Shobhna Khatoon anxiously strides the National Register of Citizens (NRC) Seva Kendra in Assam’s Kokrajhar district. At 60, she is unexpectedly gazing at a future without her husband, Shahid Ali. While Ali and her sons have made it to the final draft of NRC, released in Assam, Khatoon has been left out.
“I had submitted my father’s legacy data, since he had been on the 1951 NRC list. We have submitted all documents in accordance with what was asked. I do not know why I have been singled out. We heard that illegal Bangladeshi Muslims are being dropped from the list, but we have been here since decades.” -Shobhna Khatoon
NRC: ALL TO BE KNOWN
NRC stands for National Register of Citizens. It is a register that contains names of all genuine Indian citizens. After the 1951, Census of India the register was first prepared.
India consists of 29 states and 7 union territories but Assam is one of the several states suffering seriously from the problem of illegal immigrants who generally are Bangladeshis. Though the practice National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam is being undertaken under the supervision of the Supreme Court, but still there may be serious doubts about its effective implementation. On July 30, Assam released the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), seven months after it released the first draft on 1st January 2018, which included 1.9 crore names out of a total applicant pool of 3.29 crore. Latest draft however, left out 40.07 lakh people wherein 2.89 crore people were found eligible out of 3.29 crore applicants.
The issue has got politicized, ever since the NRC’s second and final draft was published leaving out 40, 07,707 people in Assam from its list. On one ground or the other the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Congress have opposed the NRC while the BJP has defended it tooth and nail.
PRESSING THE REPLAY
INUNDATION OF IMMIGRANTS IN ASSAM
For inhabitants of Assam Intrusion of immigrants has been a major concern. The state has seen two crucial episodes of large-scale migrant flooding- first around the time of India-Pakistan partition and the second time during the countdown to the 1971 Bangladesh war.
FLOW IN VOTING POPULATION
Flow of illegal immigrants continued across permeable borders and when the voters’ list in 1978 by poll to Mangaldoi Lok Sabha seat saw a rise the issue took centre-stage. After seven years of Indo-Pak war in 1971, the number of voters in Assam increased to 50 percent. Fifty thousand more voters were found in the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha constituency of Assam only, which pointed to entry of people illegally.
TROUBLE ON THE RAGE
All Assam Students Union (Aasu), a student group exclaimed for putting off the election till ‘names of foreigners’ were remove from the electoral rolls. This was the start of a six-year stirring that culminated in the Assam Accord.
TURBULENCE BEGINS IN ASSAM
In 1979, a series of protests across the state began by Aasu and the AAGSP. Regular strikes at times pivoted violent. 860 people were killed in the agitation as per the official records. In the lead of this agitation were Aasu president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, Aasu gen secretary Bhrigu Kumar Phukan and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad gen secretary Biraj Sharma.
THE NELLIE MASSACRE
Shockingly 2,191 people, mainly Muslims, from Nagaon villages were killed. Assamese tribal were believed to be the perpetrators. The violence came during protests by native Assamese against the decision to grant millions of immigrants the right to vote in the state elections. Total 32% attendance of voter was ultimately seen in the elections.
THE ILLEGAL MIGRANTS ACT 1983
The Parliament passed the Act to control the movement of immigrants. Aasu and AAGSP began discussions with the Union government. However, the Supreme Court in 2005 found the Act counter-productive and shut it down.
TO SOLVE THE ISSUE
Centre, the Assam government, Aasu and AAGSP signed the Assam accord to end the agitation over the foreigners’ issue in 1985.
THE ASSAM ACCORD OF 1985
Under the 1985 Accord and upcoming amendment of the Citizenship Act, foreigners were to be divided into the given categories:
(i) Who came to Assam before 1.1.1966;
(ii) Who came between 1.1.1966 and 24.3.1971;
(iii) Who came to Assam on or after 25.3.1971.
Under the first category people were to be treated as full-fledged citizens; in second to be denied franchise for 10 years and in the third group to be deported.
THE ASSAM NRC
Amidst of tight security the final draft of NRC was published on July 30 this year. The final draft comprised of 2.89 crore citizens names. The first draft comprised names of 1.9 crore citizens living in Assam. No deportation will take place according to this list as per the officials. NRC improvisation is also one of the provisions of Assam accord.
EVOLUTION OF INFILTRATION
Maj. John Butler, a British military officer described Assam on his visit in the mid 19th century as “it seemed totally devoid of man, beasts, or birds; a death-like stillness everywhere prevailed”. The scarcely populated, abundant in natural resources and unrestrained fertile land soon encouraged the colonial administrators to bring in the large number of population from other parts of British India comprising the Bengalis from the over populated Bengal in Assam to resettle under the projects like ‘Grow More Food’ with an objective to increase the revenue. A colonization officer was recruited by the colonial administration for hassle free immigration of Muslim peasants to Assam from Greater Bengal.
The immigrant Muslims inhabit in Brahmaputra valley adopted Assamese language and culture and denounced their Bengali identity to absorb within the host community. In 1930s, the immigrant Muslim community appealed to enroll them as Assamese speaking Muslims in the census of 1941 to the colonial administration. Eventually, they set up Assamese medium schools and started engulfing with the Assamese community.
