On August 31, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) will be published in Assam.
The NRC will register the names of all Indian citizens living within the geographic boundaries of Assam.
No such legal exercise — which is likely to declare at least two million people stateless in a single day — has ever taken place anywhere in the world. Multiple opinions have been floating about on this unique exercise — a long-standing demand of the indigenous people of Assam.
A very coordinated campaign has been going on to paint this process as an attempt to strip only Muslims of citizenship, even though they may have entered India illegally.
However, the truth is that nearly 50% of those who will be excluded from the NRC will be Hindus and from other non-Muslim religions. These statistics are also making the BJP, which has been demanding the NRC to be expanded to all other states of the country, nervous about the publication of the NRC. That’s the reason the Assam government and the Central government — both ruled by the BJP — have been seeking a re-verification of the NRC data. But the Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, who has been monitoring the process and has been the singular driving force behind it, did not relent. That's making both the anti-BJP elements, who masquerade as human rights activists, and the saffron party, uncomfortable about the NRC.
Everyone's impacted: The exercise is not anti-Muslim. It affects Hindus and non-Muslim minorities just as much. (Photo: India Today)
Why Assam needs the NRC
Though the BJP has been trying to take credit for the NRC, with Union Home Minister and BJP President Amit Shah claiming that the government will throw out every foreigner from the country, this count of citizens is not the result of any anti-Muslim agenda — as most media narratives want to portray. The NRC is the second such exercise in Assam, necessitated by widespread allegations of massive, unabated illegal immigration from Bangladesh.
The first NRC was published in 1951 by recording particulars of all the persons enumerated during that year’s Census.
The illegal immigration from Bangladesh — previously known as East Bengal or East Pakistan — has afflicted Assam from colonial times. Since a majority of these immigrants are Muslims, the influx gradually changed the demography of Assam, much to the anxiety of the local inhabitants. In 1931, CS Mullan, Superintendent of the 1931 Census wrote about the influx in Assam, “Probably the most important event in the province during the last 25 years, likely to alter permanently the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilisation, has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry Bengali immigrants, mostly Muslims from the districts of eastern Bengal.”
His statement was backed by numbers. In 1881, Muslims accounted for a mere 9% — but increased to 19% in 1931 and 23% in 1941.
In 1939, provincial governments of Assam, headed by Sayeed Mohammed Saadullah, opened up grazing reserves of the state to settle immigrants under a “grow more food” campaign.
Lord Wavell, British Viceroy of India, during his 1943 visit to Assam, said, “The chief political problem in Assam was the desire of the Muslim ministers to increase the immigrant population into the uncultivated Government lands under the slogan of Grow More Food, but what they were really after was Grow More Muslims.”
Tensions brewing: The immigration of Muslims from Bangladesh powerfully changed Assam. (Photo: India Today)
The 1951 census estimated the number of migrants from East Bengal at around 1 million to 1.5 million — between one-tenth to one-sixth of the total population of the state.
That’s the main reason why the NRC was first prepared in 1951.
However, there is no account of what happened to those who were excluded from the 1951 NRC. Between 1951 and 1961, the state’s population leapt by 36% and by 35% in the next decade as against national decadal growth of 22% and 25% respectively. In his report of 1963, the Registrar General of Census said 2,20,691 illegal immigrants had infiltrated into Assam.
There was a big surge in this influx after the war between India and Pakistan in 1971 when Bangladesh was liberated. The 1971 Census revealed an increase of 8,20,000 Muslims in Assam — 4,24,000 more than what could be accounted through natural increase. Between 2001 and 2011, India’s Muslims grew from 13.4% to 14.2% — while in Assam, they grew from 30.9% to 34.2%. 14 of Assam’s 27 districts have shown higher population growth than the state’s average of 17% with Muslims as a majority in nine of them.
Just one statistic — voter numbers in Assam grew by more than 50% in less than a decade, from 5,701,805 in 1970 to 8,537,493 in 1979, triggered a six-year-long agitation, popularly known as the Assam Agitation, against illegal infiltrators. The immediate trigger was the discovery of more than 45,000 illegal names in the electoral roles of the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha constituency. The agitation, which saw the death of nearly 900 Assamese youngsters, started in 1979 and ended in 1985 when the Assam Accord was signed.
