Why National Register of Citizens is likely to turn Assam into a tinderbox

Aroon Purie
Aroon PurieJul 26, 2018 | 19:07

Why National Register of Citizens is likely to turn Assam into a tinderbox

On February 2, 1983, India woke up to the horror of Nellie, a tiny village in Assam's Morigaon district. Assamese tribals surrounded three villages populated by Bangladeshi migrants and, in the course of just one night, hacked over 2,000 men, women and children to death. Nellie, by now synonymous with extreme xenophobia, was a story India Today broke in its March 15, 1983 issue. It remains one of independent India's most horrific pogroms, revealing the darkness that lives in the hearts of men and how seemingly peaceful agitations can explode into savage bloodfests.

Thirty-five years later, Nellie still haunts us. More so as the government of Assam, a state of 30 million people, completes a Supreme Court-monitored National Register of Citizenship (NRC).

By all accounts, it is not who the NRC includes but who it excludes that will be keenly watched. Our sources estimate that at least 2 million people — more than the population of Goa — are likely to be left out of this citizenship verification and, consequently, declared stateless.

cover690_072618062007.jpgIndia Today cover story, Assam’s Nowhere People, for August 6, 2018.

Our cover story, reported by senior associate editor Kaushik Deka, reveals the fear and uncertainty among them. Worryingly, he discovers, Assam's NRC could have a ripple effect on other parts of India. A majority of these stateless people are likely to be Muslim, and a communal narrative is already being prepared — from propagating a false narrative that 7 million Muslims will be stripped of citizenship to explicit attempts to convert Assam's battle against illegal immigrants into a religious conflict across the country. Illegal immigration is a thorny issue because it feeds on fears of displacement. A 2017 interim report by a six-member committee headed by former election commissioner HS Brahma noted that illegal Bangladeshis dominated 15 out of Assam's 33 districts and are 'threatening the indigenous people of Assam'.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a stateless person as "someone who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law". Stateless persons are denied a range of rights, such as voting, property ownership, identity documents, employment, education and health services. In 1982, new laws in Burma (now Myanmar) stripped an estimated one million Rohingya of citizenship, provoking a refugee crisis that continues to this day.

Fortunately, we also have examples where large protracted situations of statelessness have been resolved. Some 300,000 Urdu speakers, also called 'Biharis', were left stateless with the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In 2008, the Bangladesh High Court gave citizenship to those born after 1971. More recently, in August 2015, India and Bangladesh ended a 300-year territorial anomaly of enclaves, by swapping land and people. Over 14,000 residents remained in India and became Indian citizens and over 37,000 residents became Bangladeshi citizens. The Union government is believed to be considering proposals for long-term 'biometric work permits' for stateless people but without voting rights or the right to buy immovable property. The question then arises, what becomes of the property already acquired by stateless persons? Will the state then take away such properties? This is a recipe for chaos.

One of the missions of our magazine is to anticipate potential flashpoints. This is one such story. The NRC, due to be out on July 30, is likely to make Assam a tinderbox. There are enough venal politicians around who will exploit such a situation for political gain. It will be a critical test for our political class to find an amicable solution to this problem. This is not a regional issue, but a national one. India can ill afford another Nellie. Not now and not ever.

(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, Assam’s Nowhere People; August 6, 2018.)

Last updated: July 30, 2018 | 11:55
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