Foreigners in their own land

Garga Chattergee describes the problematic procedure that determines citizenship in Assam

Foreigners in their own land
The publication of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, that purportedly aims to identify non-citizens who are residing in Assam, has brought cheer in the BJP. It has also brought cheer from the erstwhile terrorist group United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) led by Aranbinda Rajkhowa and the All Assam Students Union (AASU), an organisation that has been associated for decades with ethnic chauvinism, racism and extortion. Chief Minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal happens to be the ex-chief of AASU during a period when its vigilantism and extortion activities were at its peak. The ULFA was directly responsible for killings and massacres of many Indian citizens for what is a crime in their dictionary: being non-Assamese.

Delhi is far from Assam and Bangla and hence the media narratives, especially its Bengali origin interpreters who are not touch with reality, have tried to spin the resistance against the NRC process as a Hindu-Muslim question. That sort of a false narrative helps the BJP very well. The non-BJP narrative that Delhi produces lacks information, understanding, energy and imagination and thus also needs a Muslim-as-a-victim narrative as they are most adept at playing second fiddle with that tune. Why learn to play to reality when one is an expert at playing Hindu-Muslim?

Times are changing and that means, voices from the ground, articulate and assertive, do not need imperial gatekeepers of Delhi to make themselves heard. What are those voices saying? They are busting the myth that the NRC process is anti-Muslim. It is primarily anti-Bengali: both, anti-Hindu Bengali and anti-Muslim Bengali. Because the process is so huge, some other groups like Gorkhas have also become collateral damage in this onslaught. But for the first time in many decades in Bangla, both the ruling party Trinamool and the principal opposition party CPI(M) have united in their opposition to the NRC with the Trinamool sending a team of MPs who were violently blocked by Assam Police from leaving Silchar Airport to attend a citizen’s convention. In Bangla, the largest community of Dalits, the Matuas, blocked the railway tracks all over Bangla in solidarity with the scores of Dalit Hindu Bengalis whose names do not appear in the NRC. If this was not enough, the firebrand BJP MLA Shiladitya Deb, who is a Hindu Bengali and is known to make anti-Muslim speeches, admitted that a majority of people in the NRC list are Hindus. Given that Hindu Bengalis of Assam form his political base in Hojai and beyond, he knows of their discontent. They are being targeted not because they are Hindus. They are being targeted because they are Bengalis. The Muslim Bengalis are fear-stricken and silent since the BJP narrative has ensured that a Bengali who happens to be a Muslim is automatically branded Bangladeshi. In Bengali-heavy Baksa district of Assam, Hindu Bengalis blocked roads against the NRC and chanted slogans in favour of Mamata Banerjee, whose party has almost no presence in Assam at present. Such are the cries of desperate people.

When the anti-Muslim narrative of the BJP met the long-held anti-Bengali narrative that pre-existed in Assamese ethnic chauvinist circles like AASU, the result was the NRC process as it unfolded. Hindu Bengalis were taken for a temporary ride to ensure that ex-AASU chief Sarbananda becomes Assam premier with the help of Hindu Bengalis who were assured that the BJP would find a way to separate Hindus from Muslims among Bengalis. Now, the NRC final draft shows that the Hindu Bengalis were taken for a ride with the BJP’s Bengali MLA Shiladitya Deb admitting that the majority of people in draft NRC are Hindus. And a majority are Bengalis. Put those two statements together. Hindu Bengalis also saw how the pressure of the anti-Bengali Assamese ethnic chauvinist lobby that operates within the BJP has scuttled the preferential citizenship promised to all Hindu Bengalis through the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill. The BJP was caught in a bind between Bengalis and Assamese and chose to throw Bengalis under the bus after getting their vote.

In the context of India, the term “Bangladeshi” should ideally mean citizens of Bangladesh who are illegally in India. Under the communal narrative of BJP, this term expanded to mean all Muslim Bengalis, as evident from the regular jailings and oppression of Muslim Bengalis in various BJP ruled states including Maharashtra and Haryana. When it comes to Assam and neighbouring BJP-ruled states where Bengalis are in a minority, this term “Bangladeshi” has further expanded from Muslim Bengalis to mean all Bengalis, Hindus and Muslims, Indian citizens or otherwise. This was in full display right after the publication of the final draft of the NRC when in Meghalaya, vigilante groups set up illegal check-posts to demand ‘papers proving citizenship’ from people who “appeared” to be Bengali. In Arunachal Pradesh, a similar “clean-up” operation has been announced with a time limit of 14 days. In Manipur, an NRC is being planned with 1951 as cut-off date and anti-Bengali vigilantism already being orchestrated in Bengali heavy Jiribam area of Manipur.