According to that accord, all Assam residents who had entered the state until January 1, 1966, would be deemed citizens. Those who came between 1966 and March 25, 1971, would be disenfranchised for 10 years. But foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 would be detected and deported, their names deleted from the voters’ list. It was decided that the 1951 NRC would be updated to detect the illegal foreigners residing in Assam. While the existing rules, applicable across the country, provide for the preparation of the NRC strictly through house-to-house enumeration, the Citizenship Act rules have been amended exclusively for Assam to enable updating of its NRC by inviting claims from direct descendants of those figuring in the 1951 NRC or 1971 electoral rolls for Assam.
It's complicated: There are several layers to the agitation in Assam. (Photo: India Today)
But nothing happened for the next three decades, though several reports recorded the steady growth of illegal immigrants in Assam. Indrajit Gupta, the Home Minister of India between 1996-98, said in Parliament in 1997 that there were 10 million illegal migrants in India. In the same year, Assam Governor, Lieutenant General (Retd), SK Sinha, warned in a report to the President that the illegal Bangladeshi influx posed a grave threat, both to the identity of the Assamese people and to national security. In 2001, a report by the Task Force on Border Management, headed by Madhav Godbole, put the figure of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants at 15 million.
The then-Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Sriprakash Jaiswal, in 2004 told the Rajya Sabha that there were 1,20,53,950 illegal Bangladeshis in India — Assam accounted for 5 million of them.
In 2005, a three-judge bench of Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice RC Lahoti, Justice GP Mathur and Justice PK Balasubramanyan, observed, “The presence of such a large number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, which runs into millions, is in fact an aggression on the state of Assam and has also contributed significantly in causing serious internal disturbances in the shape of insurgency of alarming proportions.”
The current process of updating the NRC is the consequence of a 2009 PIL filed in the Supreme Court by a Guwahati-based NGO, Assam Public Works (APW), which claimed that 4.1 million illegal Bangladeshis had found their way into Assam’s voter list. Interestingly, the Election Commission of India did not dispute the figure in the court, which has been directly monitoring the NRC update since 2015.
Why can’t Assam accept the immigrants?
The advocates of human rights argue that immigrants — even if they are illegal — should be treated with compassion and should be given a life of dignity.
In this argument, mostly emanating from a deliberately one-sided view, they often ignore the basic rights of indigenous people — who are also equally human. If the people of Assam have been demanding a count of illegal immigrants, it’s because they have suffered an assault on their resources and culture.
A Card Trick: What about the poor who don't have their paperwork? (Photo: India Today)
In most of lower Assam, immigrants of Bangladeshi origin are mainly engaged in agriculture and other manual labour. Primarily landless, their hunger for owning a piece of land has often resulted in ethnic conflicts, like the 2012 violence in Kokrajhar. And, in various places, they are alleged to have caused law and order troubles. Take, for instance, Hatigaon area in Guwahati. Surrounded by Bangla-speaking immigrants, Hatigaon records the highest number of thefts and robbery in the city. Often, the perpetrators are traced to Chars — sandbars of the Brahmaputra river — in lower Assam, which are largely the settlements of immigrants from Bangladesh. This doesn’t, however, mean that all Chars are a hub of criminals. In fact, several of them have produced leading academics, sportspersons, writers and cultural workers.
In 2017, the interim report of a six-member committee for the protection of land rights of indigenous people of Assam, headed by former chief election commissioner HS Brahma, said that illegal Bangladeshis dominated in as many as 15 of the 33 districts of Assam. “Illegal Bangladeshis descend on the land like an army of marauding invaders armed with dangerous weapons, set up illegal villages, mostly on the char lands overnight, in the full view and with the tacit, if not active, connivance and encouragement of the corrupt government officers as also with abetment of communal political leaders,” read the report. Since 2011, the Assam government introduced a transparent teacher appointment system based on Teacher Eligibility Test (TET). However, several women recruits refused to join work, following a series of brutal rapes and murders in areas dominated by Bengali-speaking Muslims.
