The Politics of Citizenship: The National Register for Citizens (NRC) in Assam

A woman, with her baby in her arms, walks towards the NRC Centre to submit her National Register of Citizens (NRC) form while others in the background wait in queue to collect the forms in Mayong village in Morigaon district of Assam on August 13, 2018. A little over 40 lakh people were left out of the final draft NRC that was published on July 30,2018. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The recent publication of the National Register of Citizens in India’s northeastern State of Assam has opened up a nationwide debate on immigration in general and the status of immigrants from neighbouring countries (especially Bangladesh) into India’s border states in particular. In this article, K.V. Thomas, retired Assistant Director of Intelligence Bureau and a former Public Policy Scholar with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, traces the history of the NRC and the socio-political and religious dynamics behind the current exercise.

The issue of foreign nationals or illegal immigrants in India’s North East, particularly in the State of Assam, has once again emerged at the center stage of the national politics with the release of the final draft of the National Register for Citizens (NRC) on July 30, 2018.“The list released by the government includes 28,983,677 citizens; 40.07 lakh people have been left out; of which 37.59 lakh applications were rejected and 2.48 lakh put on hold for want of prescribed documents as citizenship proof”1

The issue has attained demographic overtures in view of the spawning anxiety among indigenous people that granting citizenship to large number of migrants would change the complexion of population and endanger their cultural identity. The influx of migrants, according to them, led to steady growth of Muslims from being 24.68 per cent of the State’s population in 1951 to 28.43 per cent in 1991 and 34.22 per cent in 2011( See Table 1A). The growth rate of Hindus (41.89 per cent) from 1971 to 1991 was indeed much lower than that of Muslims (77.42 per cent). There is a lurching fear among these sections that excess growth rate of Muslims in the State may ultimately outnumber other religious communities. (See Table IB)

Table I A

Muslim population in Assam (in percentage)

Year

Muslims

1901

12.4

1911

16.69

1921

19.41

1931

23.41

1941

25.72

1951

24.68

1961

25.26

1971

24.56

1981

No census

1991

28.43

2001

30.92

2011

34.22

(Based on census figures)

 

Table 1B

Religion-wise population in Assam

(Census 2011/Assam)

Religion

Percentage

Hindus

61.47

Muslims

34.22

Christians

3.74

Sikhs

0.07

Buddhist

0.18

Jain

0.08

Others

0.09

(Based on census figures)

 

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is in power at the Centre and in the State of Assam strives to exploit such feelings by holding that the party is committed to the NRC for safeguarding the rights and interests of the people of Assam. Almost all other political parties are wary of the absence of over 40 lakh persons from the Citizen’s Register. The most vituperative criticism came from West Bengal Chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee who warned that the BJP’s move to divide people with such decisions would lead to a “bloodbath and civil war”. Mamata’s fears are not unfounded as the ‘illegal migrants’ controversy is likely to prominently figure in West Bengal in the run-up to next year’s Lok Sabha election, especially in the light of the BJP’s organised move to draw political mileage by accusing the chief minister of indulging in minority appeasement. Thus, in her first meeting with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh after the controversy, she sought clarity on whether the Centre intends to carry out an exercise similar to the NRC in Assam in her State. Any move by the Centre on that direction will be resisted by the West Bengal government which could lead to further escalation of tension and conflicts between the TMC and the BJP in the State. She was the one to fire the first salvo by mobilising an open protest against the recent visit of Amit Shah to Kolkata to address a BJP rally on the NRC issue.

The influx of migrants from East Pakistan/Bangladesh to India, especially the North East, was a sensitive and emotional issue. The riots of 1964 and the India-Pakistan War of 1965 resulted in the out-migration of a large number of Hindus from East Pakistan. Another massive out-migration from East Pakistan was triggered in 1971 when the Pakistani military establishment tried to suppress Bengali nationalism through brutal military force. ‘An estimated 10 million persons, including 6.7 million Hindus, were forced to take refuge in India’2 A majority of these migrants/refugees who spread over North East, West Bengal, and Bihar were, rehabilitated as per International Conventions and Protocols on the status of Refugees. Thus, the BJP’s strategy would be to take this controversy beyond Assam or West Bengal by sending multiple messages across the country on appealing themes like patriotism, national security, demographic balance, stability, and culture. The party stalwarts from Kerala believe that by building up effective campaigns on such emotive slogans, they can refurbish the eclipsed image of the party/NDA government due to a mosaic of factors, such as the poor state of the economy, bottlenecks in the fight against black money and corruption, the agrarian crisis, growing unemployment, the Rafale deal and so on. The party is in no hurry to go ahead with the detection and deportation of the undocumented migrants, but intends to allow the issue to linger on so as to derive maximum electoral advantage in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

