The Assam Movement Goes On, Only the Nomenclature Changes

The final irrationality of denying citizenship to four million people is that the current turmoil over the National Register of Citizens may come to nothing just as periodic movements to unperson the immigrant Muslim have failed to deliver.

I have known Amin and Amal (not their real names), both from Assam, for nearly half a century now. We got recruited to the same big bank together and saw a lot of each other during our training period when life was possibly at its best. You had a great job amid armies of educated unemployed all around. It was also too early to worry about career prospects and timely promotions, hence no intra-batch rivalry.

Amin was slim, boyish and soft-spoken. His greatest asset was an underplayed sense of humour, which came out best when he wrote a letter to one of us. Amal, with his light beard, was robust and genial to the core.

Over time, as we got different postings and went our different ways there was little contact but the core of our friendship remained. Threads were picked up whenever we were in each other’s town or unhesitatingly called each other on the phone when there was a need.

Decades later, when Amal was free of job restrictions and wanted to write, he got in touch with me as I was in the media. When I learnt that Amin was with a local paper, I freely called and picked his brains on developments in Assam. I wanted to keep in touch as I had covered the Assam movement in the late 70s and early 80s and considered myself a bit of a specialist on the northeast.

It is impossible not to fall in love with the northeast as soon as you have got to know it a little. The rain soaked weather, the blue hills, the richness of nature (not to speak of the marijuana that made me retain unique memories of Shillong) and of course the diversity of its peoples. “Asia in a microcosm” sounds a cliché but it so aptly describes the northeast.

It would have been a total surprise if in the old days anybody had suggested that we three were not chips of the same block. If anything, I was the least Indian, culturally. Having been brought up in an English medium boarding school, I was closer to western cultural mores than the other two.

The realities have caught up with all of us in recent years. As divisions have deepened in the northeast, I have found Amin getting more circumspect over the phone. Then one day, in a congratulatory mode, I noted to Amal how it was great that Assam has become self-sufficient in its staple, rice. His reaction, bordering on unconcern, surprised me.

I mulled over it and then a World Bank feature gave me an explanation. It spoke of the success of the bank’s “Assam agricultural competitiveness project” which it attributed mainly to improved irrigation. But the details also told a more complex tale. Paddy output and productivity had sharply improved in four districts, three of which are Muslim minority. The hard working immigrant Muslim cultivator gave the Assamese middle class a feather to wear in the cap which it did not care much about.

The feature quoted, other than officials, four whose lives had changed – two Muslims (cultivator and forest dweller with new rights), a Scheduled Caste member (fishery) and a Nepali (dairy). The Assamese caste Hindu had been left out. Mostly a land owner, like his counterpart in pre-independence Bengal, he didn’t do much of the cultivation himself.

The current realities finally hit me when Amin said somewhat ruefully over the phone that his wife’s name was missing from the National Register of Citizens of India, though her parents belonged to a neighbouring Indian state and their Indian citizenship was above any doubt. Also unpersoned were his son and daughter-in-law, interestingly the daughter-in-law who has the names of both her parents in the NRC draft list. A huge four million people, 12% of the state’s population of 34 million, had been left out.

To put the present situation in its recent historical context, one has to go back to how the Assam Movement (called ‘agitation’ initially) began in the late 70s. The death of the MP from Mangaldoi, Hiralal Patwari, in 1978 made a byelection necessary. But it was found that there was a sharp jump in the number of voters on the electoral rolls. This laid the foundations of the Assam movement against illegal migrants from Bangladesh swelling voters’ lists and acquiring the ability to swing election results.

Assam movement. Credit: Wikipedia

The current tumult caused by the population register ultimately boils down to who can vote in Assam in the future. One of the criteria to have your name in the electoral rolls is to have it in the NRC. Though the Election Commission has clarified that your name does not automatically get struck off the electoral rolls if it is not there in the NRC, fear rules among those left out.

