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Shrinking the idea of citizenship

By Ajaz Ashraf

Ever since the final draft of the National Register of Citizens for Assam was released on July 30, the media has featured poignant stories about some of the 40 lakh people who were excluded from the list. Most of these articles have either a Muslim or Hindu Bengali as their protagonists. Almost all these people claimed to have submitted the requisite documents to prove that their ancestors were residents of Assam.
Surprisingly, there have been relatively few stories about Hindu Assamese being excluded from the final draft of the register. There were, of course, stray cases of Hindus being excluded – a BharatiyaJanata Party MLA and his wife failed to pass muster, for instance. Yet, overall, surnames that are unambiguously Assamese in origin – Gogoi, Gohain, Barua, Mahanta, Saikia, Sarma, Hazarika, Sonowal and Basumatary – have rarely surfaced in the media accounts of people who did not make it to the final draft.
The register, which is being updated for the first time since 1951, is meant to be a definitive list of Indian citizens in Assam, separating them from those the state believes are “illegal immigrants”. Every eighth application out of 3.29 crore submissions to the register have been rejected. But Hindu Assamese appear to have a negligible presence among the 40 lakh people who have been excluded.

It cannot be the case that almost all Hindu Assamese, regardless of their caste, tribe, income and literacy differences, preserved personal documents outlining their family descent, and that the names of their ancestors mostly matched those in government records.
The officials involved in the National Register of Citizens exercise are said to have created the category of “original inhabitants” as an internal filter to separate this group from others who had a high probability of being undocumented immigrants, whose submissions were presumably subjected to greater scrutiny. This runs contrary to the Supreme Court’s clarification in December that the counting exercise in Assam, which it was monitoring, was not about determining the original inhabitants of Assam as it would create a superior class of citizens, but about determining citizenship under the Constitution of India and under the Citizenship Act.
However, since officials working on the counting exercise said that the internal filter of original inhabitants was initially created to ease the bureaucratic pressure of scrutinising 3.29 crore applications, their action subliminally linked the idea of citizenship to identity – a sense of which could only be derived from Hindu Assamese names.
Perhaps for the first time in India, cultural identity has trumped the complex legal and political discourses behind the notion of citizenship. As an idea, it comes eerily close to the cultural nationalist’s definition of who is Indian.
“Given the high political expectations from NRC by cross-sections of residents of Assam, it cannot be denied that the NRC machinery at lower levels operated with a cultural bias,” said ArupjyotiSaikia, a Guwahati-based historian who writes on modern political and environmental history. “Moral and political compassion was temporarily shelved.”
The updating of the NRC was popularly viewed as a way of finally resolving the festering debates around undocumented immigrants in Assam. For linguistic and religious minorities, the exercise represented an opportunity to get rid of the illegal immigrant tag. For the majority, it was a chance to identify those they deemed to be foreigners.
This mounted tremendous pressure on the officials in charge of updating the register, many of hom have strong memories of the state’s anti-foreigner movement (1979-1985). The counting exercise, therefore, became a test of their patriotism. “Finding a discrepancy in the world of writings” became a political tool, said Saikia. “This led to an amazing level of precaution at the lower levels of the NRC machinery.”
This caution prompted bureaucrats to reject applications in case an ancestor’s name in the applicant’s document varied – even in minor ways – from how it had been spelt out in government records or if it was a squiggle not readily discernible. Obviously, some names that provided clues to their ethnic identity would be scrutinised more rigorously than others.
Saikia’s own relatives from one branch of his family were not listed in the first draft of the register because their surname, he suspected, is shared by Bengalis too. But the historian and his relatives were not alarmed. After all, they are middle class and belonged to the social world of ethnic Assamese. They can always reach out to some official to resolve their problem.
“The social institutions [caste, tribe, religion, ethnicity] built into the NRC bureaucratic machinery necessarily helped to include the names of those people in the NRC who are the key constituents of Assam’s long cultural history,” Saikia said.
The social composition of the 40 lakh people who have been excluded from the final draft of the document has not been made public. The BharatiyaJanata Party has been claiming credit for identifying people it describes as “infiltrators” in Assam. Given that it uses the term “asylum-seeker” for Hindu Bengalis, the impression has been conveyed that the category of excluded people predominantly comprises Muslims.
To pre-empt such presumptions, it would have made sense for the government to disclose the social composition of those who have not made it to the final draft, and the reasons for their absence – whether, for instance, they lacked proper documents or because the names of ancestors cited by applicants did not match with those in government records.
Just how presumptions can turn out wrong is evident from the views of sociologist Prafulla Kumar Nath, of Assam University, Diphu Campus. He believes that Hindu Bengalis will form a larger share in the excluded 40-lakh set than Muslims. This is because Muslims in Assam have a tradition of maintaining documents. “I found this to be true of Muslim Bengalis during my interaction with officials engaged in the NRC exercise,” Nath said.
The driving impulse behind this tradition is insecurity. Over the decades, as the pressure on land grew, the descendants of Muslim immigrants whom the British brought from East Bengal and also of those who slipped into Assam post-1947 fanned out in the state’s central and upper parts in search for livelihoods. They knew their life could be perilous without documents proving their citizenship.