Still, a wide section of the local community still felt threatened because of the large scale immigration. Soon in the 1920s, the fear of losing land, identity and culture to the immigrants transformed into conflict. The colonial administration was forced to separate the area for settlement, known as line system, due to which Muslims were prohibited from settling down in certain localities. During the intervening time, the colonial administration under whose backing Muslims were brought to Assam, wanted additional division between the Assamese community and the immigrant Muslim community. C.S. Mullen, British civil servant wrote while presenting the 1931 census data that if migration continues without any reduction then Sibasagar would remain the only district where Assamese race would find home of its own.
On the other hand, immigrant peasants boost their movement to nullify the line system and to attain land rights which they proclaimed as ‘gift of God’ which is to be shared by everyone under the leadership of Maulana Bhashani. The line system was criticised by the Maulana Bhashani as the apartheid but Gopinath Bordoloi-led state Congress was in favor of its strict implementation.
But, the observer tend to forget that the line system wasn’t the first attempt to keep the immigrant Muslims away from enjoying equal opportunity, the 1940’s ‘Development Scheme’ also prohibited those Muslims who migrated after January 1, 1938 from enjoying land rights.
Local people hardly gave any importance either to the ‘line system’ or the ‘development scheme’. Meanwhile, the immigrant Muslims continued to buy land from Assamese. The tug-of-war for power between Syed Sadulla of Muslim League (ML) who wanted to settle more muslims in the restricted areas for party’s electoral benefit and Bordoloi continued. Hatred against immigrant Muslims hightened further in the late 1940s when Bordoloi became the chief of Assam after overthrowing Sadulla and removed thousands of Muslim peasants in 1946, declaring them to be illegal immigrants from East Bengal settled by the earlier ML regime.
In such situation of communal polarization and conflict, the country partitioned and attained Independence. It was observed that the migration of Muslim peasants almost stopped after Independence.
“The 1951 census recorded for the first time the decreased rate of growth of Muslims in Assam, that is, 17.6% against a total of 20.2%.” – Prof. Monirul Hussain of Gauhati University
But the sentiments of anti-Muslim created in the Assamese society remained only to be expanding to newer heights by interested political forces. Post Independence, large scale violence was faced by the Muslim community in Assam and was forcibly displaced in 1950.
Known as the year of riots, thousands of Muslims fled the country to the then East Pakistan to take shelter through the open border. Hem Barua, famous Assamese parliamentarian and author, wrote that shockingly such 53,000 families who left the country in 1950 came back to Assam under the Nehru-Liaquat Pact.
The first National Register of Citizens was prepared in 1951 to remove the illegal immigrants from East Pakistan. Since then Assamese are being fed with fear of losing their land, identity and culture by the anti-immigrant..
30 lakh – On April 30, 1992, the then Chief Minister of Assam, Hiteshwar Saikia, told this figure. Two days later he withdrew his statement.
50 lakhs – In 2004, the Home Ministry said this figure for Assam.
41 lakhs – In 2009, the Assam Public Works NGO told this figure in the petition filed in the Supreme Court. The Election Commission did not respond to this.
01 crore – On May 1, 1997, the then Home Minister Indrajit Gupta told the estimated number of illegal immigrants living in the country.
SEEDING THE SUSPICION
Illegal increase in the number of voters initiated the violent demonstration in Assam in 1979 and ended in 1985 after the Assam accord. A key point of this was that the NRC of 1951 should be amended and it was considered a standard year in 1971. The Supreme Court began monitoring the process after a PIL filed in 2009. After this, work on NRC started in 2015.
CONGRESS STANCE FROM INDIRA TO RAHUL
The Congress Party, which is unable to clarify its stand on the government’s decision to send back the illegal migrants back to their country from Assam, is forgetting that what was the opinion of Indira Gandhi the then prime minister of their own party? Indira was in favor of sending these refugees back to their country to keep the country’s internal security strong. The second prime minister of the Congress, Rajiv Gandhi, had signed the Assam Accord, which is the basis of the second and final draft of the NRC.
INDIRA GANDHI’S STAND
Before the Indo-Pak war of 1971, when the two countries were deployed on the border Indira Gandhi cleared her stance on Bangladeshi immigrants in an interview.
“India always talks of peace and agreement but at this time we cannot put our internal security at risk. As in conditions of war with Pakistan are becoming such, it can harm the country from inside by uniting its people inside India. East Pakistan wants to declare itself a separate nation. In this situation it is difficult for us to keep refugees who are coming from there. We have been tolerant for the past few months but now the water has gone above the head. But in one thing, make it clear that all the refugees of all religions must go back. India will not accommodate them here.” –Indira Gandhi
RAJIV GANDHI’S STAND
In 1979, Assam Students Union launched a movement in the state to expel foreigners from Assam, which became violent. Six years later, the movement stopped when the then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, signed the Assam Accord in 1985. Through this agreement, the government tried to provide relief to the people, and made them believe that they are putting full emphasis on finding a satisfactory solution to the problem of intruders in the state. The government has also prepared a list of some proposals for this. The main point of the agreement was that the foreigners who entered Assam after March 25, 1971 will be investigated and all steps will be taken to get them out of the country.