Are there any people in the Indian Union who are non-citizens and have entered illegally? Yes. So, to determine whether one is a non-citizen, one has to determine who is a citizen. No legal political party operating in the Indian Union disagrees on that count. The question then arises, how do you determine whether someone is an Indian citizen or not? Whichever way you determine that has to fulfil certain criteria to meet basic standards of fairness and equality before the law. It has to be based on objective evidence, which typically means documentary evidence whose copy should be stored by the assessment agency for public scrutiny. The assessment has to be universal, that is, for all residents of the Indian Union. In such an assessment, the assessing agency cannot be an interested party. This means, an interested party cannot supervise the assessment. None of the above criteria were fulfilled during the National Register for Citizens (NRC) registration process in Assam and thus it has become what it was always designed to be, a “legal” method to disenfranchise Bengalis and some other ethnic groups in Assam to satisfy racist sentiments of BJP in Delhi, Nagpur and Guwahati. After the initial rejoicing about NRC, these forces are now fast realizing that the political gains that BJP wanted to get out of this process can be wiped off by the united trans-communal Bengali resistance that is growing in Bangla and Assam and crucially by the growing awareness of the NRC process farce among other sections of Indian Union citizens.
The NRC registration process in Assam has become what it was always designed to be: a legal method to disenfranchise Bengalis and some other ethnic groups in Assam

Let us look into these criterion and that is help us understand why the NRC process is a farce with an ulterior motive. Firstly, the assessment of citizenship itself. The biggest scandal is there were different burdens of proof on some ethnic groups vis-à-vis other ethnic groups. This means, some groups, the so-called original inhabitants, had to furnish much less information (which mostly meant almost no information) to be included in NRC while other groups, for example, Bengalis (who strangely are not classified as original inhabitants, something, that makes one wonder whether Barak valley is part of Assam or not since Bengalis are original inhabitants of Ishan Bongo Barak), would have to furnish necessarily documentary information of the kind that a huge percentage of the Indian Union population cannot produce. Most people didn’t own anything that required printed government receipts or any documentary ownership or living situation. When such criterions are used selectively on a certain ethnic groups and not on another, it means this one group wants to remove as much as possible of this other group. Then we come to connection of this assessment method. Who did all these assessments? Supreme Court did not come down to do assessments not did they check the assessment process in each and every situation. The BJP government of Assam headed by an ex-AASU man with an cabinet full of folks who stoke ethnic chauvinism. Now put this sort of assessors in charge of doing the actual assessment where a huge space for subjectivity exists. It is not accidental that so many long-time ideological opponents of the BJP were excluded earlier from the NRC, the most prominent among them being the world reknowned Bangla language and literature scholar Professor Tapodhir Bhattacharya who was ex-vice chancellor of Assam University and the son of a freedom fighter and MLA. If such “errors” were “accidental” as claimed by the BJP, why don’t they show the data that shows equal distribution across all districts of the scores of such “errors” by “chance.”

An ideologically motivated political community did the assessment – their ideological predilection with roots in AASU and other fraternal groups makes them interested parties. The result is for all to see – a flawed system that makes Indian citizens classified as foreigners in their own land, many of whom have no means or understanding of being able to navigate the theoretically present legal options because in reality, most citizens don’t have any economic means for any legal recourse and this is true for all the legal process that the NRC entails.

There is a legitimate concern about illegal immigrants. Assamese should not become a minority in their land. But Assam is a composite state. There are homelands of many groups sharing space with Assamese being the largest group but not the majority. Concerns about ownership patterns and everything of concern and anxiety in the core homeland are addressable without dividing Indian citizens.  Should something be done about illegal immigrants? Surely. Do I consider it among some of  the top things that will address the basic needs of the citizens of India, say, rapid expansion of investment and jobs and economic opportunities, rapid expansion of public healthcare, rapid decrease in vigilantism, rapid decrease in economic inequality and deeper people’s empowerment by decisive shift of powers from Union to States? No.