A few weeks after the 2012 Bodoland anti-Muslim riots, I was in Assam for the first time, reporting on its aftermath. That riot, like several others in Assam, was but a manifestation of the xenophobic politics there, since independence, in the name of illegal immigration and “doubtful” citizens. I have since followed developments in Assam, which has only deteriorated as the revision of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) progressed.
Assam has consistently garnered media attention in the past few years in the wake of the Supreme Court-monitored revision of the NRC. There, however, remains a huge gap in the understanding of the ground realities of the manmade catastrophe that is otherwise deemed as a sensitive matter by most Assamese nationalists. No Land’s People: The Untold Story of Assam’s NRC Crisis, written by Guwahati-based journalist Abhishek Saha, hopes to reduce this gap by documenting “the unfolding human crisis in Assam”.
The author’s grandparents had migrated to Assam from erstwhile East Bengal/Pakistan, a few years after Partition, hoping for a more secure life in Hindu majority India. His grandmother was first marked a D-voter (Doubtful voter) in the 1990s and was subsequently left out of the NRC list, though everyone else in the family was included.
Although Saha grew up in Guwahati, as a journalist he worked outside the state till 2018, when he returned as the Assam correspondent of the Indian Express. No Land’s People is as much the culmination of his reporting work of the past few years as his quest to find out how and why his grandmother finds her citizenship being suspected, and might even be declared an illegal foreigner. Unless, of course, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) brought by the BJP-led Union government gives her, and lakhs of Bengali Hindus, a backdoor entry.
Meanwhile, the fate of Bengali-origin Muslims left out of the NRC, and possibly many lakhs more, if the NRC is further revised as the BJP has promised, remains uncertain. They live in perpetual fear of being declared illegal immigrants or ghuspaithiya and cooped up in detention centres. Saha’s book documents these complexities and more. Although the book is personal at one level, Saha has endeavoured to maintain a reportorial distance in documenting different aspects of the subject.
The propaganda that infiltrators from Bangladesh have allegedly come to Assam with an agenda of colonising the land, making “original inhabitants” a minority in their own land, relies on “theatrical numbers”—anywhere from 30 lakhs to 2 crores.
The book begins with detailed deliberation on “finding the ‘foreigners’” and the “correct NRC”, which was first done in 1951. The author examines different figures and statements given by politicians, senior bureaucrats and ministers, and even the High Court and the Supreme Court, and demolishes them by exposing their inherent fallacies based on correct data and fact.
It was to solve this age-old mystery and finding the correct number of ghuspaithiya that everyone in Assam demanded an update of the NRC. This finally began on the direction of the SC in 2013 and under their supervision, led primarily by Justice Ranjan Gogoi. The final NRC list was published in 2019.
The book serves an important purpose as a chronicle of people who may be rendered stateless, and of foreign tribunals (FT) that act like “kangaroo courts”, often declaring people as illegal foreigners in absentia. It points out how the “list of the excluded was often haphazard, defying logic, the “vast majority” of whom were “poor and illiterate, for whom the intricacies of the exercise proved extremely difficult”.
The book reminds how there have even been instances of Assamese speaking Muslims, Hindi speaking Hindus from UP settled in Assam, Koch Rajbongshi, among others, also being declared illegal immigrants by FTs. Listing instances of some of the detainees, including retired army personnel, government servants, pregnant women, et al in detention centres, the author points out “how mechanisms originally intended to detect East Pakistani or Bangladeshi-origin people had metamorphosed into a monstrous process that could consume anyone, except the Hindu Assamese or indigenous tribal communities.”
As the NRC revision process was going on, the “shifting goalposts” for the practically impossible list of legacy documents not only troubled the poor and illiterate, but the ensuing chaos also resulted in several deaths. Even a nephew of the former president of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, found himself out of the NRC list. Many Bengali Muslims saw the NRC as an opportunity to end the farce once and for all, even if that meant bureaucratic hassles. Most Bengali-origin Hindus, however, had never expected this kind of harassment.
But once the pandora’s box opened, many like 70-year-old Nirod Baran Das, a retired government school teacher and lawyer in Darrang district, could not live with the humiliation of being tagged as a Videshi. He committed suicide days after his name was struck out of the second list of the NRC. According to a report, between 2015 and 2019, at least 28 persons committed suicide in NRC-related matters.
The chapter on “legal snarls” highlights different legal aspects to the citizenship impasse. Prateek Hejela, the former state coordinator of the NRC, was accused of creating a rigid, uncompromising, and unsympathetic system that did not consider even minor spelling errors. But in the chapter on the “much-misunderstood coordinator”, Saha seems to have given him the benefit of doubt as a bureaucrat doing his duty, albeit with little empathy for those affected.
Titled “political gamesmanship,” the last section puts in perspective how NRC made everyone unhappy, even those who campaigned for it. It was in this context that Amit Shah had tried to explain the “chronology”, advocating not only CAA but nationwide NPR-NRC to identify the “termites” (read Bengali-origin Muslims), while accepting Bengali-origin Hindus as persecuted refugees, even though it angered the Assamese.
But the book seems to have been hurriedly written and edited, possibly with a pre-election publication in mind. Further, there are gaps in explanations on the absurdities in the “theatrical” numbers of alleged intruders. Saha fails to explain how, and more importantly why, anxiety against ‘outsiders’ turned into xenophobia against Bengali-origin Muslims in particular.
In his 2017 book Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement, Abdul Mannan suggests the critical role of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in turning the Assam movement against outsiders in general to the alleged Bangladeshi intruders. The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-east by Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha, too, attests to this position. Seen in this light, Assam looks more like the rest of India; it explains the success of the BJP in the state as well.
Saha similarly refers to the debate over “original inhabitants” in Assam in the context of the NRC procedures. But he does not problematise the issue, as Assam is largely a society of migrants. Professor Monirul Hussain once noted, “All are migrants, including Bodos. No one is aboriginal here. Differences are that some came earlier some came a little later.” Migrants from then East Bengal may have settled in Assam in the last century, but largely when it was one united nation, and briefly even one united province, besides those who migrated during Partition and after Bangladesh’s independence in 1971—a large number of whom are Bengali Hindus, like the author’s family.
No Land’s People, however, is one of the rare books in English written from the perspective of a Bengali-origin Hindu of lower Assam that tries to highlight not just the absurdity of the debate that Assamese nationalists deem sensitive. More importantly, it documents with objectivity the plight of over 19 lakh people who are staring at the possibility of being rendered stateless. Despite its shortcomings, it is an important intervention.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Banishment To Limbo")
(M. Reyaz is head of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Aliah University, Calcutta)