The final NRC in India’s Assam was published on August 31, leaving out 19.6 lakh people. This followed years of chaos, protests and political wrangling over the issue of “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh—and is now expected to result in a protracted legal battle before any resolution of the issue. How do you view this development?
First of all, this demonstrates the extent to which politicians can go to exploit an issue and the devastating effect that it may have. After the release of the final NRC in Assam, the number of the excluded came down to 1.9 million (an earlier list had excluded about 4 million). Out of these people, some 11 lakhs are supposedly Hindus and the remaining eight are Muslims. While the list itself remains highly debatable, it is a fact that BJP has time and again pointed out that it would grant citizenship to any Hindus coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. So that leaves us, hypothetically speaking, with eight lakh unresolved cases. In the final headcount, that number is likely to further come down. This downward trend in numbers is quite embarrassing for right-wing parties like the BJP that wanted to score political points by creating fear among ordinary Indians about the illegal migrants and, by extension, the Muslims. But they can’t—or won’t—change their rhetoric, however. So you hear them now saying that they want to “weed out” illegal immigrants not just from Assam but the entire India.
Secondly, we need to understand how the NRC issue came in the first place. Assam is a state in India’s northeast, a region that is relatively underdeveloped, which makes the migrants or “outsiders” easy targets of popular anger. This anger is often stoked or justified by politicians saying, incorrectly, that migrants will crowd out local residents and eat into their livelihood opportunities. We have seen similar situations even in developed countries like the US and the UK. You can win an election by using this anti-immigration, anti-development rhetoric but eventually its fault lines are going to get exposed.
Despite repeated warnings from BJP leaders including its president Amit Shah about “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh, the country seems to be in a denial mode about the possible outcome of this vitriol-filled campaign for Bangladesh—calling it India’s “internal affair”. Are we failing to see the bigger picture?
As tempting as it is to look at it that way, I think we should take a step back and assess the situation based on facts. First of all, Amit Shah is a politician and what he said reflects more the policy of his party than that of the Indian government. Now compare his comment, if you will, with the comment of India’s Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who had reportedly told his Bangladeshi counterpart that the NRC is India’s internal affair and that Bangladesh has nothing to worry about. Jaishankar is a diplomat, not a politician. What he said comes across as a more accurate reflection of the reality, and for good reasons. For one, the NRC issue has never come up in any Bangladesh-India official meeting at any level. I think Bangladesh would have taken it up with India, like it readily does in case of other strategically important issues, had there been a real danger.
We need to understand that the NRC is not as straightforward a case as it seems. It has emerged as a polarising factor in India and is facing pushback from various quarters. West Bengal remains a persistent opponent. The fact is, there are Bengalis spread across India. You throw away the Bengalis from one part of India, you are—as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has put it—inviting a civil war in other parts of it. In Assam, contrary to what BJP and other right-wing parties are saying, a big part of the movement of population or the concentration of Bengalis was actually the result of internal migration to Assam from West Bengal, not from Bangladesh.
With its Hindutva ideology and its fixation on the illegal-Bangladeshi-Muslim-immigrant narrative, it appears the BJP is following the two-nation theory based on religion, first advocated by the Scottish historian James Mill. One may recall that the theory was taken up by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, BJP’s ideological parent, even 17 years before Jinnah. Bangladesh broke out of this theory’s influence in 1971 but India under BJP seems to be returning to the fold. The very idea of Hindutva is in essence an extension of the two-nation theory that Hindus and Muslims are different nations and, therefore, incompatible. I sincerely hope the Indian society will reject it.
The illegal immigrant issue forms part of the BJP’s national security plank and has figured in the party’s manifesto since 1996. I mention this because in its second term in office, the BJP has shown a proclivity to make good on its controversial electoral pledges with the help of its absolute majority in parliament, which became evident after its decision to scrap the special status for Jammu and Kashmir. Do you see a pattern here that could affect the course of the NRC development?
Well, these are all politically saleable issues. With Jammu and Kashmir, all political parties in India had played politics, including the Congress. What happened in Kashmir is that the BJP only made “de jure” what had always been “de facto”. Let’s face it: there was no autonomy in Kashmir even before the abrogation of its special status. It had always been under Delhi’s control. There were 600,000 troops in Kashmir. So legally, you had article 370 but in practice, there was no autonomy and no special status. But they went ahead with the abrogation decision as a practical measure because the situation in Kashmir was going out of hand. Anyone who follows Kashmir knows that in the last 10 years, militancy was more homegrown than exported from Pakistan. How many troops are you going to put there to combat it? Kashmir as a region already had the highest concentration of troops in the world.
Coming back to your question about a pattern, no, I don’t think there’s any, because there is a big difference between playing politics with Kashmir and playing politics with NRC. In Kashmir, it’s the Muslims versus the rest of India. But in case of the NRC, there is no such political consensus. Bengalis include both Hindus and Muslims. Don’t forget, Bengali Muslims in West Bengal are also a big vote bank for Mamata. So the two issues are similar only in the sense that they are both politically saleable, but this time the BJP will have to tread very carefully because the stakes here are really high.
Some have compared the NRC to the Rohingya crisis, both being stark examples of states stripping a minority of their citizenship. In fact, like Assam, Myanmar also accuses the Rohingyas of being migrants from Bangladesh and refers to them as “Bengalis” in order to reinforce that narrative. What’s your take on this?
I think the comparison is a little far-fetched. The Rohingya crisis is a totally different issue. The Rohingyas as a community had to face a slow genocide, one might say, since as far back as 1962. Myanmar wanted to destroy this community first by not recognising them as an ethnic community, then slowly by imposing other restrictive and discriminatory measures. This whole “genocide” issue is missing in case of the NRC. Also, India has a secular constitution and a strong civil society and there is already resistance to the NRC from within the country. So I wouldn’t compare the Rohingya crisis to the NRC, which is a different ball game altogether.
To give you a little perspective on this, let me share a personal experience. In September 2004, I had visited Guwahati in Assam which, I was told, was full of Bangladeshis. I heard that there were slums and neighbourhoods inhibited by them. So along with two of my students, I went there to document their stories. Surprisingly, we didn’t find a single Bangladeshi in Guwahati at that time. Not a single one! When confronted, my sources then claimed that the Bangladeshis lived in the border areas. So, you see, I am not at all surprised by the increasingly thinning list of NRC left-outs. Speaking of borders, border areas have been historically fluid. Even on this side of the border, there are areas in some haors where you will see that people know the Assamese language.
So how would you assess the Assam situation from Bangladesh’s perspective? What should we do going forward?
Not much at this stage. But we should remain alert and closely observe the situation. For its part, India needs to find a way out of this quagmire and I hope it will sooner than later. There are some legal theories as to what should be done with those declared “foreigners,” but none involves a deportation to Bangladesh. While I am convinced that there is no real danger for Bangladesh, it’s imperative that Indian politicians discontinue their ongoing anti-Bangladesh rhetoric: firstly, because it will embolden the communal and anti-Indian elements in Bangladesh—a prospect that should worry both countries—and secondly, because Bangladesh is not Pakistan. Bangladesh is India’s closest ally in the region, and it is unreasonable why Delhi would want to jeopardise that. Bangladesh is also extremely important for the security of India’s north-east of which Assam is a part. In addition, India needs to think about the minorities living in Bangladesh and the sizeable Indian expat community who might be affected by any hostile tactic on its part.