News & Views

Updating of “National Register of Citizens” and Recent Political Developments in Assam

ABDUL KALAM AZAD

On 21st July, 2010 one of my close family relatives, Mydul Mullah (25) was one among the thousands of marginalized Muslims of Barpeta district who were demonstrating in front of Deputy Commissioner’s office at district headquarter demanding an error-free fresh NRC (National Register of Citizens). Eventually, police brutally cracked down on the picketers and fired upon them for the ‘crime’ of exercising their democratic right to peacefully protest. After the police firing Mydul Mullah along with his three comrades Khandakar Matleb (20), Siraj Ali (27) and Majam Ali (55) succumbed to the bullet injuries. The Tarun Gogoi led Assam government was forced to suspend the faulty NRC pilot project due to unprecedented public outrage.

The question of ‘illegal migration’ from Bangladesh has been one of the most significant and emotive topics in the political milieu of Assam for almost half a century now. .

The six-year long movement (1979-1985) against illegal immigration, popularly known as the Assam Movement, spear headed by All Assam Students Union claimed itself to be a secular and nonviolent new social movement of ‘indigenous’ people to drive out the illegal immigrants. But analyses of scholars and social scientists like Prof. Hiren Gohain, Prof. Monirul Hussain, Dr. Debabrata Sarma, Diganta Sarma etc. reveal that as soon as the Assam movement accommodated right wing RSS workers into its leadership, the whole movement turned against Muslims of Bengali origin in Assam. Heinous massacres like that of Nellie, Chaolkhuwa, Nagabandha etc. were orchestrated against Muslims of Bengali origin and in broad day light thousands of people were killed. After six years of deadlock, the movement culminated in the signing of the ‘Assam Accord’ with the Government of India in 1985. The accord says that the immigrants, who came to Assam after 25th of March, 1971 will be detected and deported from Assam. One of the mandates of the accord was to update the 1951 National Register of Citizen to facilitate identification of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in Assam.  

The subsequent political history is well known, the student leaders of the Assam Movement, after signing the Assam Accord, contested the state assembly election and won with an overwhelming majority thus heralding the first Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government in 1985. The newly formed and elected AGP government ruled Assam for 10 years; but the government ran by the same leaders who led the Assam Movement couldn’t come up with any evidence of large scale illegal Bangladeshi immigration nor did the AGP-led government manage to identify actual immigrants beyond the numbers of few hundreds. It is worth mentioning here that the AGP government also miserably failed to implement almost every clause of the accord, including the clauses that were about saving the identities of the ‘imaginary pure subject’ they were supposedly fighting for.

After nearly three decades, now the NRC updating process is progressing under direct supervision of Supreme Court of India. The ‘community’ (Muslims of Bengali origin in Assam) that is, more often than not, branded as ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’ has welcomed the process. Some of the community organizations like Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union, All Assam Minority Students’ Union etc.; and various activists are putting in whole lot of efforts to make the process of NRC updating a success.   These organizations and activists are putting in lot of effort to create awareness among the affected masses about the NRC updating, to the extent that they have been organizing hundreds of meetings and workshops to educate the masses about the nuances of NRC updating process without any support from the government. It seems that the community which has been always racialized as ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrant’ has resolved to end the “shame” for once and all at any cost.

But the self proclaimed custodians of Assamese nation, whose culture and identity is supposedly under threat because of ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’, soon realized that the NRC updating will eventually dry up the prospects of raising the bogey of illegal Bangladeshi at the drop of a hat. Some of the Assamese nationalist (read chauvinist) organizations have already approached the apex court demanding further amendment of the Citizenship Act and to stop the ongoing NRC updating process. At the same time, both print and electronic media in Assam has started running propaganda against the process. For past few months every other day op-eds and editorials appear in leading dailies questioning the NRC updating process. The leading English daily of Assam The Assam Tribune in the editorial “The migration imbroglio and NE” on 17th March directly claimed that the ongoing NRC updating will legitimize the ‘illegal Bangaldeshi’ as Indian nationals! Veteran journalist and known right wing intellectual, Dhirendra Nath Chakravarty, recently said that Muslims of Bengali origin can be Indian but not Assamese. He didn’t even hesitate to suggest that certain districts where Muslims are in a majority should be allowed to secede from Assam. If one looks into history, Muslims of Bengali origin had officially adopted Axomiya over Bangla as their mother tongue way back in 1951. In fact during the language movement of 1960s and the medium of instruction movement of 1972, the Muslims of Bengali origin from Brahmaputra valley fought hard in favour of Axomiya language. Also, it is worth mentioning that poets and litterateurs from the community have made extensive contribution to the annals of Axomiya literature since the early middle of the 20th century. Even today, some of the younger and better known poets and litterateurs of Assam are from this community. .

