Right after a spread of freshly dug ginger laid out to dry under a blazing July sun, the car eases gingerly past an elephant feasting on banana leaves off a roadside tree. It’s not a wild one, it belongs to someone. Savour the various shades of meaning the word ‘belong’ carries: animals belong to people, people belong to places. ‘Who belongs here?’ is a question that knives through Assam’s collective being right now, just like this newly macadamised four-lane highway cuts through its physical geography. Even in this remoteness, this picture-postcard Assam, we are not far from a place that would ring a bell across India. A deep, ominous ring. Nellie....
Millennials who have not heard the name may soon be familiarised with what has been called the “worst pogrom since World War II”. Here, though, there are no overt signs of being close to the site of one of history’s flashpoints, and no trace of the bad blood that flows through society’s veins even as we speak. The humid monsoon air holds no visible portents of being able to precipitate some serious trouble. A few ducks laze idly in a pond, unmindful of the children playing merry-go-round close to the bank. A rooster—its magnificent plumage shining in the sun, the rare reprieve of a clear blue sky in this season—rummages through the foliage for worms, close to a bamboo grove. It’s a season rich with prey.
Almost time for the Friday prayers. Sulaiman Ahmed Qasimi asks us to be brief with the interview. But once he begins, his rage flows, his eyes flashing as he speaks about his family’s history. And the dark stories that have seeped into Nellie’s soil. “My father was Salimuddin, his father was Kudrat Munshi, his father was Jamirruddin, his father was Megha and his father was Birbal…you see, we are a family of converts. Assam has around 1.06 crore Muslims, 40 per cent of them converts. How dare they call us Bangladeshis? How old is our Muslim identity? How can we be illegal immigrants?” His anger springs forth almost from the soil, like some wild fruit belonging to this alluvium.
Bangladeshi villagers watch a BSF patrol boat on the Brahmaputra
Sitting outside a roadside shop on this sultry afternoon, Qasimi, 49, wipes the sweat off his brows and asks, “Why do they hate Muslims so much? Why do they want to drive us out? Why can’t they accept us as their brothers and sisters, after so many years?” A BJP supporter, Qasimi is a respected figure in Nellie, a sleepy village just 70 km from Guwahati. Nellie is now in Morigaon district, carved out of Nagaon in 1989—six years after those six blood-curdling hours. In 14 villages in and around Nellie, India saw one of its worst pogroms on February 18, 1983, when over 2,000 Muslims—men, women and children—were massacred. The perpetrators, said to be people from nearby villages, were never caught. Most people in Assam do not speak about Nellie, and many even justify the killings. “You must look at the circumstances,” says Ratul Nath, a villager at a roadside dhaba not far from Nellie. “Bangladeshis are grabbing our land, what will happen to the khilonjiya (indigenous people)? The tribal people acted out of fear.”
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Khilonjiya vs Bangladeshi has always been the abiding theme in Assam’s politics. But it was never so pronounced in an officially stated way as it is today, as the state braces for the publication of a piece of paper—history will be written on that paper, so will geography, politics and social relations. The final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) will be the first official log that attempts to determine who is an Indian citizen in the northeastern state. A partial draft, published last year, had put out 190 lakh names, which had been authenticated until that point out of 329 lakh applicants. Many of those whose names did not figure later filed claims seeking inclusion. What happens to them will be known in a few days. The tension is clearly mounting.
Anna Bala Rai was dragged out of her home in a village in Chirang district on June 23 and kept at a detention camp in Kokrajhar for 13 days.
In Assam, subterranean faultlines have often erupted into violent incidents—not to forget its history of insurgency. No wonder the Union home ministry, in a July 25 press release, asked the Assam government to be vigilant. The state has asked for 150 paramilitary companies. What brings out the fear stalking official circles most palpably is the section in the press release that says “no action should be initiated by the administration or the police based on the draft NRC”. Assam has its first BJP government, and they don’t want it tainted.
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An exercise massive in scale, controversial in methodology and debatable on potential outcomes, the NRC update has divided Assam on religious and linguistic lines, sparked concerns over human rights and prompted a United Nations body to seek clarifications from the Centre. Monitored by the Supreme Court, many consider the NRC as the holy grail of all efforts to resolve an issue that has brutalised Assam and structured its polity for years—starting with a six-year-long agitation against illegal immigration between 1979 and 1985. Assamese-speaking people have grown up with primordial fears of their land being grabbed, their jobs taken and their culture and language wiped out by Bangladeshi immigrants. For many people in Assam, this constitutes the core issue in politics. It’s also an issue around which political fortunes have been made. Like the BJP riding to power for the first time in Assam in 2016, after PM Narendra Modi promised that “all Bangadeshis will have to leave Assam bag and baggage”.
