In a three year-long project, more than 55,000 officials performed the herculean task of examining the citizenship status of more than 31 million people living in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam. On July 30, 2018, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) published the final draft excluding more than four million people out of the list, keeping them on the verge of losing their citizenship and effectively making them stateless. However, the NRC authorities have assured that they would be provided with sufficient opportunity to prove their citizenship during the claim and objection process.
There is a huge uproar among a section of Assamese intellectuals that the national and international media have ignored the historical perspective of NRC updating process. But they are being equally ignorant of the other side of the same history – the history of violence and persecution with absolute impunity. The legacy of anti-immigrant sentiment in public sphere for more than a century needs due consideration along with the colonial policies and schemes which enabled such a huge human population to move from one place to another.
Politics of anti-immigration sentiments
In mid-19th century, a British military officer Maj. John Butler visited and described Assam as “it seemed totally devoid of man, beasts, or birds; a death-like stillness everywhere prevailed”. The sparsely populated, rich in natural resources and abandon fertile land soon motivated the colonial administrators to bring large number of people from other parts of British India, including the Bengalis from the over populated Bengal to resettle in Assam under projects like called ‘Grow More Food’ with an intention to increase the revenue. The colonial administration recruited a ‘colonisation officer’ for hassle-free immigration of Muslim peasants from greater Bengal to Assam.
The immigrant Muslims settled in Brahmaputra valley accepted Assamese language and culture and denounced their Bengali identity to assimilate with the host community. As early as the 1930s, the immigrant Muslim community appealed to the colonial administration to enrol them as Assamese speaking Muslims in the census of 1941. Subsequently, they set up Assamese medium schools and started assimilating with the Assamese community, participating in various socio-cultural platforms and events, such as Bihu.
However, a wide section of the local community still felt threatened due to the large scale immigration. This fear of losing land, identity and culture to the immigrants soon transformed into conflict in the 1920s. The colonial administration was forced to demarcate the area for settlement, known as line system, which barred the Muslims from settling down in certain localities. In the meantime, the colonial administration under whose patronage Muslims were brought to Assam, wanted further division between the Assamese community and the immigrant Muslim community. While presenting the 1931 census data, British civil servant C.S. Mullen wrote that if the migration continues unabated, Sibasagar would remain the only district where Assamese race would find home of its own. Historian Amalendu Guha wrote, “The Census Report aggravated the fear complex”.
On the other hand, immigrant peasants under the leadership of Maulana Bhashani intensified their movement to abolish the line system and to get land rights which they propagated as ‘gift of God’ which is to be shared by everyone. Maulana Bhashani criticised the line system as Apartheid but the Gopinath Bordoloi-led state Congress was in favour of strict implementation of the line system. In present day discourse, the ‘cut off date’ for determining citizenship often pops up in debates and discussions. However, the commentators tend to forget that if the line system wasn’t the first attempt to keep the immigrant Muslims from enjoying equal opportunity, the 1940’s ‘Development Scheme’ also barred those Muslims who migrated after January 1, 1938 from enjoying land rights.
Local people hardly paid any attention either to the ‘line system’ or the ‘development scheme’. Meanwhile, the immigrant Muslims continued to buy land from Assamese people. Syed Sadulla of Muslim League (ML) was seen as someone tweaking the line system and settling more Muslims in those restricted areas for his party’s electoral benefit. The tug-of-war for power between Sadullah and Bordoloi continued and hatred against immigrant Muslims escalated further in the late 1940s when Bordoloi became the premier of Assam after ousting Sadulla and evicted thousands of Muslim peasants in 1946, alleging them to be illegal immigrants from East Bengal settled by the earlier ML regime.
In such environment of communal polarisation and conflict, the country became divided and attained Independence. Guha observed that after Independence, the migration of Muslim peasants almost stopped. Prof. Monirul Hussain of Gauhati University argues, “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%.” But the anti-Muslim sentiment created in the Assamese society in the run up to Partition remained only to be extended to newer heights by interested political forces.
Post Independence, the Muslim community in Assam faced large-scale violence and was forcibly displacement in 1950. Infamously known as ‘rioter bosor’ (the year of riot) among the community, thousands of Muslims fled the country to take shelter in the then East Pakistan through the open border. Famous Assamese parliamentarian and author Hem Barua wrote that as many as 53,000 such families, who left the country in 1950, came back to Assam under the Nehru-Liaquat Pact.
In 1951, the first National Register of Citizens was prepared to weed out the illegal immigrants from East Pakistan. Since then, the anti-immigrant politics has been feeding the Assamese community with the fear of losing their land, identity and culture. On the other hand, the Muslims have been regularly experiencing state-sponsored persecution and mass violence.
‘Quit India Notice’
In late 1960s, several thousand Muslims were forcefully deported to East Pakistan under a draconian scheme called ‘Prevention of Infiltration from Pakistan (PIP)’, without following any legal mechanism of detection and deportation. The border unit of Assam police used to deport hundreds of Muslims without any hue and cry. Hiranya Bhattacharjee, the former DIG of border police in 1979, stated in an interview with The Wire, “At that time, the process of deportation was on, in spite of the fact that there was no formal agreement with East Pakistan or Bangladesh on deportation. Those days, when we deported thousands, there was no hue and cry. What was happening was considered natural.”
This author traced back many such families in present-day Bangladesh who were arbitrarily identified as illegal immigrants and served notice to leave the country. They remember it as ‘Quit India Notice’. The families were separated, few members remained in Assam while a few were deported to East Pakistan. In present-day Bangladesh, they still live with trauma and social segregation. Many of their settlements and villages are known as ‘Assam Para’, ‘Refugee Colony’ etc.
