Assam’s NRC: Through the prism of a migrants’ descendant
Much has been written about the flawed and controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the northeastern Indian state of Assam and the mammoth humanitarian crisis that it has triggered. But what makes young award-winning journalist Abhishek Saha's book "No Land's People: The Untold Story of Assam's NRC Crisis" stand out easily is that the author has woven the struggles of his family and ancestors, who came to Assam from erstwhile East Pakistan two years after the 1947 Partition, with the predicament of lakhs of those who now find themselves excluded from the NRC and their desperate efforts to get included in it with whatever documents they can get hold of. The book poignantly brings out the hardship of the people running from pillar to post to get the documents to prove their citizenship, many of them ending up in detention centres.
Published by Harper Collins, India, the 303-page book—as the author makes it clear in his note—is based primarily on his reportage for The Indian Express newspaper, and divided into four parts and 22 chapters. Almost every chapter is splattered with several anecdotes of the plight of his own family and ancestors and other immigrants, the humiliation and trauma they went through, the frantic search for documents in the run up to the finalisation of the NRC and the exercise to prove their citizenship. As Saha says: "Assam citizenship imbroglio is a deeply personal story for me; it strikes at the core of my being."
The trials and tribulations faced by his family being from the then East Pakistan have left scars on the psyche of not only Saha but also many other migrants. One particularly traumatic incident Saha recalls is how his father, pursuing higher studies in Guwahati in 1979 when the movement against "foreigners" had begun in Assam, was "gheraoed by a group of Assamese seniors" as he was coming out of his class at the Guwahati Medical College and forced to write on a piece of paper "that he was a Bangladeshi and had obtained a 'permanent residence certificate' from the Barepta district administration by bribing officials."
He adds: "Baba remembers the incident as the worst day of his college life. Never had he ever been humiliated like that." The exercise of writing the book from the perspective of a Bengali migrant family could have easily run the risk of being seen as biased in dealing with this sensitive issue in Assam. But Saha has succeeded in taking a dispassionate view of the NRC crisis.
As the book tells its readers, Assam is a cauldron of "large-scale migrations. Its tea plantations, oilfields and coalfields attracted migrant workers from eastern and central India." Tracing the trajectory of migrations into Assam over the years, the book reminds how "Hindu Bengalis, fluent in English, came to avail themselves of fresh opportunities that colonial rule opened up, leading to allegations of their hegemony over the Assamese; landless Muslim peasants from East Bengal came to cultivate fertile land, encouraged by colonial policies and some Muslim leaders; Marwaris from Rajasthan arrived to trade, Nepalis came as soldiers and cattle-herders; and refugees from East Pakistan came in batches after Partition."
An important piece of statistics in the book quoting the 2011 language census in Assam is that the population of Assamese speakers stands at 48.38 percent, as against the 28.91 percent of Bengali speakers in the state.
Two messages coming out of the book are: (1) the ethnic and linguistic fault lines in Assam had existed much before the Partition of India; and (2) denial of the fact that "migration is an undeniable human reality." The book quotes a report written by CS Mullan, a colonial officer of the then Indian Civil Service, in 1931 which pointed to the threats posed by in-migration in Assam to the land and culture of "native Assamese people." The book's author says that Mullan's report remains a reference point even today in Assam. Saha argues that "much of the political foundation of contemporary Assam" was shaped by the illegal migrant issue and it was against this backdrop that the 1951 NRC in Assam was prepared.
Having extensively chronicled the problem of cross-border immigration in Assam and the failure to draw up a correct NRC, the author maintains in the epilogue to the book that "it can be argued that only a reliable list of citizens—separating out non-citizens living illegally in the state—can put the historical anxieties of Assam to rest…" With this, Saha appears to tread into a grey and debatable area: who will certify a "reliable" NRC? That apart, the 2019 NRC was conducted by a bureaucracy susceptible to manipulation and corruption. What is the guarantee that a similar exercise by the same administration would produce the desired result? This is, however, not to say that there is no need for a documentation culture in India. The challenge is to make NRC as widely acceptable as possible.
"No Land's People" leaves the readers with a sense of scepticism. The debate over who belongs to Assam and who does not remains unresolved. Secondly, the linguistic, ethnic and religious divides in Assam always lurk behind the façade of "syncretic and inclusive" culture in the state. The author admits this in the "Introduction" (page xvii) to the book.
And he ends the book on that theme by pointing to a collaborative musical composition by two cultural legends, Hemanga Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika, to propagate the message of Bengali-Assamese unity during the riots in Assam over Bengali language in 1960. However hard Saha would like to believe in the message of the Biswas-Hazarika composition, he himself dismisses "all wishful thinking (as) the realist in me begs to differ."
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent of The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.