The bizarre phenomenon called updating the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, completed under the auspices of the Indian central government with direct supervision of the Indian Supreme Court, which made 1.9 million people stateless citizens, has engendered strange events to date and indicates the likelihood of stranger episodes in the coming months. Since the culmination of a four-year process with the publication of the final list on 31 August, not only did those who have been excluded became devastated, but also the progenitors of this controversial task are now dissatisfied with the outcome but for a different reason.
Although the genesis of the crisis is well known, it is necessary to recall as many of the current features of the crisis and the possible trajectories shaped by it. The issue of updating the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC) came to the fore in in the six-year long agitation by All Assam Students Union beginning in 1979 which demanded the “identification and deportation of illegal immigrants” from Assam. The expression “illegal immigrant” was a clear reference to Bangla speaking people, alleging that they have “migrated” from Bangladesh. The movement, initially billed as against the “outsider”, was transformed into a movement against “foreigners”. Massacres throughout the period, particularly in 1983, of Bangla speaking Muslims who have lived for generations, were neither spontaneous nor sporadic, but instead were well planned and brutally executed; in some cases, plans were hatched for months.
While the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), were at the forefront, the All Assam Volunteers Force (AAVF) was a key actor in the agitation and violence. There were allegations that the AAVF was acting on behalf of or was at least connected to the RSS. Besides, by the admission of the RSS ideologues Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha, (The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-east, 2017), the RSS had established its branches all over the Assam by 1975 and the “selfless service by swayamsevaks from all across the country” was instrumental in building the organisation. As such, the tone, tenor and contour of the agitation had the marks of RSS’s long-term agenda. Therefore, it is not surprising that the BJP, as it became stronger all around the country and had its eyes set in the northeast, weaponised the issue of citizenship in the 2000s.
The Assam Accord, signed in 1985 with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, remained on paper until the Supreme Court in 2013 pushed it to the politicians’ court. The BJP’s initial slow move, which the BJP supporters are now trying to portray as the BJP’s reluctance, was not because it was less enthusiastic, but instead it was preparing the ground for a larger gain—tying it up with its national anti-Muslim agenda and xenophobic exclusionary jingoism that has permeated the Indian society in the past decade. Day by day the ground was prepared in Assam and nationally, by the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), the legatee of the so-called anti-foreigners’ movement, and the BJP, the product of the RSS, respectively.
With the interjection of the Supreme Court, various institutional actors, such as the bureaucracy, became entangled in the politics of identity in a highly polarised society where religion has been pushed by Sangh Parivar as the principal marker. The exercise no longer remained about who is or who is not a citizen in the legal term, but what constitutes citizenship, who determines the citizenship and how the discourse of citizenship is framed, propagated and consumed. The implication of this exercise will neither be limited to Assam—as the BJP has already demanded NRC in other states; nor will it be restricted to the outcome of the “appeal process” in Assam, for it has already shaped the discursive terrain of citizenship. Who among the 1.9 million, now being referred to the Foreigners Tribunal, escape the disenfranchisement, is important from the humanitarian point of view and in legal terms, but how politics of religiously informed identity becomes the essential part of being Indian is the more important issue with larger ramifications. That is what the NRC debate and the list have achieved.
Of course, the BJP’s claim that Assam is inundated by millions of “infiltrators” and “termites”—in other words Bangladeshis—who need to be thrown out, has not been validated; even the initial list of 4 million—a figure which was close to the BJP and AGP propaganda—tuned out to be grossly inaccurate. In equal measure, the expectation that the list will contain overwhelming numbers of Muslims, has not come true. Instead the majority, according to some account 60 percent, are Bangla speaking Hindus. There are also many people of Nepali origin, despite living in Assam for decades and generations, excluded. Those who are taking comfort in this information and arguing that the BJP has lost the game, should be careful as to whether this argument will feed into the BJP propaganda and eventually help similar exercises in other states. The inherent bias of the exercise against Muslims can’t be ignored because the list has a smaller number of them. Throughout the process of NRC, BJP and its ilk had made it amply clear that Muslims are the “enemy” who will be identified. This is not isolated from the lynching of Muslims in the name of cow protection, and the activities in Kashmir. Additionally, if we juxtapose this with the previously proposed 2016 Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which promises to offer citizenship to all except the Muslims, there is no scope for doubt as to the content of the BJP agenda.
Since publication of the draft list and more so after the final list, the BJP and its ilk are crying foul and demanding rectification. The bizarre development is that one of the principal backers of the NRC in Assam has called for a general strike and threatening to launch agitations. There seems to be consensus among political parties—from the BJP to Congress to TMC—that the NRC list, which cost 1300 crore Indian rupees, is unacceptable. Notwithstanding the political objective of the NRC process, one can say without the hesitation that it has been bungled up. Assam’s finance minister, Himanta Biswas Sarma, a vocal supporter of NRC has spewed anti-immigrant venom, and claimed in August 2018 that legacy papers—those which prove longstanding residency of the inhabitants—have been “managed”, rendering the process of updating the NRC ineffective. But there is no reason to expect that the NRC will be scrapped altogether.
What comes next?
Those who are not listed can appeal to the Foreigners Tribunal (FT) in the next 120 days, and later seek redress from the court of law. According to media reports, Assam has 100 Foreigners Tribunals, 221 more are to be set up in all districts soon, and eventually the number will be about 500. But there are reasons to be concerned about the process itself. The discrepancy between the draft list and the final list clearly points to an inefficient bureaucracy. It took almost a year for it to sort out some of the mess. Will the FTs be another example of the incompetence? Can an issue which is fraught with political overtone be addressed fairly by a state appointed institution? There are logistical questions, can such a huge number of applications be dealt with in such short time? Will the poor people have the resources to pursue the process, especially those whose appeal will fail in the FT process?
The Indian government clearly said that until the legal process is exhausted nobody will be considered as a foreigner, and that pushing them back to Bangladesh is not on the table. But there is no clear direction as to what will happen thereafter. The news that new detention centres are being built does not send a positive message to those who are to be disenfranchised. In June the press reported that the state government was preparing to build ten more detention centres in addition to six it already has. During the negotiations between the Congress-led central government and the agitators, leading to the Assam Accord in 1985, one suggestion was to resettle those who will be deemed “outsider” to other states, under the auspices of the central government. The proposal didn’t make into the 1985 Accord. That seems to be not in the mind of the central government at this point.
The logistical issues aside, despite the debacles of the process, the belligerent rhetoric of the Sangh Parivar hasn’t subsided. Therefore, what is most likely to happen in the coming months is the enactment of the Citizenship (amendment) Bill. The implication of this requires no elaboration—religion as the principal marker of Indian citizenship will be enshrined in the constitution, forever.
Ali Riaz is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University, USA.