Newsmaker: Rootless in Assam

At least theoretically for time being, the population of Assam will be reduced by four million in a stroke if all those who have not made it to the draft National Register of Citizenship (NRC) are unable to prove their Indian identity in the second attempt between August 30 and September 29 when claims and objections process is scheduled.

The deep demographic gash will remain on paper until the government decides what to do with those rendered unwanted. As one can safely assume most of them being Bangladeshi Muslims, no solution will be complete without the inclusion of Dhaka which has already washed its hands of the problem.

There are many layers to the issue of illegal immigration in Assam which has a strong historical context. The political resonance of the process of demographic course correction goes far beyond the frontiers of Assam to capture the national landscape. The cacophony generated by the political parties around the issues is the result of its possible impact on the national politics in an election year.

The current NRC draft is the outcome of a painful process deliberately slowed down for various reasons even though the issue of illegal immigration had germinated in the soil of Assam for more than a century in the form of ethnic imbalances before sprouting into a movement in the 1980s led by All India Assam Students Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) during which the state meandered through the Nellie massacre settling down with the Assam accord of 1985. The accord determined the criteria of citizenship. It said that those who came to the state before January 1, 1966 will be considered as citizens. And those who came in between 1966 and March 24, 1971 would be weeded out and disfranchised after identification under the Foreigners Act 1946 and Foreigners (Tribunals) order 1964. The accord also sought to decide the fate of those who came after 1971. More than three decades after the accord was signed, the NRC draft was prepared under the supervision of the Supreme Court.

It might have been a court-monitored process, but the formation of a BJP government in Assam for the first time ever in 2016 on an anti-immigration plank changed the whole dynamics of the issue. Chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal is at the forefront of this exercise of making Assam free of illegal immigrants.

Political benefit

The BJP is upbeat on the move as it sees a larger political benefit out of it. The issue of illegal immigration is not limited to Assam. There has been an influx of Bangladeshi Muslims in several parts of the country and removing them has always been a political issue for the BJP which has shown to the people its determination to walk the talk on the subject.

It comes as a shot in the arm for Prime Minister Narendra Modi who wants to go into the 2019 general election campaign as the undisputed leader of the masses.

The right wing mind set had already launched a campaign for replicating Assam NRC on a national level. The writing they say is on the wall for the Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar making into India as New Delhi has made it zero tolerance stance clear. The opposition camp seems to have been caught on the wrong foot. The Congress is not opposed to the NRC though its government slept over it and its voices of protests are limited to the exclusion of what it says are genuine claimants of Indian citizenship. The Trinamool Congress has come out as one of the staunchest critics of the NRC move but its position is unlikely to find no currency in Assam and her own state West Bengal which has one of the highest concentration of Muslims. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s alarming suggestion that civil war could break out on the issue seems to be in the sphere of rhetoric.

The small group of liberals opposed to the NRC exercise are confined to discussing the moral connotations of dealing with illegal immigrants. Some have even drawn parallels with Indian immigrants abroad facing similar existential threads in Europe or the US. Such assertions are good only for scoring debating points but the truth on the ground is large-scale anti-immigrant sentiment particularly directed at one religion. It is logical for parties like the BJP to get the political mileage because of the failure of the opponents like the Congress to address the problem as it preferred to brush it under the carpet rather than offering any solution.

Columnist: 
Gautam Datt