On 31 August, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) released the latest draft of its list of “genuine Indians” living in the northeastern state of Assam. Carried out by 50 000 personnel, the controversial exercise cost 12 billion Indian rupees (INR), which is more than R2 trillion. Eventually, almost two million people were identified as “non-citizens” out of a population of more than 10 million.
Prateek Hajela, the state coordinator of the NCR, said that those dissatisfied with the final outcome could file an appeal before the Foreigners’ Tribunals within 120 days from 8 August. But apprehensions are already being voiced about the exercise being nothing more than a divisive tool to open fault lines by pitting Assamese against Bengalis, Hindus against Muslims, Assamese-speaking Muslims against Bengali-speaking Muslims, tribals against non-tribals, and “upper-caste” Hindus against “lower-caste” Hindus.
While cultural marginalisation has been the overarching concern among Assamese since the 1970s, the coming to power of the far-right Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) further complicated this anxiety.
Partha Gosh, a senior fellow at the Institute of Social Science, says “BJP’s Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] push fits well with the movement’s anti-Muslim dimension. But its proposed amendment to the citizenship act, which is sympathetic to Hindu immigrants, irks the linguistic nationalism of the Assamese.”
Controversial comparisons such as “original inhabitants versus illegal Bangladeshi migrants” have remained prevalent in Assam’s student politics. Owing to these exploitative narratives, communal forces banking on distorted history could fan communal insecurity and polarise the masses. The divide was evident when ethnic riots erupted in 2008 and 2012 between Bodos and Adivasis, and Bodos and Punjabi-speaking Muslims respectively.
The effect of the NCR’s draft list has been to make vulnerable hundreds of thousands of people who have been turned into stateless individuals overnight and face the risk of deportation to detention centres. While government officials claim that legal aid and assistance will be provided to those who have not been included in the NCR, several people in the state have said that they feel “threatened and scared”.
Terror of not being on the list
At least six people committed suicide in July, including Sayera Begum, 60, who belonged to Sonitpur in northern Assam. She ended her life by jumping into a well on the morning of 31 August, hours before the list was published. In addition, the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, claimed that another 11 people had died at this time “due to panic”.
The reason given for conducting the NRC was to check the flow of “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh, most of whom are said to be Muslims. However, critics say it was undertaken by the Narendra Modi-led BJP government to undermine the Bengali-speaking Muslim community in Assam, which constitutes almost a third of the state’s population.
On 11 April, Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah stated at a public rally that “illegal immigrants” are “termites”, alleging that “they are eating the grain that should go to the poor, they are taking our jobs … We will remove every single infiltrator except Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs.”
Hindu nationalists, especially BJP politicians, target Muslim immigrants, calling for them to be sent back to Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan or “wherever they came from”. A recent amendment to the Citizenship Bill reflects this discriminatory attitude towards Muslims.
Amid the growing uncertainty and rift within communities, activists fear the controversial decision seems another political vendetta of Modi and his government, aimed at marginalising minorities. “For a long time, most BJP workers and politicians have been fanning the narrative across the state that the NRC was supposed to screen Muslims and force them out of India,” said Moslem Da, an activist from Assam.
Many other locals from Chachar district in the Barack Valley are lamenting how entering into legal proceedings has become difficult for those who immigrated before 1971. “We are very poor people,” said one resident. “There are a significant number of people in Assam who can’t even afford the money required for paper verification. How can they bear the fees needed for legal procedures? Names of our family members were not included in the first list and then we are asked for hearings. Despite being present at the two hearings, in the final list our names were not carried. Where will we go now?”
Many residents whose names have been left off the NRC list complained that their family requires first INR20 000 and then an additional INR19 000 to prove their Indian citizenship. “This court procedure will bring our family and flat-broke people [a significant portion of subaltern Assamese, who live from hand to mouth] to the brink of destruction,” said residents of the Cachar’s Udharband, who refused to use their names for fear of exposure.
“Only the middle and lower-class families may find some online or institutional help,” said Tapadi Battacharya, an anti-NRC activist. “Those who rely on hand to mouth will be left out completely.”
