As the sun rose over the emerald green hills and plains of Assam, the gateway to the NorthEast, on Saturday, August 31, over 41 lakh people prayed and waited with bated breath! The fate of these people was to be decided on that day with the publication of the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. The inclusion or exclusion of the names in that list would determine whether people were eligible to stay in a place that they call home; or would they fall into the category of illegal migrants and be rendered not only homeless but stateless.
The list is out, but the suspense and trauma is not over yet for nearly 19 lakh people as their names are excluded from the list. As with the NRC draft that was released in July 2018, many discrepancies are being noticed. The inclusion and exclusion of members from the same families are being reported in several national newspapers. Though all is not lost for them as yet – for the Assam government has announced the setting up of nearly 200 Foreigners Tribunals to re-scrutinise the papers. But the harrowing process of going through the process all over again could be traumatising for those who couldn’t make it to the list. As most of these people are poor and are daily wage labourers, it will add an additional burden to their meagre income, including the cost of workday losses. The arbitrariness and lack of transparency of these tribunals also raise apprehensions that the applicants might be discriminated against on the basis on religion.
Ironically, not just the people excluded from the list, but the ruling BJP as well, whose government in Assam had conducted this mammoth exercise, is unhappy with the result of the NRC. A major election plank of the BJP during the Assembly elections in Assam in 2016, and also the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, was the combing out of illegal immigrants and deporting them. Grand speeches were made on the assumption that there were immense numbers of illegal immigrants in Assam and all over India. After publication of the draft NRC in July 2018, one could still recall BJP president Amit Shah’s speech in Parliament declaring all 41 lakh people who were left out of the draft NRC as “ghuspetiyas” (illegal migrants). This was in contradiction to the statement of then Union home minister Rajnath Singh that these people would not be treated as illegal immigrants, as this was only a draft list. During the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign, senior BJP leaders were heard giving thundering speeches on how NRCs would be conducted all over India to hunt down the “ghuspetiyas”. Even few days before the publication of the final list, many BJP leaders clamoured for NRC-type exercises all over India, including the Delhi BJP state unit chief demanding an NRC for Delhi.
With the publication of the final list, more than half of those 41 lakh alleged “ghuspetiyas” turned out to be legitimate citizens of the country. Out of these 19 lakhs, many more will be absorbed after the scrutiny by the tribunals, probably leaving aside a miniscule percentage of “outsiders”. That will punch a big hole in the BJPs’ claim of illegal infiltration, not only in Assam but all over India.
The story of migration and ethnic conflict in the Northeast, and more so in Assam, is extremely complex, going back to the British period. In 1874, Assam was carved out of the Bengal Presidency as a new province for administrative purposes. Areas predominantly inhabited by Bengali-speaking people like Cachar, Karimganj and Halaikandi in the Barak Valley, and Dhubri and Goalpara districts in west Assam became part of this new province. Thus, Bengalis as an ethnic group, comprising both Hindus and Muslims, became a part of the Assam story more than a century ago. During the Partition of Bengal in 1905, the then Viceroy, Lord Curzon, divided Bengal into East and West, amalgamating Assam with some parts of the Muslim majority division of East Bengal. This further encouraged Muslim labourers and farmers to move into Assam. During the 1947 Partition of India, a small Hindu pocket consisting of Ratabari, Patharkandi, Halaikandi and half of Karimganj from Bengali-speaking Sylhet remained with Assam, while the rest went to Pakistan, making a large number of Bengali-speaking people legitimate citizens of Assam. At the same time, when Chittagong went to Pakistan, a large number of Hindu and Buddhist tribes from the Chittagong Hill Tracts migrated to India. During the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence, there was another influx of refugees, many of whom did not return to Bangladesh. As per the Indira-Mujib pact of 1972, all refugees who entered India before March 25, 1971, the day Sheikh Mujibar Rehman called for an independent Bangladesh, were allowed to stay in India. That’s why the cut-off date was taken as the midnight of March 24, 1971. There is no doubt that there has been some inflow of illegal migration through the porous borders after this cut-off date, but the majority of Bengalis in Assam, both Hindus and Muslims, were a legitimate part of Assam for long.
The central question in the entire NRC issue remains unanswered. What will happen to those people who are finally left out after all the existing legal procedures are exhausted, including appeals to the higher courts. Bangladesh has always denied any illegal immigration from its soil. In a recent statement, external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar categorically said that the NRC was an internal matter of India. In the eventuality of a few lakhs of people being rendered stateless, what roadmap does the government have to deal with these people? Bangladesh is not going to accept them. Can the government detain and retain lakhs of people that may include children indefinitely in detention camps? That will not merely be a major violation of human rights, but truly inhuman. Through this process, if a body of stateless people without any rights is created, its impact in terms of both a potential security risk as well as humanitarian values might prove to be too costly for India in the long run.