mainly because of two reasons. Firstly because they have given the most productive years of their lives to bring about the Wirtschaftwunder or economic wonder and secondly because they did not want to give up on their improved standard of living that they were enjoying in Germany. So, when the Turks in Germany realised that laws were being made to be restrict them from coming into Germany they decided to bring in their relatives from Turkey into Germany who till then were living in Turkey. So stricter immigration ended up increasing immigration rather than decreasing immigration. We see something similar going on in Assam after the signing of the Assam Accord.

The border between Assam and Bangladesh used to be very porous till the 1980s. Yes, millions of people did come into Assam from Bangladesh when there were political disturbances in their country. But by the 1980s they did not have to come into Assam to escape anything and on the other hand they could engage in trade or visit their relatives easily due to the porous nature of the border. But, with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, people were given an impression that the borders will no longer be that porous anymore and so they had to choose on which side of the border they wanted to live in. As many chose to stay in Assam the state’s population continued to explode in the 1980s and 1990s just like in the 60s and 70s.[viii]

Is the NRC “anti-Muslim”?

Panbari Mosque. The oldest mosque in Assam
Panbari Mosque. The oldest mosque in Assam

Frankly it is amusing to hear that the NRC is “anti-Muslim” because of the massive support it enjoys amongst Assamese Muslims. There are three reasons for this support. Firstly, the integration of the Muslim population into the indigenous population was not a modern process but a medieval one and was started hundreds of years back by the Ahom kings. Assamese Muslims were pivotal in the Ahom Kingdom’s successful resistance against invasions by the Mughal forces for which many of them were given high ranks within the Assamese paik system like Hazarika etc. So, by the time the Assam Andolan started in the 1970s the Assamese Muslim population was so integrated that they did not see the issues highlighted by it as a Hindu problem or a Muslim problem but rather an “Assamese problem” and participated whole heartedly in the Assam Andolan. What followed after the signing of the Assam Accord also bears mention. We have to remember that Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country so naturally most of the refugees and immigrants legal or illegal who came into Assam from Bangladesh were Bengali speaking Muslim. Did you expect Russian speaking Kazaks to come into Assam from East Pakistan/Bangladesh? So the above mentioned population explosion that Assam witnessed from the 1960s onwards ended up relegating the Assamese Muslims into a minority amongst the Muslim population of Assam. So, in a way the Assamese Muslims in several districts in Assam are already experiencing what everyone fears in North-East, i.e. living as a minority in a place where the majority belong to the Bangladeshi community. In these places Assamese Muslims have lost their political relevance as Indian politicians who are geared to view the Muslim population as vote banks started to neglect the issues faced by Assamese Muslims as electorally they began to only play an increasingly marginal role. Culturally speaking, Assamese Muslims began to lose control over their mosques, madrassas and even land belonging to the Assam Board of the Wakfs were encroached upon. So it should come as no surprise that Assamese Muslims support the NRC much more than Assamese people belonging to other communities.

NRC in its Present Form

By the time this latest attempt to frame the NRC came about there were many people like me who were totally cynical about this whole process because we were tired of this “Bangladeshi” issue being the driving force behind Assamese politics for over 40 years as it gave Assamese politicians the leeway to blame everything on illegal immigration and the inaction of the central government.

Now many people have said that the whole process of framing an NRC is meaningless because there is no plan in place about what to do when say millions of people are found to be illegally living in Assam/India. This criticism is valid but to assume that just because a plan is not there before the problem exists, the whole process is invalid is quite pretentious. Yes, unlike what the left liberal media is telling you there is currently no problem with the NRC because the final list has not been made yet. In the last list I and my entire family except my younger brother was not in the list. This time around we are in the list but I can see that lots of legitimate people who should be in the list are not in the list but they are not that worried either as the process of putting people in the list is not over yet. What did we do when our names were not in the list? Bloodbath? Civil War? (like some opposition political leaders were saying would be the result of NRC). No, I just went to the NRC office once, told them something like “Hey, our names were not there in the first list, and people whose names were not there in the first list got summons to appear at their local NRC office but we got no calls, is something the matter?” The person there told me that if we got no calls then there is no problem, and asked me to just go home and not worry.

So, what could be done once the final NRC is made and we as a nation is faced with millions of people illegally living in Assam? Here are some of my recommendations and the reasons behind those.

