No one can really fault the concept of a National Register of Citizens. It’s the use to which the document, officially released by the Assam government on July 30, may be put that causes concern.
The reflection is not on the NRC as such, but on the bigotry of the multitude that has received explicit and implicit encouragement since 2014. That bigotry can exploit the NRC to cause strife between Indian states, sow fear and suspicion among the peoples of different race and religion, and poison India’s relations with its neighbours.
There is no dearth of politicians like Karnataka’s Basangouda Patil Yatnal, a former junior minister under Atal Behari Vajpayee, or Hari Om Pandey in Uttar Pradesh to muddy the political waters with dangerously reckless statements. Like Mahesh Sharma, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s culture minister, and the shaven-headed saffron-draped Surendra Singh, they can be expected to grasp every demographic differentiation to push their majoritarian case.
What they don’t realise is that despite the appearances, India is a land of minorities that must pull together if economic growth is not to be sacrificed at the altar of communal discord. Even the faith that is supposed to unify the country is subject to many regional and sectarian variations. Assam reflects this diversity in microcosm. But for the special political meaning of “minority”, the United Minorities Front, set up in 1985 in response to the All-Assam Students’ Union and All-Assam Gana Sangram Parishad agitation, might logically have claimed to speak for the entire state. Even people with names like Mahanta, which one thinks of as dyed-in-the-wool Assamese, fall in that category. “We are brahmins from Kanauj!” a Mahanta once boasted, harking back to the early 16th century.
As chief minister, the late Hiteswar Saikia (commander of a hundred, just as Hazarika commands a thousand) imported a Laotian scholar to teach his fellow Ahoms their forgotten ancestral Tai language. “Rome conquered Greece, Greece conquered Rome,” the erudite chief secretary explained at the time, meaning Ahoms had been completely assimilated in exile. Almost everyone being an immigrant, swarms of Marwaris also arouse no resentment. If Assam were to be ethnically cleansed, some Assamese would have to be dispatched to China, others to Myanmar.
Today’s problem is with those who might be of Bangladeshi origin. The campaign against them that some Guwahati University students forged in 1979 was rooted in the old Banga kheda movement of British times. It led to Rajiv Gandhi’s Assam Accord of August 1985, prompted the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, and set the midnight of March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date for detecting and deporting illegals. The Centre accepted an Assam Assembly resolution to revise the 1951 NRC in the context of the 1971 electoral rolls.
It’s an entirely different Assam now. The passions of the past are spent. “Dad’s from Sylhet and Mum’s from Goalpara,” a smart young police officer once told me in Guwahati, adding: “My wife is from Bihar”. Fluent in English, my taxi driver in Imphal was also nonchalantly cosmopolitan. His father was Bangladeshi, his mother a Naga, and he worked in Manipur.
The landscape, too, has changed. In 1951 Assam’s eight districts embraced Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. Today’s truncated Assam has 33 districts. I am told 95 per cent of the population or 30 million people belonging to 6.5 million families used the legacy data (the information in the 1951 NRC and the electoral rolls up to the midnight of March 24, 1971) stored in 5,000 laptops to apply for NRC inclusion.
The close of this exercise to update and authenticate the citizens’ list means that those who cannot prove that they or their ancestors entered the country before midnight on March 24, 1971 will be deemed to be illegal immigrants. Since the mapping has reportedly produced a booklet for each of Assam’s 27,000 villages and a page for each family, we probably won’t hear of the old zoolum when policemen picked up illiterate peasants and demanded proof of citizenship. Nevertheless, worried neighbouring states must be assured they will not have to cope with an influx of evicted “foreigners” from Assam.
Some states like Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and most of Nagaland can claim the protection of the Inner Line Permit system dating back to the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations of 1873. Metei nationalists in Manipur, which recently passed a contentious inner line permit bill of its own, demand similar protection. Meghalaya shares a border of nearly 900 km with Assam, and could be a convenient refuge for individuals with nowhere else to go. Nagaland, which has deployed forces along the 434-km border it shares with Assam, is considering its own updated version of the NRC. Tripura alone seems unfazed, possibly because indigenous tribals were long ago reduced to a minority by Hindu refugees from Comilla district in Bangladesh.
Assam started updating the NRC in 2015. The first draft released on New Year’s Day this year claimed that 1.9 crore of the 3.29 crore people who had applied for listing had been accepted as citizens. That would suggest that 1.39 crores are still in limbo. If not included in the final NRC, they will have a month’s grace period to file claims and objections, besides the option to seek subsequent judicial remedy.
Hence the surrounding nervousness. Gen. Zia-ur Rahman, the former Bangladeshi military dictator, once flew into a rage when I mentioned infiltrators, maintaining that Bangladeshis enjoyed a high living standard at home and had no reason to migrate. He was concerned only because instability in the neighbourhood could impact on his own country. No doubt Bangladesh’s current ruler, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, would similarly resist any deportations from India. It’s a situation that calls for tact and finesse.