The release of the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has generated much heat and dust. In Assam and West Bengal, effigies of chief ministers Sarbananda Sonowal and Mamata Banerjee, respectively, have been burnt. But it is unadvisable to view it in terms of binaries like Assamese versus Bengalis, or locals versus migrants, or even Hindus versus Muslims. The tale is a complex one.
The process of detection of foreigners has been going on for quite some time in Assam. Snehalata Dutta (86), semi-paralysed, was incarcerated for three months under the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act. Dutta’s family migrated to Assam before the Partition, according her son-in-law Mukul Dey. He himself was served notice and had to clear his name in court. Marijan Bibi’s (41) story is similar. In spite of possessing the right papers, she was separated from her one-and-half-year-old child and put in a detention camp. My aunt, Putul, was apprehended by the police and lodged in a detention camp for nearly a month because her pre- and post-nuptial names did not match.
Such Kafkaesque scenes are being created in the name of nabbing foreigners in Assam. The updation of NRC is a more ambitious plan than the ones that have existed so far. The Assam Movement which rocked the state in the 1980s demanded detection and deportation of foreigners. The movement ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. It mandated that foreigners who entered the state after March 24, 1971 would be identified and deported. In reality, few people were actually deported. It’s estimated that 2,442 people have been deported till 2012. The number of people declared as foreigners was about 54,000.
Could it be that not many people were declared as foreigners because their number was not high? Definitive conclusions are difficult, but one can make rough guesses by comparing the growth rate of the population of Assam and India. The assumption is, without mass infiltration, the population of Assam and India would grow at similar rates.
If we rely on such a method, it’s doubtful that substantial infiltration has taken place since the 1970s (see figure 1). In the two decades preceding 1971, population growth in the state exceeded the national average. This could be due to the massive influx of refugees from East Pakistan, which went through a period of turmoil during that time. But after 1971, Assam’s population growth fell. It was below the national average in three out of four decades after 1971. Perhaps, political stability following the birth of Bangladesh stemmed the flow. There can be quibbles that no census took place in Assam in 1981; the 1981 population figure is only a projection. If we compare 1991 to 1971, ignoring 1981, the population growth of Assam still converges with the national average. But political rhetoric deployed to whip up nationalist sentiments is often blind to cold facts. The issue lived on.
After prolonged litigations, in 2014 the court came out with the judgment that the NRC should be updated. Foreigners who came to the state before March 25, 1971 and their progeny can register with the NRC. Those who came after that date are termed D-Voters, where ‘D’ stands for doubtful.
The first draft of the NRC was released on the night of December 31, 2017. Of all those who had applied, about 58% have found their name in the list. The final list is yet to be released. But, the first list has jolted the political scene of Assam, in spite of the chief minister’s assurance that genuine Indian citizens need not worry.
Bengalis equal settlers?
Is there any reason to worry? Take the indigenous people first. It is questionable if all indigenous people have their papers in order. For instance, how many of the poor belonging to nomadic tribal communities would be able to produce documentary evidence that they lived in the state 47 years ago? In order to calm nerves, the state coordinator of the NRC, Prateek Hajela, has assured people: “It is my duty to note that no genuine citizen, that is, someone from an indigenous community, is labeled as a D-voter or a Doubtful Voter. I have personally tried to ensure that no such errors creep up in our listing process”.
Hajela’s comment is notable. It implicitly proposes that “genuine citizen” implies “someone from an indigenous community”. The former does not imply a migrant, irrespective of when she entered the state. Understandably, anxiety is palpable among the migrant settlers. As for Putul kakima, it could be proved that she was born in Assam in the 1950s. Such incidents of harassment on flimsy grounds are making the migrants nervous. Moreover, several indigenous people in the Barak Valley are Bengali speakers. Is Hajela’s assurance meant for them as well, or is there an assumed equivalence between Bengalis and settlers?
The anxiety of the migrants has roots in the ‘son of the soil’ politics, which has a long history in Assam. One may not endorse it, but it’s easy to see where it comes from. Many waves of migration reached these shores after the British annexed Assam in 1826. The Partition of the country and the Bangladesh war of independence brought in an influx of refugees. Meanwhile, the local middle-class gained strength, Assamese nationalist sentiments grew and cultural anxieties heightened. Competition with the settlers in the economic sphere lent legitimacy to demands to protect the ‘sons of the soil’. The indifferent health of the economy, evidenced in large-scale labour migration to other states, bolstered these demands. Recalling this history would help us understand why there exists a support for updating the NRC among some quarters.
The political landscape of the country also needs to be put in context. The party of Assamese nationalism, the much enfeebled Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), is only a minor ally of the coalition government led by the BJP at the Centre. The differences between their visions of nationalism often leads to friction, like the one over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The Bill grants citizenship eligibility to Hindu refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Kailash Vijayvargiya, the BJP general secretary, has demanded that the AGP must support it. The AGP, on the contrary, is up in arms on the Bill. But it is not walking out of the coalition.
What lies ahead?
Notwithstanding hopes in certain quarters, it is difficult to fathom what the mammoth and distressing exercise of updating the NRC updating will deliver. One sees two possibilities, none of which is reassuring.
First: only a few foreigners are detected at the end of the process, for, (a) the infiltrators got themselves enrolled in the NRC, courtesy corruption and callousness. Or, (b) there were not many of them to begin with – we have seen that population growth of Assam is not out of line with India since 1971 (figure 1). This is similar to what happened after demonetisation when almost all denotified notes came back to the banks. In this eventuality one may ask, what was the point of it all?
Second: it so happens that a large number of people are identified as foreigners. What will the government do with them? Bangladesh does not acknowledge that illegal migration exists. While campaigning during the 2014 elections, Narendra Modi declared that illegal Bangladeshis would be sent back. But diplomatic talks have not progressed on this front, despite the Supreme Court’s direction. If Bangladesh does not take them, will the government forcefully push the detainees across the border? Or, will military tactics be deployed, like Myanmar does on the Rohingyas?
Amid all these unanswered questions, there is a certainty: the BJP is solidly backing the NRC updation drive. BJP parliamentarian R. P. Sharma went to the extent of demanding NRC updation for the entire country so that the five crore illegal Bangladeshis can be sent home. Why is the BJP so eager to do so?
One reason is ideological. Citizenry purity drills and xenophobia are the fodder on which a right-wing nationalist party thrives. The humongous exercises we are trudging through in the last few years – Aadhaar, demonetisation, NRC updation – have something in common. They give us a rude jolt and remind us of our connection with the state. They invert the relation though: instead of people bestowing legitimacy on the state, people must prostrate before the state and plead for legitimacy. A muscular, meddling state is up the BJP’s alley.
But there are important matters of practical politics too. Let us admit that the Hindu Bengali constituency is worried. Silchar town in Barak Valley has seen press conferences, citizen meetings. Less than 40% of the valley has got a place in the first draft. This disaffection will register on the cost side of the book. On the benefit side is the assurance given to indigenous groups: we are doing something about the foreigners. After the demonetisation pains, the benefit the common man received was questionable. Yet, the party could successfully convey that they are serious about tackling black money. Something similar might happen here.
But what will happen to the D-voter Hindu Bengalis? Forsaking them goes against the core Hindutva belief that India is the punyabhu (holy land) of Hindus. Perhaps the answer lies in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Vijayvargiya is confident that the Bill will be passed before the 2019 general elections. If that happens, Hindu Bengalis would be inducted in the NRC, Muslims would be declared illegal. The march towards the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ would advance a step.
Note: The author belongs to a family of migrant settlers living in the state for four generations.
Debarshi Das is at the Humanities and Social Science Department, IIT, Guwahati.