19,06,657 is the precise total number of people whose names have been excluded from the final list of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, published on 31st August 2019. It is an act of one of the largest disenfranchisement in human history. This is not an article but an appeal. And we want this to reach as many people as possible across the globe. Intervene. Intervene with all the power you have to stop this brutal ethnic cleansing. Writes Deborshi Chakraborty.
Sahera Khatun, a resident of Sontipur in Assam, committed suicide at about 9.30 am on last Saturday (31st August) as she was reportedly told by an NRC official that her name is not on the final list. However, when the final list was published, her name was there!
Sahera is not the only person who has committed suicide because of the uncertainties and mental trauma created in the process of preparing the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. Until today, more than sixty people had done the same. On 31st August, at 11 am in the morning, as the final list was published online, the respective governments of India and Assam state and the judiciary had pushed 1.9 million more people down the same track. 19,06,657 is the exact total number of applicants whose names have been excluded from the final list of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. This is an act of one of the largest disenfranchisement in human history. Even bigger in scale compared to what was done in Nazi Germany.
This is not an article but an appeal. And we want this to reach as many people as possible across the globe. Intervene. Intervene with all the power you have to stop this madness.
Brief History of NRC
In the mid 1970s, the Assam Movement started. It was spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and supported by various other Assamese nationalist forces. The roots of the movement lay in the genuine socio-economic concerns of the Assamese people and the deprivation the people faced there from the Union government in Dlhi. However, increasingly the Assam movement turned into an Assamese supremist and racist movement, mainly targeting the Bengali population living there for decades. The main demand of this movement became the expulsion of all illegal migrants (Ali-Kuli- Bongali / Nak chapta Nepali, Musalman-Bihari-Bangali hindu Khedao Andolon) from Assam by the state and the removal of their names from the voter list. Assam movement had witnessed several violent episodes, amongst which the most horrifying was the Neili Massacre of 18 February 1983, where within few hours thousands were killed. Though the official figure put the death toll at about 1800 but it is widely believed that the number of casualties was much higher. The unofficial toll counts 3,000 dead.
In 1985, the Assam movement came to an end when an agreement was signed amongst the Indian Union government led by the then Prime Minister Rajib Gandhi and the agitators. The Assam Accord of 1985 stipulated that those who have migrated to Assam after midnight of 24 March 1971 would be excluded from the voter list.¹ Following this, several processes were initiated to identify those who have migrated to the state after that particular date. Since then and until 2015 almost 42,000 people were listed. Their voting rights were taken away, many of who were labeled as foreigners, to be sent to detention camps. Nevertheless, the number of people sent to detention camps did not exceed one thousand. Assamese nationalists had always claimed that the real number of illegal immigrants was much higher (their claim is 5 million, that is, 50 lakhs) and therefore demanded a more rigorous process for the identification of the so called ‘foreigners’. In 2014 Ranjan Gogoi, who is the current Chief Justice of India and an Assamese himself, passed a verdict in favour of preparation of the NRC in Assam under the supervision of the Supreme Court.
The process of NRC is quite complex to understand for the common populace. At the beginning all the residents of Assam were declared de-facto ‘non-citizens’. And were asked to prove their citizenship credentials to get them off the list of ‘non-citizens’. The cutoff date of 24 March 1971 implies that Assamese residents had to prove that they were citizens of India prior to that date. As for those born after 24 March 1971, they had to prove their parents’ citizenship before that date. This regulation was problematic in many ways. First of all, according to UN resolution the responsibility of proving one’s citizenship does not lie with individuals, but rather the onus is on the state. Secondly, in a country like India, and especially in a poor state like Assam, most of the residents did not have the essential documents for participating in such a process. Most of the people born before 1971 do not even possess birth certificates, leave aside other documents. Thirdly, and most importantly, the selection of 24 March 1971 as the cutoff date was unjustifiable and ahistorical. On 25 March 1971, the Pakistani Army started the ‘Operation Searchlight’ in the then East Pakistan and initiated one of the largest genocides in the human history. During the next nine months and in course of the Bangladesh Liberation War, about three million (30 lakh) people were killed, hundreds of thousands of women were raped, houses were burnt, and properties were wrecked. An estimated ten million (1 crore) refugees crossed the border and took shelter in camps located in West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura – all states bordering East Pakistan. Many of them were destitute who had lost everything including their family members. Many remained in India even after Bangladesh was liberated. Setting 24 March 1971 as the cutoff date was nothing but a step to exclude this immigrant community permanently from the NRC.
Who got excluded?
In the absence of any specific provision on the religion or the mother tongue of the applicants, it becomes difficult to precisely determine the number of excluded people based on language or religion. Yet from the chronology of events and other socio-economic factors, it becomes evident that the vast majority of the excluded are Bengalis. There are forward caste Bengalis, large number of Bengali Dalits and Bengali Muslims who have become victims of this inhumane process. There are people from other communities as well – Assamese, Biharis, Gorkhas, Santhalis and other tribal people. But since the Assam Movement in the 1970s mainly targeted the Bengali population residing in Assam, NRC pursued the same cause.