The release of the final draft of NRC indicated that around four million of Assam’s residents could be illegal migrants. It has generated loud protests from the national leadership of congress, followed by some confused, calibrated responses from its leaders in Assam.
“The National Register of Citizens (NRC) was initiated by the UPA under Manmohan Singh to fulfill the commitment made in the Assam Accord of 1985. However, the manner in which this exercise has been undertaken by the BJP Governments at the centre and in Assam leaves much to be desired. There are reports pouring in from all corners of Assam of Indian citizens finding their names missing in the draft NRC, creating massive insecurity in the state. Clearly, after spending close to 1,200 Cr, the execution of this critical and highly sensitive exercise has been tardy. The Government must move swiftly to resolve this crisis.” –Rahul Gandhi in a facebook post
“Genuine Indians should not be sent out of the country. NRC should not be politicised and used as vote bank. It is a human rights issue, not a Hindu-Muslim issue. We are not against the NRC but it should be implemented as per the Assam Accord signed during Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure. We see it as a humanitarian issue. BJP has communalized it and Congress will not politicize the issue of NRC.” – Ghulam Nabi Azad, Congress MP
MAMATA BANNERJEE’S STAND
Major population that migrated to Assam belonged to Bengal or were Bengali’s, so at present Mamata Bannerjee, the 8th and the current chief minister of West Bengal feels that Bengali community are being discriminated.
“We will not let this happen. The BJP is trying to divide people. It cannot be tolerated. This will lead to civil war in the country, there will be bloodshed. NRC is being prepared with political intentions. We will not let this happen. They (BJP) are trying to divide people.” –Mamata Bannerjee
CLARIFICATION OF THE MESS
“There will be three forms—a claim form, an objection form and a correction form. The evidence filed for claims and objections will be thoroughly examined again, for people who have been left out.” -Prateek Hajela, state coordinator of NRC in Assam
“This is only a draft NRC and not the final NRC, because there will be a process of claims and objections beginning 30 August, whereby ample opportunity will be given to every person who wishes to file any objection to the draft NRC.” – Sailesh, registrar general of India
BJP’S CLEAR STAND
Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah addressed a hastily-convoke press conference to accuse opposition parties of protecting Bangladeshi immigrants following their protests over the draft report of Assam’s National Register of Citizens.
“They talk of human rights. I ask them, what about the human rights of Assamese people. Do the people of this country do not have human rights? How will the country run if illegal immigrants keep infiltrating its borders? All parties should clarify their stand-in a clear yes and no-on the issue of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the country.” –Amit Shah, BJP president
Dodging of the Ball
Both international and national media has shown strong criticism perceived Assamese chauvinism and sub-nationalism along with the people from all over the world showing flurry against the human rights violation in Assam as part of the NRC.
BJP is continuously being accused by Trinamool Congress and Indian National Congress; they claim that it’s a new strategy of BJP prior to the 2019 elections. A communal phase has been given to the topic, particularly overdue of the pending Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2006, and proclamation of procedural discrimination from the ground.
However, the issues we are wrestling with are far too overtone to simplify into simple good-bad dual. While there is room for debate related to the implementation, it is essential that one understands the ground realities.
No doubt the resources we have been provided by the Mother Nature is not anybody’s private property, it’s for all citizens to be shared equally. But to be noted only for citizens, not for any sort of intruders. Assamese are scared that they might lose their opportunities to all immigrants. Resources that are already limited and meant to be for sustainable use are being utilized by outsiders.
In the current scenario, if someone fails to prove their citizenship, then that person will have to go through the foreigners’ tribunal which is widely seen by the community as biased and prejudiced towards them. If that person fails to prove citizenship in the Foreigners’ Tribunal, then the person will be peeled off the citizenship rights. Then later that person appeal to the higher courts which will definitely take time and, money. None have the idea about what will be the consequences for those who failed completely to prove their citizenship.
As per the current working structure, the government has the only option to dump them in the detention centers. At present, there are six overflowing detention centers with 1,000 such people. The government is working in the Goalpara district of western Assam to build another giant detention camp. Even in the best case scenario, they would lose their civil and political rights, including the right to property, if they are not detained. Government is planning to gather their biometric information because of which they can’t flee to any other Indian states neither they can alter their identities. It is because of this circumstance that a group of “Assamese Intellectuals” are remembering history from the other side and realizing the sufferings of their own people.
It is immensely important to address the decades-old rotten dread in Assam about illegal immigrants. It is equally essential for the union government to proactively come out with a fair, obvious and transparent plan on the way forward, for those who will be identified as ‘foreigners’. It will be irresponsible on leaving a void and passing the buck to the Supreme Court and provide further fodder for the discontent loom in Assam.
Thus, a realm of deadly silence and trauma over the lives of several million people across the state has taken control.