We have to remember that these immigrants did not come to Assam from Bangladesh for the fun of it. They were escaping war, genocide, rape, poverty and natural disasters. Many of those who have not found their names in the NRC have lived in Assam for decades and many were born in Assam. As such to just deport them would be cruel and I cannot stand for cruelty in the name of “cultural preservation”. The people who do not finally get their names into the final formal NRC will definitely be less than 4 million. While the total population of North-East is only 40 million, the population of the rest of the country is 1250 million. So while the maximum percentage of illegal foreigners living in Assam could be 10% of the total population of the North-East it will be less 0.32% of the national population (excluding North-East). So, I propose that these people should be given work permits to stay and work in India and a path for permanent residency should be opened through the medium of “citizenship through registration”. But they should not be allowed to be registered in Assam or in the North-East keeping in mind the obligation of the Indian Government to protect and preserve the unique culture and heritage of the North-East as enshrined in the constitution. Their private property should be protected but their landed property should be monetized under the “Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013” and they should be allowed to keep the said monetized amount. Also families should be allowed to choose which other states they would like to live in. This way if someone who has lived in Assam for several years wants to remain in Assam could do so but once they become citizens through registration they could vote only from the state outside North-East where they have registered. These people should also be allowed to purchase property outside the North-East once they have registered for citizenship. If you still think that my recommendation is “cruel” I would remind you that currently India does not have any provision to give citizenship to people found to be illegally living in the country.

Simple solutions like “deport them all to Bangladesh” is highly impractical as Bangladesh had denied many times that these people are Bangladeshis and after the NRC final draft was released a minister in Bangladesh said that his country will take water from Teesta not people from Assam.[ix]

Conclusion

The problem of violent insurgency in Assam has not been completely solved yet. It is not as bad as it was during the 70, 80s and 90s but Assam even now tops the country in violent crimes and many experts blame reasons related to insurgency for it.[x] I accept that the rest of the country has enough power to force Assam to continue to house the people proved to be illegally living in Assam. But this would once again nullify the basics of the Assam Accord, the Peace Treaties and Ceasefire Agreements that the Indian government had concluded over the years to achieve peace and stability in the North-East and who do you think will be left to deal with consequences of the resulting situation?

Almost a year and a half back I decided to take the 6:00 AM Bhopal Shatabdi train from New Delhi (NDLS) to Agra Cantonment (AGC). In it I met a retired member of India’s military who had previously served in Assam for several year. He told me how he lost so many of his friends and colleagues fighting the insurgency in Assam. I assured him by telling him that things are better now. As someone who was born in late 80s and who remembers the troubled 90s and the era of secret killings I absolutely don’t want the situation to be as bad as it was during my childhood years. As the former military man suspicious of my assurances tried to confirm whether the situation actually was better in Assam than when he was posted here, I reassured him and said “Yes, it is”. I request everyone to not prove me wrong in the future.

Endnotes:

[i]https://www.facebook.com/DhruvRatheePage/posts/2116928605238725?comment_id=336935976847483

[ii]See https://www.news18.com/news/india/west-bengal-biggest-defaulter-in-nrc-verification-process-returned-only-6-documents-1830991.html

[iii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/bengal-among-worst-defaulters-in-nrc-verification/articleshow/65220538.cms

[iv] https://indianexpress.com/article/india/opposition-leaders-to-ram-nath-kovind-no-indian-should-be-excluded-from-nrc-5299935/

[v] https://scroll.in/article/890038/why-the-nrc-has-been-greeted-with-calm-in-assam-and-not-widespread-violence-as-was-feared

[vi] http://www.unhcr.org/uk/publications/sowr/3ebf9bab0/state-worlds-refugees-2000-fifty-years-humanitarian-action-chapter-3-rupture.html?query=ASSAM

[vii] https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/UkpxZSv24w94jDCdq0t9NO/Tripura-BJP-IPFT-and-Tiprasa-angst.html

[viii]Seehttps://www.researchgate.net/publication/282647096_MIGRATION_AND_POPULATION_GROWTH_IN_ASSAM_A_DISTRICT_LEVEL_STUDY or https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/socioeconomic-and-political-consequence-of-illegal-migration-into-assamfrom-bangladesh-2167-0269-1000202.php?aid=69610

[ix] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/dhaka-more-interested-in-water-sharing-than-on-nrc-issue-says-bangladesh-minister/article24574820.ece

[x] https://www.telegraphindia.com/states/north-east/assam-tops-all-states-in-violent-crime-246712

Credits for pictures from the top of the Page

  1. The Featured Image is from:  https://www.heartforartonline.com/collections/majuli-masks-of-assam
  2. http://www.incredible-northeastindia.com/assam/about.html
  3. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/from-plays-to-lockets-lighter-masks-revive-assam-s-traditional-mukhas/story-SnXPBEXBc0poOB0XpNLbyM.html
  4. https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-mahatma-gandhi-walking-with-stick-on-woodden-bridge-during-his-tour-3429923.html
  5. https://www.gettyimages.co.nz/detail/news-photo/le-premier-ministre-de-linde-jawaharlal-nehru-et-le-news-photo/565489955?
  6. http://gaatha.com/assam-mask-making/
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_Assam#/media/File:Rangamati_Mosque.jpg

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