The Pulse

India’s National Register of Citizens and Assam’s Dilemma

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The Pulse

India’s National Register of Citizens and Assam’s Dilemma

What happens to the missing four million?

India’s National Register of Citizens and Assam’s Dilemma
Credit: AP Photo/Bikas Das

Illegal. Stateless. Detention camps. Ethnic cleansing. Genocide. These are words powerful enough to foment fear, to push people in the margins, to let the ones who bait for blood win.

The second draft of the Indian National Register of Citizens (NRC), which aims to separate “illegal” immigrants from “legitimate” residents of Assam in India’s northeast, was released on July 30. The names of four million people did not figure in it, causing distress regarding their fates. Many view the NRC as a process of systematically targeting Muslims and Bengalis. Online media in India, as well as news channels sitting hundreds of miles away, added to the miasma of fear with their ill-informed comments and news reports, even as people across Assam have led the last few days in the comforting peace of their mundane lives.

This is not to say the huge discrepancy in the official count of millions of citizens isn’t alarming—and a potentially dangerous tool in the hands of ultra-nationalists. But the actual results of the survey are complex.

The family of a former President of India is not on the list. People who found themselves on the first list that was released on January 1, 2018, didn’t find their names in the second. Few of the several politicians who did not find their names in the first list have found themselves in the second. Assamese-speaking Hindus and Muslim, Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims: there is not a single template to deduce that people only ascribing to a certain religion or speaking a certain language have been off the list. The flaws in this unprecedented process have been many. The only common thread: “Bangladeshi” is the pejorative that anyone who has not found his name on the list does not want to be associated with.

The fissures are historical; the manifestations, current. The discontent in Assam towards the Bengali-speaking population dates back to colonial times. The first NRC in 1951 and the fiery “anti-foreigner” student-led movement in Assam from 1979 – all of these have been milestones in determining who is foreign, and who is Indian. The Assam Accord of 1985 stipulated Indian citizenship to anyone who had arrived in India before March 1971. However, the anti-foreigner rhetoric shifted from religion to indigeneity, language and culture, with an emphasis on Assam for the Assamese-speaking alone.

But the resentment towards the Bengali-speaking living in Assam continued. Finding oneself in the NRC entails proving legacy and lineage through documents. However, the parallel processes of NRC, the voters list of the Election Commission, and the Foreigners’ Tribunals with the help of the hawk eyes of the Assam Border Police, have led to utter chaos, as none of these agencies are sharing information with each other. One Assamese policeman found himself to be declared as D-voter in 1997, because his citizenship was under question. The D-voter is exclusive to Assam and introduced by the EC owing to the “anti-immigrant” issue. Another man who had his name on the first NRC was later declared a foreigner by the tribunal, even though he had submitted the same documents.

The first draft of the NRC bore the names of 19 million Indian citizens living in Assam, out of 32.9 millions who had submitted their documents to assert their citizenship. The second draft has now seen a spike in the number of those who did not find their names on the list, resulting in an uproar.

But is this hysteria helpful?

Do unfounded rumors circulated on social media—such as warnings about the internment of millions of unregistered people in “detention camps”—help or hinder the different communities in Assam that have been fractured by this long-standing issue? Even if the NRC may be a process that, as many say, demands a person to prove her roots to the soil, could it be seen as a step towards resolving an issue that has long ailed the state, which has crippled itself economically through regular strikes?

The Assamese elite depend on the cheap labour of the poor – mostly Bengali-speaking people, often Muslims – for their comfortable lives. The communities that seem to be at odds have always benefitted from each other’s particular economic place in the society.

The anger towards the NRC is valid. The anger toward the arbitrary ways in which people have found themselves to be D-voters is valid. The anger towards the ones who truly migrated illegally is valid. The anger towards the larger current political system, which aims at replacing the secular template of India with a narrow, fascist Hindu one, and thus stands to further marginalize those who haven’t found their names in the NRC, is valid. The anger towards presence of six detention camps, which holds people who have been declared foreigners, is valid. The anger towards the entrenched patriarchal system that has led to married women without legacy papers from their place of birth to be excluded from this NRC draft is valid.

What do we do with this anger in a way that truly rebuilds Assam – the “unparalleled” land of hills interspersed with valleys – as a place that holds everyone together? For one, it could begin with dialling down the hysteria. The indiscriminate headlines and comments on social media are only stoking a fire on an imaginary pyre built on fear and speculations.

What is needed is a robust mechanism of legal support for the four million who have to prove their citizenship to India with their limited means. Many have had to spend their life’s earning in legal fees, in the long-winding process of procuring and submitting documents, and challenging declarations of their non-citizenship with the courts.

The NRC was the catalyst that brought the BJP into power in Assam in the 2016 elections, thriving on an anti-immigrant – and thus, anti-Muslim – rhetoric. But at least for now, nobody is being sent to the detention camps. The four million have another month to make claims and objections. For now, political parties are keeping a close watch, with General elections due in 2019. It takes but just one spark to trigger a violent outburst, and once more marginalize the ones who are already pushed against a border wall.

History books – no matter who writes them – have ample evidence to reveal that people and communities would always find reasons to differentiate against the other. What’s expected of civil society now is to aid the scores of illiterate women and men in re-applying to the process, and pushing for a transparent hearing by NRC. At a different level, India not being a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 means that there is no policy in place to allow for those declared as foreigners to be allowed to live and thrive in peace. With Bangladesh denying any migration into India, perhaps granting work permits to those who are proved non-citizens would allow them access to labour and human rights. 

Until the larger battles are fought, the four million left out of the list do not need the alarmist rumors of bystanders, but actual assistance to ensure that their existence is seamlessly woven within the tomes of NRC and voter list, and off the Foreigner’s Tribunal. The process of establishing roots anew – by supplanting all that’s needed – would need collective efforts, and not the wails of a forest that might be wiped out.