Contrary to the BJP’s framing of the immigrant issue, it is mostly Hindu Bengalis who moved into Assam post-1971, Nath contended. Under the Assam Accord signed between the Union government and Assamese nationalists in 1985 to mark the end of a six-year-long anti-foreigner mass movement, everyone who could not prove that they or their ancestors entered Assam before the midnight of March 24, 1971 – in other words, before the beginning of the Bangladesh War – would be declared an illegal immigrant. Bangladesh’s Hindu population declined from 18%-19% in 1971 to 8%-9% today. For Hindus leaving Bangladesh, Assam was one of their destinations, more so the Barak Valley, whose Bengali milieu was easy to fit into. “These immigrants were mostly lower caste/class,” Nath said. “Privileged groups had come to India during the Partition year.”
There may be differences in opinion over the social composition of the people who have been excluded from the draft register, but not over their class composition – most of them are poor and relatively unlettered. The NRC, in many ways, underlines the success of the middle class in appropriating the Assamese nationality issue to resolve its own anxiety about its future.
Constituting just about 15% of the state’s population, the middle class are haunted by the fear of losing control. Consequently, the debate around undocumented immigrants is a potent tool for uniting diverse ethnic groups under its leadership.
In this endeavour, its favoured strategy is to create the impression that Assam’s plight is because of undocumented immigrants. “It is certainly a problem, not the problem,” Nath said. “Issues of livelihood are forgotten in the anti-immigrant narrative.”
As anywhere in India, the Assamese middle class has a predominant representation from caste Hindus, perhaps another reason why the politics of identity has an inherent appeal for them. Sometimes, Nath said, their deep-seated anti-immigrant sentiments ends up hurting the interests of people who middle-class leaders claim the NRC will actually protect.
For instance, in November, there was tremendous middle-class support for evicting encroachers from the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary. It had been presumed that they were illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Over 400 families were evicted. Elephants were used to demolish their huts. But later, said Nath, it was discovered that the encroachers were mostly tribals.
Another form of Assamese nationalism has also been acquiring popularity gradually. “The regressive form of nationalism based on cultural identity has never raised issues of land and forest rights and promoted interests of marginal groups,” said PinkuMuktiar, a research scholar at Tezpur University. “This void is being filled by AkhilGogoi’sKrishakMuktiSangramSamity.”
Formed in 2005, the KrishakMuktiSangramSamity, has been at the forefront of demanding modern land reform and the tenurial rights of peasants and forest-dwellers. It has also been pushing for the proper implementation of the government’s schemes for the poor and has opposed the construction of big dams on the upstream of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries.
In his paper, KrishakMuktiSangramSamity and its Struggle: The New Peasant Assertion in Assam, sociologist Chandan Kumar Sharma writes, “The anti-foreigners movement (1979-’85) pushed the importance of the peasant question to the periphery as the issue of illegal immigrants came to dominate the political discourse of Assam. However, it was during this period that the peasant landlessness became most acute in the state.”
The peasant question was relegated in importance because the undocumented immigrant issue felled the traditional Left, which had bagged nearly one-fifth of the seats in the Assam Assembly in 1978. The Left never quite recovered from that battering. It is Gogoi’sKrishakMuktiSangramSamity that has sprung as a challenge to Hindutva forces and the interests it represents.
The nature of challenge the KrishakMuktiSangramSamity poses to Hindutva forces is evident from its demand that the surplus land belonging to the satras or monastries should be distributed among its landless devotees. This has outraged the middle class, which claims that the satras are victims of encroachments by Bangladeshi immigrants.
“An undaunted KMSS [KrishakMuktiSangramSamity] asserted that the issue of land reform is more important as an Assamese national problem than the deportation of foreign nationals,” writes Sharma.
But this does not mean that the KrishakMuktiSangramSamity is opposed to the National Register of Citizens.
“It has chosen to adopt a nuanced position on it,” historian Saikia said. The Samity does not consider the register as an ideal solution to the immigration problem, but believes it will bring a closure and relief to many in Assam. It has resolved to assist all Indian citizens who have been excluded from the register final draft to file fresh applications for their inclusion. “Such a stance is commendable,” said Saikia.
AkhilGogoi explained his stance to “Humanitarian values and ideas come first,” he said. “Those who will be finally left out of the list cannot be left stateless. It is the political responsibility of the Indian state to ensure that no one remains stateless.”
Gogoi’s language is of the kind many would have expected from the Congress, which is now competing with the BJP to appropriate credit for the register. “The BJP’s victory is a temporary one,” said Saikia. “Its politics cannot tackle Assam’s diversity.”
Given the Congress’ emulation of the BJP’s politics in Assam and its social base, the space for a new form of politics could well be usurped by the KrishakMuktiSangramSamity. There is already a buzz that the civil society organisation will float a political wing to fight the 2022 Assembly elections in the state.
It is for this reason that Gogoi has attempted to widen his appeal beyond subaltern groups, necessary for even the most radical political formation to win elections. This has meant that Gogoi has shared the stage with people of diverse ideological hues, including with one of the surrendered United Liberation Front of Assam leaders, who are in talks with the government. His rising popularity has had the state mainstream media dub him as a “Maoist” and “secessionist”, a standard charge leveled against anyone trying to change the status quo.