Anna Bala Rai, a Koch-Rajbongshi
The actual process is a logistical tangle as much as a social nightmare. Both aspects are visible in a small room of an NGO office in Barpeta town, around 160 km to Nellie’s west, where two young men are listening to the desperate pleas of men and women tagged ‘doubtful voters’—or ‘D-voters’, people whose citizenship is under a cloud. Once tagged ‘doubtful’, they are no longer eligible to be included in the NRC until their names are cleared by the Foreigners Tribunals (FTs), quasi-judicial courts set up for the purpose. They know their names won’t figure in the NRC final draft to be published on July 30, but they can challenge their status. The NGO workers are helping them get their documents ready.
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“Never have I felt so helpless,” says Kader Ali, a 79-year-old farmer, his eyes watering up with pain and anguish. “At the fag end of my life, I am running from court to police station just to prove I am an Indian. I was born in this village, grew up here…how can a piece of paper determine my fate? Where will I go now?” There’s no way of knowing whether he is speaking the truth, or the whole truth, but such tales abound in Assam. The shaky truths of humanity are under the microscope at a time when the very sight of people wearing a skull cap or a lungi or sporting a beard raises suspicion.
Latest official data shows 1.13 lakh D-voters in Assam, while the number of people declared foreigners is around 90,000. Around 1,000 of these D-voters and foreigners are lodged in six detention camps in the state. Activists say the number of D-voters could be highly inflated as some names are repeated multiple times. Strangely, only 4,000-odd of the declared foreigners have been identified; the rest are missing. Even these numbers are a small drop in a sea—‘illegal immigrants’ are estimated at 80 lakh in Assam. That’s not an official figure. In 2001, the Centre had cited a figure of 50 lakh.
There are many layers to ‘illegal immigration’ and efforts to detect and deport suspected foreigners. Assam lies at the geographic crossroads of a landmass where millions struggle to build a life, sharing scant resources of land and food. It’s a story not just of Assam. The world is awash with millions of refugees, forced every day to seek new land, a new home—sometimes to avoid bloody conflicts, or genocide, like the Rohingyas of Myanmar, at other times just the ravages of nature. The changing global perception of migration offers a new context in which to frame the NRC process, and there’s no way India can deport thousands of people without it being noticed globally.
At the NRC headquarters in Guwahati
The NRC, a document unique to Assam, was first prepared in 1951 after the first census in independent India. Assamese leaders were afraid that Pakistan was planning a demographic change in the state—the Muslim League, after all, had pushed for Assam’s inclusion in East Pakistan, but was blocked by Congress leaders such as Gopinath Bordoloi, one of the state’s tallest political figures. The NRC update, on the basis of the 1951 register and the 1971 voters list, is expected to detect illegal immigrants by a simple logic: all those who do not figure in the 1951 or 1971 documents, nor have any of the 12 specified official papers, would be easy to spot. The 12 documents include land/tenancy records, passport, citizenship certificate, any government licence/certificate (other than ration cards), documents showing service/employment under government/PSUs—all up to March 24, 1971.
Allegations are, however, rife about procedural flaws and a systematic attempt to leave out Muslims and even Bengali-speaking Hindus. “The NRC updating process is arbitrary and loaded against certain sections. Also, the border police randomly tag people as D-voters,” says Sudip Sharma Chowdhury, spokesperson of the All Assam Bengali Youth Students Federation. The border police, tasked with detecting foreigners, can act on the basis of mere suspicion. These suspected people are served notice to prove their citizenship in the 100-odd FTs. The border police are allegedly given “targets” to meet every month. Parallely, the Election Commission marks people who have failed to prove their citizenship since 1997 as D-voters, who are barred from voting or contesting elections.
Qasimi says the present government has filled FTs with “RSS people” with an anti-Muslim agenda. “The FTs sometimes identify as foreigners even those who can prove their citizenship,” he says. “The village head and witnesses are made to sign documents in English, which they cannot read. The very people who vouch for someone’s citizenship are shown as witnesses against them.”
According to Congress leader and former CM Tarun Gogoi, during whose tenure the NRC updating process started, even the name of a former MLA was left out of the first draft. “Why are you not taking the 2016 voters list for the NRC update when the same list is used to detect D-voters? Is the voters list alright for exclusion, but not for inclusion?” asks the three-time CM. “A large number of Indian citizens have been left out (in the first draft), so there’s apprehension.”