The Brahma committee report also says that the identity of as many as 18 Xatras in Assam — a Vaishnavite monastery, which are cultural hubs in Assam — is under threat, following large-scale encroachment by illegal Bangladeshi migrants. In July 2012, a study by the Northeast Policy Institute found 5,548 bighas of land belonging to 26 Xatras encroached on by illegal settlers. “In 2002, my cousin was kidnapped by an illegal immigrant. In 2005, we had to shift our Xatra from Moinbari to Sarbhog, thanks to illegal encroachers from Bangladesh,” says Apurba Adhikary, who heads a forum to protect the Xatras.
It’s not just Xatras — illegal settlers have allegedly also grabbed forestlands.
Close to 4 lakh hectares of forestland has been encroached upon in Assam. The data, given in response to a Right to Information (RTI) application, reveals encroachment in 26 out of 33 districts in Assam.
The total encroachment adds up to 22% of the state’s forest cover.
Are there no barriers? Illegal migrants are blamed for several law and order issues. (Photo: India Today)
Is NRC an anti-Muslim exercise?
Despite Muslim immigrants being the crux of the foreigner issue in Assam, the state's crusade against illegal infiltrators did not have a communal distinction.
“Our position is very clear. Those who have come to Assam after 1971 cannot be Indian citizens. It doesn't matter whether they are Hindus or Muslims,” says Samujjal Bhattacharya, patron of the All Assam Students Union, which has been at the forefront of Assam’s struggle against illegal immigrants. The biggest example of the non-religious nature of Assam’s fight against illegal immigrants is a petition filed in Supreme Court in 2012 by Motiur Rahman, working president of the Asom Sanmilita Mahasangha (ASM), an umbrella body of different ethnic and indigenous organisations.
Rahman, an Assamese Muslim, has demanded that the cut-off date for detection of an illegal immigrant should be 1951 as the 1971 cut-off date would ensure that millions of foreigners, who entered Assam between 1951 and March 1971, will get citizenship, threatening the existence of indigenous people. Ironically, Rahman’s demand finds support from the RSS and BJP leaders, such as Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Apart from the fear of losing livelihoods, resources and political power to illegal immigrants, the biggest anxiety over illegal immigration is the dominance of the Bangla language.
When the British occupied Assam in 1826, they imported Bangla-speakers for clerical work from West Bengal. These people convinced the British administration that Assamese was a distorted form of Bangla and eventually got Bangla imposed as the official language of Assam. The Assamese language gained its rightful place only in 1873 on the intervention of the Baptist missionaries — but the insecurity of the Assamese people lingered. While Hindu Bengalis dominated government jobs, there was the fear of losing land, especially in the rural areas, to 'land-hungry' Muslim immigrants of East Bengal.
After Independence, when the Assamese elite came to power, they began to assert their cultural dominance.
In 1972, Assamese speakers and Hindu-Bengalis got into a major language battle over the issue of making Assamese the only medium of instruction in state colleges. The Bangla-speaking Muslim immigrants decided to side with the Assamese. During the 2016 assembly election campaigns, when I travelled to certain locations in Nagaon and Dhuburi districts, dominated by alleged immigrants, a telling cultural paradox was immediately apparent. The leaders were felicitated with Assamese gamochas, speeches were delivered in chaste Assamese, and posters were in Assamese — yet, the locals spoke in a Mymensingh dialect of Bangla among themselves.
The meaning of words: Bangla-speaking immigrants tried to impose their language on the Assamese. (Photo: India Today)
This difference in dialect and attire of the Muslims of Bangladeshi origin, even if they crossed the border before 1971, has resulted in lesser acceptance for them among the indigenous population. The emergence of Badruddin Ajmal (of the All India United Democratic Front) and his Muslim politics increased the alienation.
Take the paradoxical story of a 33-year-old lawyer in the Gauhati High Court. Dressed in Fabindia kurtas and clean-shaven, he speaks fluent English and Assamese. His great-grandfather came from what was then East Bengal and settled in Assam before Independence. He is well accepted as an Assamese, but his 27-year-old cousin, a rickshaw puller in Guwahati's Hatigaon area, is routinely regarded as Bangladeshi.
