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Assam’s alien settlers

This heartless and mindless exercise has cast a new Radcliffe Line across humanity, buttressed by a callous, inhuman and insensitive state which is likely to cause untold suffering to millions. Reason has been sacrificed, lives destroyed and the faultlines and cleavages in society have widened irrevocably.

Govind Bhattacharjee | New Delhi |


I n the context of Assam, the alphabet D stands for’doubtful’. It now stands for’doomed’, which seems to be the fate of 19 lakh of Assam’s 3.29 crore people whose names have been left out of the final version of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Many of them, branded as D-voters, are already under incarceration in the detention camps; their fate has now been finally sealed. Technically they still have the recourse to the law, but going through the treacherous route of appealing to the Foreigners’ Tribunal to establish their citizenship by submitting evidence they could not collect during the protracted process of NRC finalisation and then eventually submitting themselves to the mercy of infinite tardiness of our dated legal system, many opt out and instead resign themselves to the fate that awaits them ~ to live as outcasts of society. Most also would not have the resources to pay for the costly appeal process, having already exhausted all the savings, besides selling all their assets including livestock, land and dwelling just to attend the hearings at distant NRC centres and for collecting documentary evidence of their citizenship in a land they and their ancestors have been living in for ages, from much before the cut-off date of March 24, 1971. Most are already so deep in debt that their remaining span of life is doomed anyway. They can only stare at a blank and bleak future, with or without their names included. At the end of this humongous and absurd exercise carried out at a whopping cost of Rs 12000 cror of taxpayers’ money, one is left wondering about its purpose and what it did achieve after all, which has made no one happy. The only person gloating over its success seems to be the NRC Coordinator, Mr Prateek Hajela.

At the political level, the BJP, the AGP and the Congress and the other entities like the AASU and the Assam Public Works (APW), the NGO whose PIL had triggered the whole process in 2009, are equally unhappy, though for different reasons. The BJP finds itself in a bind because its immigrant narrative has not been vindicated by the final figures, and so is Congress, not knowing which side to take. AGP and AASU which spearheaded an aggressive six-year movement from 1979 to 1985 seeking detection and deportation of illegal Bangladeshis are unhappy because their demonization of the Muslim community in Assam, as consisting mainly of Bangladeshi immigrants, does not seem to hold good. APW is complaining of manipulation of the legacy data with the connivance of officials. Indeed, if the final NRC numbers are to be believed, all the assertions of Assamese leaders and intellectuals about the seriousness of the immigrant issue dissipate into thin air. At the human level, the thoroughly arbitrary exercise has divided families and communities with an extreme perversion of logic and sacrifice of common sense. Children have been left out while parents have been included, and vice versa. Siblings and spouses find themselves on opposite sides of the divide. Families have been broken and relationships shattered; many have committed suicide, having come to the end of their hope. In this heartless and mindless exercise, men and women, minors and majors, Hindus and Muslims have all been treated unfairly, with equal insensitivity. Mr Hazela has cast a new Radcliff Line across humanity, buttressed by a callous, inhuman and insensitive state which is likely to cause untold suffering to millions. Reason has been sacrificed, lives destroyed and the fault-lines and cleavages in society have widened irrevocably. This solution has made the problem ever more complex and intractable.

Though the district-wise final exclusion figures are not yet available, it is believed that among those excluded are more Hindus than Muslims. Especially in the three Barak Valley districts which harbour majority of the Bengali-speaking population of Assam, the exclusion figures are believed to be very high. It may be recalled that after Partition, almost the entire Bengali Hindu population living in the contiguous Sylhet district in the then East Pakistan had migrated en masse to these three districts of Assam, contributed to the state’s political, social and economic life and had fought and died too for the Bengali language in an independent India. This is not to say that there are no illegal immigrants or to that they should be registered as citizens. In the NRC draft published earlier, about 40 lakh people were excluded. The Assam Government stated in the Assembly that in the bordering districts South Salmara, Dhubri or Karimganj, the exclusion percentages were respectively 7.22, 8.26 and 7.67, while in the districts of Karbi Anglong or Tinsukia where the indigenous people mostly live, the exclusion percentages were much higher ~ 14.31 and 13.25 respectively. This was not surprising because the immigrants who successive Congress governments had nurtured as vote banks were proactively helped in obtaining the necessary documents like ration cards or voter IDs through corrupt officials with the connivance of the Government machinery, whereas indigenous people hardly cared about such documentation. Reports say that about 8000 people from the indigenous tribal communities of three Upper Assam districts of Dibrugarh, Sibsagar and Tinsukia have not even applied for inclusion of their names, believing themselves to be Bhumiputras and hence natural citizens not requiring any certificate for citizenship in a land their forefathers have lived and died in since unremembered times.

A poor country is also document-poor, and the absence of documentation mostly affects the poor. There were two requirements for inclusion in the NRC. The first requirement was one of the 14 specified documents: 1951 NRC, Electoral Roll (till 24th March 1971), Land and Tenancy Records, Citizenship Certificate, Permanent Residential Certificate, Refugee Registration Certificate, Passport, LIC policy, Government Licence, Government Service/ Employment Certificate, Bank/Post Office Accounts, Birth Certificate, Board/University Certificate or Court Records. Providing any of these pertaining to any period before the cut-off date would suffice for inclusion in the NRC. But this provision applied only to older people who were living in Assam before 1971. For the younger people, there was an additional requirement to establish their relationship with their parent and grandparent or great grandparent whose name featured in the list by virtue of the first requirement, and it was here that people could not provide the necessary documents.

Now, consider an illiterate or school-dropout who is a trader, labourer, farmer, rickshawpuller, grocer, vendor, barber, artisan, plumber or electrician, drivers of the informal sector who constitute a huge chunk of population not only of Assam, but of the entire country. How would they possess the specified documents, especially in the absence of a nudge from the State, as in the case of Aadhaar? What was the incentive for a daily-wager to go and open a bank account, more so before 1971, when poverty was so endemic that the idea of saving was a joke for him? As regards birth certificate, I myself don’t have any, having born in a village without any health centre.

The immigrant narrative also needs some reality check. Migration is a fact of life, driven by either social or political persecution as with the case of Hindus, or economic chaos and greener pastures as in the case of Muslims from Bangladesh. But Bangladesh is fast catching up with India; its economy has been growing at the rates exceeding seven per cent for several years now, while our growth has plummeted to five per cent. Their per capita income is also approaching ours ($1750 in 2017-18, against India’s $2020). Incentive for economic migration is thus diffusing into thin air and working up a xenophobia brings accolade to none. Some 11 detention camps are reportedly under construction at a cost of Rs 1000 crore in Assam ~ the noman’s land for the citizensturned-refugees. The first of these will come up in Goalpara for 3000 people rendered stateless by the exercise, people whose lives and rights will be appropriated by an unfeeling state that knows no compassion for those it has branded as aliens. In these camps, the castaways will live in a Kafkesque world where justice will follow its own arcane rules and humans will decay. Wonder which national objective will be served by defacing humanity will serve which national goal.