The final draft of National Register of Citizen, prepared in the troubled north-eastern state of Assam, has raised more issues than it solves and left over four million stranded, potentially as stateless persons. Political blame game has already begun, further clouding the fate of those left out.
The largest state in north-eastern India, Assam is a governance nightmare. Spread over 80,000 sqkm of widely varying terrain, a lot of it densely forested and criss-crossed by dozens of tributaries of the Brahmaputra, the largest Indian river, that literally cuts the state into two. With a population of about 31 million, the state is home to over 30 different ethnic communities and over a dozen principal tribes. It is also the only state in India with over 30 languages or dialects belonging to three principal and distinct language groups – Indo-Aryan, Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman Dravidian, It is also sharply divided along religious lines, with Muslims making up about 34 pc of the population, Hindus about 30 and the rest follow other religions including various tribal sects.
With such a diverse mix of population, which is divided on all possible lines, besides caste and economic classes, Assam has been in a turbulent state for long and witnesses frequent violent clashes amongst the various sections of people. The state also has the dubious record of witnessing some of the worst massacres in Indian history.
Millions of refugees from a war-torn East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) flooded Assam in early 1970s, before Bangladesh attained independence in 1971, after a brief war between India and Pakistan.
With most of the tribes and communities having reached and settled in different parts of the state over a very long period of time, the Assamese identity is a complex one. During the late 19th century, the British colonial rulers also brought thousands of workers from the states of Bihar and Bengal to work on the tea plantations in Assam, and obviously they too stayed on.
The Bangladeshi independence war
But the most controversial wave of migrations into Assam happened soon after the independence in 1947 and in 1970-71, during the Bangladeshi independence war, which led to millions of Bangladeshis fleeing the Pakistani Army and seeking refuge in India. Over five million people are believed to have fled into India in that period and almost all of them settled in Assam. In the years after independence, too, a number of Muslim migrants from the then East Pakistan settled in Assam.
And over the last five decades, immigration from Bangladesh is believed to have continued due to a highly porous border, which due to the forests, rivers and wetlands is extremely difficult to police, even though the Indian border forces have erected fences and increased surveillance on the border to prevent migrants from getting through to India. Most of the migrants head to West Bengal, which shares a long border with Bangladesh, and Assam as it is the largest north-eastern state.
The right-wing parties say the waves of migration from Bangladesh have led to ‘Islamisation’ of Assam, as Muslims now account for over 34 pc of the state’s population, the second highest in the country, after only Jammu & Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in India. In 1979, a group of Assamese students launched a campaign, often violent, against the migration into Assam, notably against ‘Bengali Muslims’. The agitation led to several violent incidents, but the horror of the 1983 massacre in Nellie, a Muslim-dominated village, which was surrounded by over 1000 armed tribals and activists of the students’ group. The official count of deaths in the violence that continued unabated for about a week, over 1800 villagers – women, children and men – were slaughtered, though the unofficial count goes up to 3000 deaths.
Over the years, even though there have been innumerable violent incidents and between various combinations and permutations of the communities living in Assam, over the last decade or so, it has been presented more as a clash between Hindus and Muslims, especially Bangladeshi Muslims. And these have led to demands for updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which lists all legal Indian citizens in Assam, but successive governments have been wary of opening the Pandora’s box due to the tensions that any outcome of the updated NRC would lead to. However, it was finally ordered by the Supreme Court to update the NRC and the mammoth exercise was completed last week.
Four million residents left out of NRC
The outcome was hardly a surprise as over four million of the 33 million residents were left out of the NRC. Not all of the four million are Muslims or even foreigners. Amongst those left out are elected officials, a former chief minister, a large number of persons from other states of India, working in Assam. Yet, within hours of publication, the extreme right wing parties, including the ruling BJP, began demanding ‘deportation of the four million Bangladeshi Muslims’. To calm the situation, the Supreme Court immediately ordered no action to be taken against anyone until the final NRC is published, after giving another chance to those left out to present documents to prove their Indian identity.
However, the BJP, currently on a weak wicket, facing tough elections in key states later this year and a Parliamentary election next year, which seems to have become a challenging one, has begun calling for expulsion of the ‘illegals’. Campaigning in the western state of Rajasthan, over 2500 km away from Assam, the focus of BJP’s campaign was the issue in Assam rather than its over governance record during the last five years of its rule in the state.
Revising the NRC would take time, even though the Assam government, again a BJP one, has given those left out only two months to file their claims. In addition, activists and those left out of the NRC, could go to the courts and delay the final outcome for months, if not years.The delay would suit the BJP fine as it has suddenly gotten a handle with which to attack the opposition Congress party, saying that only the BJP can protect Indian borders from illegal migrants and that the Congress and other parties are keen to keep the illegals in India as they are a crucial vote bank for them.
A bigger challenge for the government would be to decide what to do with those left out of the NRC as Bangladesh has already refused taking anyone back and hence these risk to be abandoned as stateless persons within Assam, their home for years, if not decades or generations.Whatever the outcome, the issue comes at a very sensitive time when the Indian society is extremely divided, with mob attacks and lynching becoming common, with most of the victims either Muslims or the Dalits. The controversy over NRC could add fuel to the fire.