In 2016, inside the state Assembly, BJP MLA Ramakanta Deuri reportedly called his Congress colleague Sherman Ali “Bangladeshi”. It’s a different matter that Ali scored top marks in Assamese in his 10th Board exam.
The linguistic data of the Census 2011 has also widened the already existing fault lines between the Assamese and Bengalis. The percentage of people speaking Assamese decreased from 58% in 1991 to 48% in 2011 — while Bengali speakers in the state went up from 22% to 30% in the same period.
The Assamese also fear that if Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims joined hands, they could be politically outnumbered, as happened in Tripura where Bengali-Hindu immigrants from East Bengal now dominate political power, pushing the original tribals to margins.
In Assam’s Barak Valley, dominated by Bengali Hindus, Assamese is still not accepted as the state language. What has added to this fear are campaigns such as 'Miyah Poetry' and 'Chalo Paltai'. A section of educated Muslims of immigrant origin, who are fluent in Assamese but speak a Bangla dialect — locally called Miyah — among themselves, have started writing poetry in that dialect. These poems talk about their pain of living as a suspect in the place where they were born.
Ironically, Hafiz Ahmed, the most controversial among these poets, is the president of Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, which has been promoting the Assamese language and literature among the residents of Assam’s over 2,000 Char Chapori areas mostly populated by Miyah-speakers.
Fanning the flames: The Bangla issue has added to clashes in Assam. (Representative photo: India Today)
This language assertion has earned extreme reactions from Assamese people. Even the most revered intellectual Hiren Gohain, who has often spoken against a chauvinist Assamese campaign against immigrants, took offence to these poems. Four FIRs have been filed against Ahmed for allegedly fanning communal tension.
And if Miyah poets were not enough to add fire to the already volatile situation, Garga Chatterjee, an Assistant Professor at the Kolkata-based Indian Statistical Institute and TMC sympathiser, has apparently launched a campaign asking all Bangla-speaking people in Assam to write their mother tongue as Bangla in the next Census, so that together, all Bengalis can overthrow Assamese dominance in Assam. Ahmed, however, opposed this and also wrote against it in Assamese in an Assamese daily.
What are Foreigners Tribunals?
To tackle the issue of illegal influx, Foreigners Tribunals (FT) were set up in Assam in 1964. These quasi-judicial courts adjudicate on cases referred to them by the local Foreigner Regional Registration Office, which itself works on the recommendations of the Assam Border Police Organization. The FTs are independent of the NRC process and are governed by the Foreigners Act, 1946. There are currently 100 FTs in Assam. The state government is in the process of establishing 200 more FTs by September 1, 2019, and another 200 in the subsequent three months to deal with NRC appeals and references.
Those excluded from the NRC will not automatically become foreigners. They have to be so declared by an FT.
The state government will refer to those who do not appeal on their own. Till March 2019, the FTs have identified 1,17,164 individuals as foreigners and of these, 29,855 have been deported.
The FTs have often been in the news for the wrong reasons — declaring supposedly bonafide Indian citizens as foreign nationals.
In March 2017, 11 descendants of the first deputy speaker of Assam, Moulavi Amiruddin, were served notices by an FT. Recently, an FT declared Mohammad Sana Ullah, who had served in the Indian army for 30 years, and is currently serving as assistant sub-inspector in border police, a foreigner, and sent him to a detention centre. He later got a reprieve from the high court.
Once declared foreigner by an FT, a person is sent to a detention centre.
Currently, Assam has six detention centres — which run out of district jails. The first exclusive detention centre, with a capacity to hold 3,000 persons, is being built in Goalpara. While the Assam government is preparing to construct 10 more detention centres, the Union Home Ministry has sent out a circular to all states to prepare detention centres with modern facilities.
At present, 1,145 individuals are lodged in Assam’s six detention centres — in pathetic conditions.