Former home minister and chief minister of Assam Hiteswar Saikia admitted that 1,92,079 persons (unofficial figure is much higher) were deported under the PIP scheme between 1961-69. Prof. Monirul Hussain wrote, “Police committed excesses on the Muslims due to certain extra-legal commitments”. A border police officer, who was in charge of deporting Muslims under PIP, narrated the horrific stories of forceful deportation to this author. He said that he resigned from his job due to mental distress caused by the experience of injustice and inhuman atrocities committed upon those Muslims, apparently who were his fellow countrymen. (The individual called this author after reading the stories of deported Muslims living in a refugee colony in present-day Bangladesh).
After deporting huge numbers of Muslims to East Pakistan, Bimala Prasad Chaliha, the then chief minister of Assam, announced on the floor of the Legislative Assembly in 1969 that ‘no more infiltrators were to be found in Assam’ and hence, the PIP scheme was to be abandoned. But the series of violence and persecution against Muslims continued unabated. Since the early 1980s, an unprecedented violent agitation against the Muslims engulfed the entire state. The agitating group alleged that large number of illegal Bangladeshis infiltrated to Assam during Bangladesh’s Liberation War. But the data says that only three per cent of total Bangladeshi refugees (85% of whom were Hindu) took shelter in Assam. Even smaller states like Meghalaya sheltered more than double of Assam’s figure. But the agitation continued full-swing based on false propaganda and constructed xenophobia. The six year long students agitation took several thousand lives, including the victims of the infamous Nellie Massacre where an estimated three thousand Muslims were killed within few hours of day time.
In 1985, the agitating groups, the state and central governments signed the ‘Assam Accord’ and agreed to detect and deport any immigrant who entered the state after March 25, 1971. This document is seen as the genesis of the ongoing NRC updating process.
After several years of debates, discussions, and also several rounds of violent events, almost all the stakeholders, including the Muslims who are often branded as illegal Bangladeshis, came to the consensus of updating the NRC. The Muslim community perceived an updated NRC as panacea to all sorts of persecution, harassment and discrimination which are running high for nearly a century.
But gradually, the NRC was made another tool of persecuting the Muslim and Bengali Hindus through its range of exclusionary and discriminatory provisions. Though the entire population of Assam had to file the application for inclusion in the NRC, as many as 12 million “indigenous people” were given the benefit of ‘original inhabitant’ or ‘OI’, a category which may not even hold any constitutional validity and was never part of the initial modalities but it empowered the lowest level registering authority to include any names even if s/he fails to provide any documentary evidence. On the other hand, the Muslims, Bengali Hindus and few other marginalised groups are subjected to stringent verification process, including a ‘family tree’ matching.
Apart from this discriminatory and racial provisions, the NRC authority deployed a number of exclusionary diktats, mostly beyond the initial modalities to exclude as many Muslims and Bengali Hindus as possible. Already, there are more than 1.3 lakh people who are arbitrarily marked as doubtful or D voters and their cases are pending in the 100 Foreigners Tribunal set up by the Supreme Court across the state. The NRC authority excluded those people from the draft NRC, to which the SC agreed. It also excluded the declared foreigners, their descendants and siblings as well, to which the Gauhati high court agreed. Even several thousand people who have been declared as ‘Indian citizen’ by the tribunal were also not included in the final draft.
Initially, the NRC authority accepted a number of documents, but at the last moment, the district level officials were instructed either to reject certain documents or were instructed to strictly scrutinise the contents of those documents. It can easily be inferred that these discriminatory and exclusionary provisions were fielded to inflate the number towards the fag end of the process at the cost of genuine Indian citizen’s suffering only to fulfil the collective conscience of a politically motivated hostile regime and some chauvinist groups.
This will have far reaching repercussions on the lives of several million people, mostly poor and impoverish and already messed up in the recurrent conflicts and environmental disasters. Thousands of families across the state are going through tremendous mental pressure and trauma. In most cases, some of the members of a family have been included and the remaining are excluded. Most of the excluded are from the vulnerable groups, like women and children. This has not only affected the excluded but also the family members who are included in the list. In the last few months, more than a dozen of people have committed suicide, said to be in the fear of losing their citizenship.
In the current scenario, if someone fails to prove his/her citizenship before the NRC authority during the claim and objection process, then s/he will have to go through the foreigners tribunal which is widely seen by the community as biased and prejudiced towards them. If the person fails to prove citizenship in the Foreigners’ Tribunal, the person will be stripped off the citizenship rights. He/she can thereafter go to the higher courts, which will take time and money. Nobody knows what will happen to those who fail to prove their citizenship.
As per the current mechanism, the government has the only option to dump them in the detention centres. Presently there are six overcrowded detention centres holding about 1,000 such people and the government is working on to build another giant detention camp in the Goalpara district of western Assam. Even in best case scenario, if they are not detained they would lose their civil and political rights, including the right to property. They wouldn’t be able to flee to other Indian states; as the government is planning to collect their biometric information so that they can’t forge their identity and flee to other states. Thus, an environment of deadly silence and trauma has taken control over the lives of several million people across the state.
It is in this context that a section of “Assamese intellectuals” look at history from the other side and realise the sufferings of their own people.
Note: This article was replaced with an edited version a few hours after it was first published.
Abdul Kalam Azad is an Assam based researcher. He tweets @abdulkazad.