At the end of the day the mandate to rule depends on who has the numbers and a minority, if it is sizeable, can swing results one way or the other. In the 2016 Assam assembly elections which the BJP and its allies won handsomely, the NDA secured 41.5% of the votes, the UPA 31% and critically the Maulana Badruddin Ajmal led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) 11%. Despite sharply improving its vote share from 11.5% in 2011 to 29.5% in 2016, the Hindu consolidation of the BJP has still some way to go.

In this situation, when electoral alliances are all important and the Congress has been unwilling to forge an alliance with the AIUDF which is considered to be communal, every vote counts. Disenfranchisement of a large numbers of Muslims which will take away Congress and AIUDF votes will make the position of the BJP and its allies unassailable. It will be the best of all possible worlds for the BJP if it can rule while the immigrant Muslim cultivator keeps bringing in the harvest.

Deportation itself is low priority because it is virtually impossible to achieve. Since illegal migrants are considered to have come largely from Bangladesh, a pact with that country is essential for them to be sent back. The chances of that happening are zero.

The register itself has taken three decades to acquire some kind of shape if not credibility. In this period the Assam Gana Parishad which spearheaded the movement was in power in the state for 10 years (two stints beginning 1985 and 1996). In those 10 years about a thousand “foreigners” were detected and today there are under 2,000 in half a dozen detention camps.

Who has the right to vote is important in not just Assam but in West Bengal too. The BJP is now the second biggest political party in the latter and has called for an NRC in the state too. The fear of being dominated by Muslims goes back to the pre-Partition days when the educated Bengali middle class, with its roots among the landed gentry, looked askance at the advent of universal adult franchise. The Muslims, largely converted lower caste Hindus who were the praja or subjects who cultivated the land, with their own emerging middle class, did not want to remain dominated by the Hindu numerical minority. These were the twin forces which led to the second partition of Bengal along with Independence.

When we were children, we were put to sleep at night with stories of the bogeyman of Partition horrors. To my parents Dhaka was easily the loveliest place on earth, which they perforce had to leave. When I went to Presidency College and the phone calls went back and forth between the boys and girls in my class, my mother who wouldn’t hurt a fly told me, “Baba, whatever you do, do not marry a Mussalman.”

I was shocked out of my wits. How could she, of all people, harbour a sentiment like that. She was the kindliest person I have known, who thought that her god had send her to earth foremost to keep cooking and feeding people, family and visitors alike. I am sure that had I married a Muslim girl, she would have embraced her too with open arms. To recall all this is to say that the communal divide that gave rise to partition and the memory of it are real issues which an individual has to overcome and leave behind because time moves on. I was in good part shaped by a college which had a tradition of embracing and creating a sense of modernity in a very radical way.

The final irrationality of denying the citizenship to four million people is that the current turmoil over NRC may come to nothing just as periodic movements to unperson the immigrant Muslim have failed to deliver. Amin believes that the turmoil will die down after some time. Nobody will be deported. “The issue is whipped up periodically to achieve a degree of political mobilisation for electoral purposes. Remember, most of them who don’t figure in the NRC are there on voters’ lists. How do you think they have the documentation to enable that? In normal times the administration at the cutting edge is willing to play ball, for a consideration. It is the same administration that prepares the voters’ lists and the NRC.”

It is impending elections, be it in 1978 or 2019 which periodically wake up a dormant demon which goes back to its slumber after some time. All that changes is the nomenclature. In the 70s the movement was initially against the bahiragata (outsider). Since that could also cover migrants from other Indian states, the enemy became the bideshi nagarik (foreign national). Today it is straightforwardly the Bangladeshi, a target easy to identify. As time goes by the nomenclature will change again but the reality will not.

Subir Roy is a senior journalist and the author of Made in India: A study of emerging competitiveness (Tata Mcgraw Hill, 2005) and Ujjivan: Transforming With Technology (OUP, 2018).

Join The Discussion