Desperate searches: Foreign Tribunals have made errors and sentenced Indian nationals to detention centres. (Photo: Reuters)
In 2016, during my visit to the Kokrajhar detention centre, inside the premises of the district jail, I understood the inadequacies of the state’s response to illegal migration and some of its absurd and tragic consequences. And, contrary to the widespread campaign, not only Muslims are lodged in these detention centres. Ramani Biswas, a 32-year-old woman from Mayong, had been languishing there since 2009 when she, along with her husband, Dilip Biswas, 40, and daughters Kalpana, 15, and Archana, 9, were picked up by the authorities. Her court records show the family ignored notices sent by the FT, based on complaints about their citizenship.
According to the court verdict, they will have to be deported out of India, but until the government can execute the order, they will stay in the detention centre. As the male and female detainees are kept apart, Dilip is in the Tezpur detention centre.
What makes the case curious is that both Ramani and Dilip’s parents are Indian citizens, as are their siblings.
“What is my fault?” asked a distraught Kalpana. “Why have I been denied the right to education?” Her younger sister, along with five other children, were taken to a local primary school, escorted by two policemen. But, as the-then jailor P.K. Bharali explained, they took children to school only till they reach 10. “There is a risk of them fleeing when they grow up,” he said. “We don’t have enough manpower. Even to provide clothes and food for the detainees, we have to depend on public donations”.
Giving Ramani company in the detention centre were Minara Begum, 32, from Udarband in Silchar; Momirunessa, 45, from Baghbar in Barpeta; Halima Khatun, 40, from Dhing in Nagaon; Gita Biswas, 50, from Shantipur in Baksa and Basanti Mahanta, 40, from Bongaigaon. These women were the only ones in their family who had been charged as or declared illegal migrants. Their husbands, parents and siblings remain Indian citizens.
Many of these poor, semi-educated or illiterate women seemed to be paying the price for having failed to understand and respond to notices sent by the FT.
Too poor for rights? Ramani is an Indian national who simply couldn't understand the FT notice she got. (Representative photo: Reuters)
In April 2019, the Supreme Court ordered the release of declared foreigners who had completed three years in detention provided they fulfilled certain conditions — two Indians will have to take surety, they will have to sign a bond of Rs 1 lakh, their biometrics will be taken and they have to furnish a verified address.
There are 335 individuals who have spent more than three years in detention — none has been released yet.
Who are D voters?
Another contentious issue has been the exclusion of D-voters from the NRC. On July 17, 1997, the Election Commission of India issued a circular directing the Assam government to remove those who did not have citizenship credentials from the electoral list. Known as Doubtful Voter (D voters), they were put on trial before the FTs. Inclusion of D-voters in NRC would be subject to the decision of the FTs.
Till 2019, the state has identified 1,13,738 individuals as D-Voters.
Critics have complained of randomness in tagging D-voters.
The D-voter tag has already taken several lives in the state — many of them are Hindus. In June 2018, a 40-year-old daily wage earner, Abola Roy, committed suicide in Dhubri's Hakakura area following a quarrel with his wife, Saharibala, who has been marked a D-voter. Saharibala blamed her husband for not being able to earn enough to fight her legal battle. In May, marginal farmer Gopal Das, 62, of Nichlamari in Udalguri district committed suicide after being unable to bear the financial burden of getting the D-voter tag removed from his name.
In 1997, Shah Alom Bhuyan, who later served as a security officer in chief minister Sonowal's residence, was marked a D-voter. In Tezpur, retired nayak subedar Dilip Dutta got tagged as a D-voter. A senior official from the border police offered an explanation on why several individuals from the police and armed forces got tagged as D-voters: If a person doesn't vote in several elections, he is likely to get a D-tag. Policemen and soldiers rarely get a chance to vote.
Could even they get a D-Voter tag? (Photo: India Today)
Will NRC solve the issue?
Several stakeholders have lost faith in the NRC, although for different reasons.
The BJP, which plans to roll out NRC in every state, is nervous about the publication of Assam NRC as it will exclude a large number of Hindus. The Union Home Ministry and the Assam government had approached the Supreme Court for re-verification of NRC data — a request that Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi turned down, saying that 27% of people had already been freshly scrutinized. Assam’s Parliamentary Affairs Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary cited some numbers in the state Assembly to make a case for fresh verification. He said that the rate of exclusion in the districts bordering Bangladesh was less than the state average, proving that people had wrongly been included in the NRC. While 12.15% of the total applicants were excluded from the final NRC draft, the corresponding figure for the bordering districts of South Salmara, Dhubri and Karimganj was 7.22%, 8.26% and 7.57% respectively.