Critics of the Congress say its governments—both at the Centre and in the state—did nothing to solve the issue as it used the migrants as a votebank, a charge Gogoi denies. The present BJP government has also faced the people’s ire, especially over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, which aims to give citizenship to refugees belonging to the religious minorities of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
There are bigger questions. What will happen to those deemed ‘illegal’? They will have the option of appealing, but what if their final appeal is also turned down? Detention camps? Deportation? There are no easy answers. Bangladesh denies the illegal presence of its citizens in India. Even the Modi government has slowly come around to the realisation that deportation is a potent and electorally useful idea, but difficult to implement. Recent reports quoting Union home minister Rajnath Singh suggest the Centre is mulling the idea of granting “long-term working visas” to the immigrants. Working visas, however, leave a lot of grey areas. Can stateless people access government healthcare? Can their children go to public schools? And whether the more outspoken Assamese organisations would accept even that is a matter of debate.
“The Assam Accord and the NRC are the outcome of the sacrifice of 855 martyrs of the Assam agitation,” says Samujjal Bhattacharyya, advisor to the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which had led the anti-foreigner movement. “The Supreme Court is monitoring the process. Those who can’t prove their citizenship have to go. Assam has already taken a lot of burden. We have even accepted 1971 as the cutoff date. We have had enough.”
The 1971 cutoff is a bone of contention: a recent petition in the Supreme Court has challenged this date and sought 1951 as the cutoff—a sign of hardening positions. March 24, 1971, is the cutoff agreed upon in the Assam Accord, signed in 1985 to end the agitation. The cutoff for the rest of India is November 26, 1949; for those who migrated from East Pakistan, it’s July 19, 1948. The more flexible calendar Assam has been conferred with brings no joy to ethnic activists. “Hypothetically, after 25 years, citizenship will be demanded for these people. It’s a question of identity for the indigenous Assamese. We cannot live like second-class citizens in our own motherland,” says Bhattacharyya.
It’s an argument that finds resonance with most Assamese-speaking people, who cite the example of Tripura, where the indigenous people were swamped by large-scale migration of Bengali-speaking Hindus. “Take the recent language census (which shows a rise of Bengali and Hindi-speaking people in Assam and reduction in Assamese-speaking people)…this is a threat to our language and culture. It’s not about religion, but our identity,” the AASU leader says.
A parliamentary panel led by Congress leader P. Chidambaram, in its report on the security scenario of the Northeast tabled in Parliament on July 19, also points to the “noticeable demographic change in some states such as Tripura and Assam” and adds that “…a struggle for land and livelihood in Bangladesh, post-independence, further increased illegal immigration to the Northeastern region. The consequent demographic changes gave rise to a conflict between the natives and the immigrants, and fuelled the growth of insurgent and separatist movements.”
The report does not say anything on the NRC, but there’s apprehension of violence in pockets of Assam. NRC officials, however, point out that similar fears expressed ahead of the first draft’s publication turned out to be unfounded. CM Sarbananda Sonowal met Rajnath Singh in New Delhi this week, apparently to discuss the post-NRC situation. An Assam Police official, who did not want to be named, promised adequate precautions to ensure there’s no breakdown in law and order. Radical religious groups could foment trouble though, he added, letting that afterthought hang in the air.
Despite the ethno-linguistic basis to the Assam issue, religion is a big part of its narrative, with the “sharp rise in Muslim population” often cited as proof of unabated migration from Bangladesh. “But the rise in Muslim population is not due to migration,” says Abdul Mannan, a retired professor of statistics at Gauhati University, who has cited four “distinct” waves of migration to Assam in his meticulously researched, data-driven book Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement—starting with the British bringing in large groups of people from present-day Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Tamil Nadu to work in the tea plantations. As the need to feed the workforce grew, the British allowed large numbers of hard-working peasants from East Bengal to settle in Assam’s fertile, but often untilled, riverine areas.
According to Mannan, there’s no grand demographic conspiracy. “The high population growth rate among Muslims in Assam stems from illiteracy and lack of family planning awareness,” he tells Outlook—and it’s comparable to any population segment marked by those socio-economic indices. He cites census data of Bajali circle, about 100 km from Guwahati, to show the number of children below age six among 100 people in the Hindu-majority area is 9.6. “Whereas, in revenue circle South Salmara, where Muslims constitute 95-99 per cent of the population, the number of children below six is approximately 24,” he says.
As D-day nears, questions multiply for all stakeholders. For former AAMSU head Taz Uddin Ahmed, one has remains unanswered since 1979: “Who am I?”