The debate over migration
As many as 400 000 people from 400 villages were displaced in 2010 because of the riots. The northeastern state has a long history of migration, further complicated in 1971, when a large chunk of the population, fearing civil war, was driven from Bangladesh across the border into India. The NCR, which is a database meant to carry a list of legitimate Indian citizens, has not been updated consistently since it was created in 1951 to identify inhabitants who had settled illegally in Assam.
Today, many Assamese find it difficult to produce the necessary documents required for their identification as “genuine” Indians. To be included in the NRC, each applicant must establish links to their parents, grandparents or ancestors, whose names must be in the 1951 NRC or, for that matter, on any electoral list up to 1971. For this purpose, around 12 documents issued before 1971, when Bangladesh was created, are acceptable.
In his study, Paper Citizens, the academic Kamal Sadiq questions the rationale of the NRC. He says that when the poor do not even have a place to keep their meagre financial savings, it is bizarre to think that they will preserve pieces of paper, the contents of which they can’t read.
Following the agitation of the All Assam Students’ Union, in which as many as 3 000 people, mostly Bengali Muslims, lost their lives, the Assam Accord was signed in 1985. Subsequently, the identification, detention and deportation of immigrants became mandatory.
Under this accord, those who had entered Assam between 1966 and 1971 were supposed to be struck off the electoral rolls and lose their voting rights for 10 years, after which their names would be restored. Those who had entered the state on or after 25 March 1971 were to be declared foreigners and deported.
Trafficking in Assam
Lack of employment opportunities, frequent natural disasters, a high degree of poverty and a lack of jobs remain key factors behind the high prevalence of human trafficking in the northeast. A report by the National Crime Records Bureau found that Assam has the highest number of cases in the country at 1 494, which constitutes 22% of the total reported cases of trafficking.
From 2001 to 2006, more than 4 000 people went missing in Assam. According to reports, nearly 130 girls were forced into sex work by traffickers in 2016 alone.
Similarly, in October 2017, Assam Crime Investigation released a report saying that 4 754 children went missing between 2002 and 2005, of whom 2 753 were girls. The United Nations Development Programme’s reports have stressed repeatedly that poverty is the main driver behind Assamese women and children being trafficked to different states such as Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Mumbai and Punjab for forced labour and prostitution.
Journal articles, including Human Trafficking in North Eastern Region: A Study with Global Perspective by Eli Kumari Das and Media as an Anti-Trafficking Measure in Milieu of Assam by Rajashree Goswami and Gyan Prakash Pandey, say that a lack of awareness and resources make Assamese parents vulnerable to believing traffickers’ false promises that they will provide their children with an education and lucrative jobs. Since 1998, according to conservative estimates, more than 3 000 such children have been illegally whisked away from Assam under the garb of educational projects. Activist Hasin Kharbhih, 48, who has rescued hundreds of girls from human trafficking in India, stressed “the open and unmanned” borders in the northeastern region of India further “exacerbates the organised and undetected human trafficking”.
The worst affected areas in the state include Kokrajhar, Dhubri, Lakhimpur, Kamrup and Doomni. Tehelka news magazine reported in January 2018 that one in every two houses in Doomni’s tea estate has a case of missing children. However, the missing cases remain under-reported as the majority of families hesitate to file the first investigative report at their nearest police station.
According to a study by North East Research and Social Work Networking, the Kokrajhar district has been described as the sixth worst-hit trafficking zone in Assam. In this district, 16 minors have gone missing between 2016 and 2017, say reports.
A significant portion of the almost two million Assamese rendered stateless in August are feeling like foreigners in their own land. If poverty prevails in the region, their condition will deteriorate further, causing them to consider and act on options that often are exploitative.
“Those rejected in NRC are mostly hailing from remotest village of Assam where trafficking is the worst. No exact data is available on the total number but it is widespread. If this government continues to punish the subaltern for being poor, people will be doomed,” said Forum for Protection of Indian Citizenship Rights president Zamser Ali.