Next course of Action
Before more specific details, it is important to assess the role of BJP in this. BJP has been a fierce advocate of the NRC. In their daily rhetoric, the BJP leaders kept claiming that through NRC all the ‘infiltrators’ would be identified and forced out of India. They even promised, during elections, to start NRC in other states as well. While making contradictory promises to different communities, the BJP actively supported the process of NRC and that is how primarily it managed to come to power in Assam. But at the same time, it made promises to safeguard the interests of Hindu Bengali migrants. In order to do so, they introduced the “Citizenship Amendment Bill”, which ensures granting citizenship through a six year process of naturalization to the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Jain and Parsi immigrants from three neighbouring countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. This bill is unconstitutional as there is no provision in Indian Constitution for granting citizenship on religious basis. Moreover, the demand of Assamese nationalist forces is not just to drive out Muslims but all the ‘non-Assamese’ irrespective of their religion. That is why when this bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha, large scale protests started all over Assam. Violent protests broke out in various other stated in the region including Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland. As a result of that, the Union government backtracked and didn’t introduce the bill in the Rajya Sabha. Today, as it stands, more Hindu Bengalis (mostly Dalit-Bahujan people for various historical and socio-economic reasons) were left out of the NRC list than Muslims,² which can be mainly attributed to the fact that more Hindus migrated from East Pakistan during the time of partition and the Bangladesh Liberation War. Therefore, though the BJP’s agenda was foiled to an extent, but it has opened a Pandora’s Box not only in Assam but all over Eastern India.
All these 1.9 million (19 lakh) people who have been excluded from the list have practically become ‘non-citizens’ and ‘stateless’. Now, they will have to appear in front of the Foreigners’ Tribunal in the next 120 days. These quasi-judicial tribunals will scrutinize their documents once again and if they are found to be erroneous, they shall be declared as ‘Foreigners’. They will be taken into the custody of the Detention Camps. These Detention Camps, in which already more than a thousand people are incarcerated, are nothing but prisons. In a nutshell, the Government of India is preparing to create the largest prison in the world to lock up million of its own citizens.
This raises the following question: What about ‘kicking out the infiltrators’? The BJP leaders regularly threaten that these people would be sent to Bangladesh. But since the NRC process started, the Bangladesh government had made it amply clear that they consider NRC a domestic exercise of India, which it has nothing to do with. The official position presented by India’s Foreign Minister during his last visit to Dhaka also resonates with the Bangladeshi stand. Therefore, it is clear that neither India nor Bangladesh would send out or take in anyone. This means that all these millions of people will perish in detention camps, they will be demoted to second class population, which reminds us only and only of the ghettos and concentration camps.
Categorically speaking, NRC’s next target is West Bengal. The all-mighty Modi, Amit Shah traveled all across Bengal during the last elections advocating for the implementation of NRC to identify and kick out so called ‘infiltrators’ from Bangladeshi. At the same time, they promised Hindu migrants that they would be covered by the shield of the Citizenship Amendment Bill. In West Bengal, the BJP leaders have vigorously renewed their demand of extension of NRC to Bengal. NRC would be catastrophic if implemented in West Bengal. No other state in India has such a high refugee population as West Bengal. Almost one-fourth, if not more, of West Bengal’s population is either refugee or their descendants.³ Going by this estimation, the number of people excluded can reach up to 30 million (3 crore) there. If the process gets initiated, millions of forward caste Bengalis, Dalit-Bahujan Bengalis as well as Muslims would be stripped off their citizenship. We stand on the verge of an anarchic situation that can lead to a massive ethnic cleansing.
There are two questions regarding anything like an NRC in Bengal, which BJP leaders fail to answer:
1. Considering that there is no popular opinion in support of NRC in Bengal, why does the BJP want to implement it in this region?
2. In the absence of an agreement similar to the ‘Assam Accord’, what will be the cutoff date for NRC in Bengal? Will it be 1947, 1950, or what year exactly? Are they planning to disenfranchise all the immigrants who came to India after 1947?
There is no answer because the whole NRC exercise is nothing but an expression of ulta-nationalism and Hindu hegemony. The BJP and RSS want to change the ‘idea of India’, which constitutes the basis on which many ethnicities, nationalities, religious and linguistic communities had agreed to live together, to found a country, on the principles of ‘secularism’ and ‘democracy’. What we are witnessing today in Assam is nothing but abrogation of this very idea which kept this country formally united for the last seventy years. India was home to refugees since time immemorial, it has been a refuge for Parsis, Tibetans, Tamils, Bengalis and thousands of others who were being persecuted in their own countries. Only once in history did the ‘idea of India’ fall apart dramatically and that was the time when India was partitioned in the name of religion, creating a permanent wound in South Asian geo-politics. Now again, but this time in the name of NRC, Indian state under BJP is regressing to another epic episode of violence and brutality. This time however the events would be even more tragic. NRC is an act against humanity. Everyone should stand up against this humanitarian crisis, right now!
¹Clause 5: Foreigners Issue, Assam Accord
²In the first week of August, the Assam government violating the Supreme Court directive, presented the district-wise NRC data in the state assembly. From this data, we get to know that the rejection rates from NRC list are much higher in the Hindu majority districts than the Muslim majority districts. Even amongst the four districts of Assam, which share border with Bangladesh- Cachar, Karimganj, Dhubri, South Salmara; Cachar which is the only Hindu majority district has a much higher exclusion rate than the other three. Also going by the data, the parliamentary seats, which BJP has won also has higher rejection rate than the seats they did not win.
For further understanding:
a. Explained: How to read leaked NRC Data, The Indian Express, 12 August 2019
b. ‘Hindus have been disproportionately targeted’: Why the Assam government is not happy with the NRC, The Scroll, 4 August, 2019
³The calculation is complicated. However in 1981, According to Refugee Rehabilitation Committee the figure of refugees (those who themselves migrated from East Pakistan) settled in West Bengal is roughly 8 million. At that time the population of West Bengal was 50 million. But the descendants of the refugees who were born in refugee families were not marked as refugees so according to Abhijit Dasgupta the number goes up drastically if we add them to the existing number of 8 million.
Abhijit Dasgupta, “The Puzzling Numbers: The Politics of Counting Refugees in West Bengal”, Sarwatch, vol. 2, no. 2, December 2000
Census of India, 1981
The author is currently teaching at Gokhale Memorial Girls’ College.