Despite allegations of an anti-Muslim bias in the NRC process and the working of the FTs, there are also instances of Hindus being tagged as D-voters. Anna Bala Rai, a Koch-Rajbongshi woman of a village in Chirang district, about 200 km from Guwahati, was dragged out of her house on June 23 and sent to a detention camp in Kokrajhar. The childless Rai, who lives with her husband in a small tin-roofed, mud-walled house, was released on bail after 13 days. “I ate nothing in those 13 days…only Mahadev baba saved me,” says the Shiva devotee, pointing to her makeshift temple in one corner of the courtyard. Rai says they had to sell their cows to collect funds for paying a lawyer to help them seek bail. In another bizarre instance, 102-year-old Chandradhar Das of Karimganj spent almost three months at a detention camp in Silchar before he was released on bail recently.
Often, land is the main factor motivating people to point out their neighbours as “outsiders”. “In one case, a Bengali-speaking Hindu lodged a complaint against a woman from outside who had married his neighbour, also a Bengali Hindu,” says Abdul Kalam Azad, who researches demography and allied social issues in Assam. “Later it turned out he had always had his eyes on the plot they had outbid him for.” How does marking out a married woman help? Well, when anyone gets tagged as a D-voter, the entire family is left out from the NRC.
Government officials admit to minor lapses, but claim the process has been largely smooth. “We have almost completed the process,” says Prateek Hajela, NRC coordinator. “People whose names don’t feature in the final draft need not worry. They need to submit their claim in the prescribed form. There’s also a provision to submit objections against ineligible people included in the complete draft NRC.”
Amid all the hope, confusion and anxiety, the Supreme Court is hearing a petition challenging the constitutional validity of the 1971 cutoff date. The petition was filed by the Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha, a conglomerate of groups fighting to safeguard the rights of the state’s indigenes. A faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) holding talks with the Centre is also seeking “constitutional safeguards” for Assam’s indigenes, which would include curtailing the rights of the non-Assamese to buy land in the state. Anup Chetia, a pro-talks ULFA leader, feels deporting people declared foreigners could be problematic as Bangladesh may not accept them. “But we can turn them into stateless individuals by removing their voting rights and all government facilities,” he says.
As D-day nears, questions multiply for all stakeholders. For Taz Uddin Ahmed, only one question remains unanswered: “It’s the same question I had in 1979. It’s almost 40 years, and I’m still seeking the answer: Who am I?” Ahmed once headed the All Assam Minority Students’ Union and is now a professor in a government college in Barpeta. It’s not an academic question for him, nor a philosophical one. It’s not a question that can be afforded the luxury of remaining unanswered—and left hanging in the monsoon air, like an invisible question mark.
What is NRC?
- An official document, it was first prepared after the 1951 census and included names of all Indian citizens living in Assam at that time
- It is being updated, starting 2015, to identify Indian citizens whose names appear in the 1951 NRC or in any of the electoral rolls up to March 24, 1971, or in any other admissible document, and their descendants
- The first draft published on December 31, 2017, included 190 lakh names out of 329 lakh applicants, and the final draft, to be published on July 30, will cover all the applicants
The NRC In Numbers
- 3.30 crore Applications received
- 3.10 lakh Online applications
- 6.6 crore Number of supporting documents submitted by applicants, all digitised
- 10 lakh plus Phone calls received at NRC call centre (in seven months)
- 5.77 lakh Number of documents sent to states/central agencies for verification
- 37 Number of countries to which 412 documents were sent for verification
- 48,000 Number of people—officials and contractual workers—deployed for the exercise
- 27.61 lakh Hearings held for special verification of married women who had to migrate from their original place of residence
- 59 Number of software applications developed exclusively for updating the NRC
- 1.07 crore Number of leaflets printed for creating awareness across Assam
- 1,310 Facebook posts
- 1,800 Tweets
- 30-50 lakh people could lose Indian citizenship. Where will they go? Without rights, they will be vulnerable. There is possibility of unrest and chaos.
- 150 companies of paramilitary forces have been sought by Assam from the Centre
- 1.3 lakh (approx) people are tagged as ‘doubtful voters’ and they will be excluded along with their family members until their cases are disposed of by Foreigners Tribunals
- Deportation What happens to those declared foreigners after they have lost all their chances of appeal? Deportation could be impossible as Bangladesh has consistently denied the illegal presence of its citizens in India.
- Work Permits The Centre is believed to be considering long-term work permits for such people
- Stateless The majority of such people can be resettled in other states in a phased manner, but without the right to vote or buy property
- Citizenship The government may grant them citizenship, say, after 10-20 years
- Grey Areas But will they have access to healthcare or education as stateless people?
By Anupam Bordoloi and Abdul Gani in Nellie, Barpeta, Bongaigaon and Guwahati