These are the districts which have seen unusual population growth, primarily among Muslims. The low exclusion rate is not surprising as most immigrants, with help from corrupt officials and patronage from previous political regimes, who saw them as vote banks, got their paperwork done within days of their arrival in India.
In contrast, the indigenous people rarely care about paperwork to prove national identity.
That’s the reason the rate of exclusion in districts such as Karbi Anglong (14.3%) and Tinsukia (13.25%), dominated by tribals, Assamese and Hindi-speaking people, is much higher.
“NRC has already taken so much time. What is the harm if it takes six months or three more months? Even Assamese people have been excluded,” said Ranjeet Dass, president of the Assam BJP.
Lining up: But is there a clear direction to this huge exercise? (Photo: India Today)
That’s also the reason why the BJP is desperate to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 which aims at providing citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Though the Citizenship Amendment Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2016 covers refugees from three nations, it was primarily aimed at protecting the Bengali Hindu migrants from Bangladesh.
The BJP tried to hard sell the Bill in Assam, projecting it as a strategy to protect the Hindu identity of Assam against the influx of Muslims from Bangladesh — but failed to take into account the fear among the Assamese of the cultural hegemony of the Hindu Bengalis. As the first Modi government could not get the Bill passed in Rajya Sabha, it lapsed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah have, however, reiterated that the BJP is committed to passing the Bill.
Several bureaucratic loopholes have also marred the NRC exercise with the human rights brigade often highlighting the “wrongful” exclusions of Muslim individuals. There is unanimity in Assam in the acceptance that mistakes may have crept into the NRC process, but this is not targeted against any particular religious group. “Re-verification is of paramount importance if we want to have a document that is free from error. There is a strong possibility that the names of several illegal immigrants have already made into the NRC complete draft,” says Abhijeet Sarma, head of APW.
Whether the final NRC gets published on August 31 or not, there is no answer yet to this big question — what will happen to those who will be excluded from the register?
India doesn’t have a policy on stateless people.
Several theories are floating around about the future of these stateless people. Some sources say the Centre has been considering a proposal to provide long-term biometric work permits to all those who may be eventually declared foreigners. These people would not have any political or land rights (there is no clarity on what will happen to those who have already bought property in Assam).
What can make matters explosive is that a substantial section to be excluded could be those who own farmland.
On the boil: Assam is bearing the brunt today. This could easily spill over too. (Photo: India Today)
The BJP has also promised that it will implement the Clause 6 of Assam Accord, which talks about providing constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people. On July 17, 2019, the Union Home Ministry constituted a high-level committee to look into fulfilling Clause 6. The mandate of the committee is to determine the appropriate level of reservation of seats in the state assembly and local bodies for the “Assamese people”.
However, there is no consensus yet on who can be defined as Assamese.
According to the Census of 2011, Assam’s total population was 3.12 crores. Projecting the pattern of decadal growth of previous censuses, Assam’s population in 2015 — the year of commencement of NRC work — was estimated at 3.39 crores. However, the NRC process received 3.29 crore applications — 10 lakh less than the projected population. In the draft NRC published on July 2018, 40,07,707 applicants were excluded.
Though all of them could re-apply, 3,95,688 individuals chose to not apply. In June 2019, the NRC secretariat had published an additional list of exclusions, which had over 1,00,000 names. This list was published after verification under the NRC rules.
That means nearly 5 lakh bona fide “foreigners” have been roaming around in Assam.
That’s a little more than the total population of Tripura — and a little less than the total population of Himachal Pradesh. There is little chance of ever detecting them.
Just ponder over this number once again — the FTs have identified 1,17,164 foreigners till now, only 1,145, or 0.009%, are in detention.
If today, Assam is living with those illegal immigrants, tomorrow, entire India will have to share that burden.
Also Read: Shadows of NRC: 35 years after 1983's Nellie massacre, why the issue of ‘foreigners’ in Assam is boiling