National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Politics of Immigration in Assam

May 14, 2018


329 years ago, Edmund Burke, while speaking in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, said, “an event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent.” In the case of Assam, it is not whether the event has happened, is destined to happen, or in the process of happening; for much has already happened in the past decade that should make us sit up and take cognisance of the conditions around us.

To comprehend the subject, we must also look at the NRC and the politics of imagination. Imagination is deeply rooted in memory. We remember what we think we remember.

To understand what is happening in Assam and the Northeast today, we cannot start in 2017 or 2018; we need to go when bloodshed and terror haunted the area: 1983; a time that no one seems to want to remember.

Between 1946 and 1977, when the Congress was the dominant force in Assam politics, there appeared to be a seeming social and/or political contract between the party and the Bengali settlers who had been flowing into the valley since the early part of the 20th century. The migration that is talked about today is not a new migration, it goes back a hundred-odd years. The migrants were legitimised and given land; in return, they voted for Congress. Contrary to popular belief, this idea was not implemented by the politicians or cadres, it was the revenue staff.

The idea of justice is enshrined in Article 21 of our Constitution, the credo being, “life and liberty cannot be extinguished except by due process of law that is just, fair, and reasonable." 1983 was everything except that. To this date, many of the people whose family members were killed in the riots of February 1983 have not received compensation; those that have been compensated have received INR 5000, an insult to people who have lost their children and family members. Properties have been destroyed, and people in their old age are still fighting their cases in court.

Going back to 1946, during election season in Assam, the Congress had only one plank for the campaign: stop illegal immigration of people from East Bengal into Assam because of its impact on changing the state's demographic balance. This was largely targeting the Muslims of Bangla origin. In 2018, we are discussing the same thing, with the Congress taking a different position, largely due to a sense of realpolitik. But how far in history do you go back to define who is a citizen, migrant, and an illegal migrant? That is the essence of the NRC debate in Assam.

1983 was a watershed year for Assam, and for India. There was a huge campaign against elections in Assam, with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) stating that without deportation, there would be no elections. They had established a Janata Curfew, establishing a strict perimeter around voting booths. This resulted in extensive violence across the valley, the worse being in Nellie, when 1,753 people were killed in the space of six hours. Till this day, the exact number of deaths in unknown, and it is unlikely that the number is below 5,000. This campaign was not a spontaneous one, but heavily organised, by groups that are still active today.

Jumping forward to today, the NRC exists in an effort to define who is an Indian in Assam today. The fact that we are still having to do it in 2018, 71 years after this country took birth, is a significant commentary on how insecure people feel about the sense of nationality, how insecure they feel of their future, and how unsure they are about what actually exists on the ground around them.

One of the main problems that has happened in Assam is that nobody actually knows what a 'Bangladeshi' is. For many people, a 'Bangladeshi' is simply any Muslim of Bengali origin who came after 1947. In this case, it is to define those who came after 1971. Nevertheless, an aspect which is usually forgotten is that Bangladesh, a large sovereign nation, also has a view on the subject. Bangladesh has long resisted the idea that its people migrate to India. Bangladeshi politicians and officials usually deny the existence of economic migration into India.

The NRC is a fairly straightforward process, simply the updating of the National Register of Citizens which was first established in 1951. In the case of Assam, one has to essentially provide one's legacy data: that you are who you say you are, by going back to your family tree and proving that your ancestors were in the first list of 1951 and provide that data.

The problem with NRC is that the entire process has been outsourced, and the people who are actually entering the data have access to the information (i.e. the passwords). Hence, people are simply bribing these underpaid data entry operators to get their data entered. This corruption at a basic level has comprised the entire system.

There are innumerable cases of parents being in the list and children missing from it. This incompetence is a major barrier to obtaining a complete registry.

There is also a misbelief, largely in the right wing, that most of the 'Bangladeshis' in Assam are Muslims. In reality, Buddhists, Chakma people, and even Hindu migrants reside in Assam. This false narrative has transcended into prejudice and suspicion. For example, since the 1990s, there have been reports of various radical Islamic 'sleeper cells' in Assam (e.g. Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam). However, these 'sleeper cells' have not emerged in the past 25 years, showing that the reports was spread to only create panic and fear. These falsehoods create violence on both sides, especially during these times of radicalisation, not just in Assam or India, but in the world.

Statelessness is not a situation that should be acceptable to anyone. The Assam government is acquiring land in the Goalpara district, where it proposes to set up camps for the people who will be displaced by the NRC. There are no details as to how these camps will be run, who will live in them, who will protect them, or how long they will continue. These questions must be answered, not just from a humans rights perspective, but also a national security perspective. Remember, the Palestinian revolution grew out of camps.Read More