Moreover, Hindutva groups emboldened by the results of the last Lok Sabha election have made serious inroads in Assam and are making a renewed effort to polarize Assamese society along religious lines to halt the process of NRC updating. Communal hate mongers like Pravin Togadia and Subramanian Swami have been spreading venom in Assam for past few months. Swami in his recent consecutive visits to Assam gave statements which can clearly be categorised as hate speech made with the intention to incite communal hatred. On one occasion he asked the ‘Bangladeshi Muslims’ to convert to Hinduism if they want to stay in Assam; and on another occasion he suggested that the mosques can be demolished as they are not natural places of worship.

Vested interests are using every possible opportunity to create political storms in the state which is going to polls early next year. A debate on the definition of “Assamese” has been raked up which has been creating uproar in the floor of the state legislative assembly, in newspapers and prime-time debates. The controversial debate started after Assam Accord implementation minister Dr. Bhumidhar Barman recently told the assembly that the state government has not been able to come up with a viable definition of the “Assamese”. Once the debate over “Assamese” was gathering steam, the speaker of the legislative assembly Pranab Gogoi projected him as the messiah of Assamese people and took it upon himself to initiate a discussion in his individual capacity with the civil society groups of the state to come up with a definition of ‘Assamese’. I have written elsewhere about Pranab Gogoi’s perception about Muslims of Assam as well as his respect towards democratic values and ethics. In 2013, When a group of MLAs from AIUDF, one of the main opposition parties, asked the government to clear its stand on the issues of rehabilitating thousands of conflict induced internally displaced persons of lower Assam, who are languishing in relief camps for more than two decades, Pranab Gogoi compared the legislators with crows and expelled them from the house.

One can only wonder, why the definition of “Assamese” is required when NRC updating process is going on under the direct supervision of honorable Supreme Court of India. Clause 6 of the Assam Accord talks of providing constitutional safeguards to the Assamese people. This safeguard or positive discrimination laid down in the accord is obviously meant for the Assamese people not for the outsiders or foreigners. And the accord also says that the person, who immigrated from East Pakistan/Bangladesh to Assam after 25th March, 1971 will be detected and deported. It is important to clarify here that the accord didn’t talk about providing constitutional safeguards to ‘indigenous Assamese people’ but to ‘Assamese people’, which includes all the communities irrespective of caste, creed, language or origin except those who entered the state by crossing international borders illegally after 25th of March, 1971. As per the provisions of the accord, the honorable Supreme Court of India has given directives to the state government to prepare the modalities to update the NRC. It is becoming clearer that this orchestrated debate over definition of “Assamese” is an attempt to nullify the importance of a fresh updated NRC to solve the long standing illegal immigrant issue of Assam.

As a part of the initiative of the speaker to arrive at a definition of “Assamese”, Pranab Gogoi recently submitted a report to the assembly. It is important that we look that the political implications of the definition of “Assamese” provided in the speaker’s report. He proposed NRC of 1951 as a base document to indentify indigenous Assamese. However, his definition goes against the basic tenets of Assam Accord, as the accord didn’t include the term ‘indigenous’ while prescribing constitutional safeguard for the Assamese People. There are also some practical problems with his definition:

  1. Assam government has informed the assembly on record that the 1951 NRC is not available for all the districts of Assam and for some districts partial records are available. Census report says that in 1951 census many areas were not included in the census due to poor transportation and connectivity. Moreover, it is almost impossible to retrieve any other supporting documents like school certificate, land records, employment etc considering the socio-economic conditions of that era.
  2. As per government record 53000 Muslim families fled to the then East Pakistan between 1948 and 1950 due to communal violence in western Assam, out of which 41000 came back after Nehru-Liyaqat pact of 1950 provided them a window of two years to return to India. Naturally, those families do not figure in 1951 NRC as well as 1951 census. Hence, the speaker’s definition is impractical ab initio.

This orchestrated drama by Pranab Gogoi took a bizarre turn when his own ruling congress party along with opposition party AIUDF rejected his report. The government refused to receive the report on his official capacity, as it doesn’t come under the ambit of speaker’s role. Later Gogoi submitted the report to the government on his individual capacity. In a further twist to this drama, BJP and AGP supported Gogoi’s report and his definition of “Assamese”.

A section of analysts and commentators have pointed out the widening rift between speaker Pranab Gogoi and chief minister Tarun Gogoi, and these recent development in the assembly has been seen by some as an effort on part of Pranab Gogoi to get closer to BJP before the crucial assembly election early next year for which BJP has started a campaign to win 80+ seats out 114 seats.

One of the ministers, Rockeybul Hussain openly said before the media that a section with vested interest has already started pressurizing the government to halt the NRC updating process. It is ironical that those individuals and organizations which have been shouting for decades demanding that NRC be updated are now opposing it. However, role of the state government is also not beyond suspicion. Why it didn’t take step to stop this divisive project by speaker?

Meanwhile, Supreme Court of India has slammed the state government for submitting poor and unconvincing affidavits on the progress of NRC updating process.

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