The tactical approach of the party seems to be to publish the NRC list first and, then think about the question of deciding the case of illegal migrants. The Senior BJP leaders, including Sarbananada Sonowal, the Chief Minister of Assam, have given enough indications to this effect. For example, those who did not figure in the list could approach the authorities concerned from August 7, 2018 to ascertain the reasons for their exclusion. From August 30 to September 28, they could submit their claims and objections at the NRC Seva Kendras. Hearings would be held subsequently to decide on each individual claim or objection. It is only after this process is finished that the final NRC will be published, probably by the end of 2018. The people excluded from the final NRC can appeal at the Foreigners' Tribunal or can even approach the Supreme Court. Already, the Apex Court has seized the matter. On August 28, 2018, the Court clarified that it would go for the re-verification of 10 per cent of the people who were included in the draft NRC, by an independent team. The Court also ordered the deferment of the process of receiving claims and objections for the NRC on the question of validity of prescribed documents for staking claim in the NRC. Considering the legal issues and the past experiences of such exercises, it would take months or years to complete the process in deciding the final fate of the illegal migrants in the State. With the Daemocles’ sword of detection, disenfranchisement, and deportation hanging over the heads of these sections, the party anticipates to secure political mileage out of their plight and helplessness. Alternatively, by projecting its decision on the NRC issue, the party plans to market its image as a tough party headed by a decisive leader who would not run away from taking difficult decisions on issues of national interest.

While the Trinamool Congress (TMC) is on BJP’s radar, they are particularly keen to corner the Congress on the issue. Thus, the party chief, Amit Shah, while addressing the press (on July 31), accused the Indian National Congress (INC) of dragging its feet over the implementation of the ‘Assam accord’ for several decades and asked Rahul Gandhi to clarify his party’s stand. “If you talk about human rights, what about the rights of people of Assam?” Shah thundered. “Their rights of education, jobs were being taken away... This step has been taken for protecting the rights of the people of India. Every party should make their stand clear whether rights of Indians are important or not.”

The Congress is on a sticky wicket on the issue. Despite the party being in power for decades in Assam, it had adopted a half-hearted or indifferent approach towards the detection and deportation of illegal migrants or revision of electoral rolls free from foreign nationals. Once in 1992, the then Congress Chief Minister of Assam, Hiteshwar Saikia, had a confrontation with the then Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) on the question of revision of electoral rolls for Assembly polls. Saikia’s open statement that there were no foreign nationals in Assam was interpreted as the party’s position with regard to the illegal migrants with a view to retaining their vote bank. Though the central leadership of the party took a decision to initiate updating of NRC as early as 1972, the issue was conveniently kept under carpet on one pretext or the other.

The process of updating the NRC was initiated  in 2005 by former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, in a tripartite meeting to review the Assam accord signed in 1985 in the presence of the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The Congress, which, under Tarun Gogoi, held power in Assam for a decade and a half (between 2001 and 2016) didn’t do much to take the exercise forward. The preceding governments of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) led by Prafulla Mahanta (1985-1990 and 1996-2001) and the Congress led by Hiteshwar Saikia (1991-1996) did precious little as well. The Congress, now, cannot adopt a wishy-washy stand in the matter of exclusion of 40 lakh names from the draft NRC list. Thus, as a tactical move, the party chose to limit its objections to the manner in which the exercise had been undertaken. In a Facebook post, Congress president Rahul Gandhi highlighted that despite spending almost Rs. 1,200 crore, the execution of this critical and highly sensitive exercise by the BJP governments at the Centre and in Assam has been tardy. Rahul Gandhi also took care to avoid any reference to the harassment of minorities on this issue in order to avoid any backlash from the majority community targeting his party. By holding that many Indian citizens are finding their names missing from the draft NRC, he tried to adopt a humanitarian and secular approach by appealing to Congress members to “help all those against whom injustice has been done in the draft NRC, irrespective of their religion, caste, gender, linguistic group, or political affiliation.” 

The Left parties, notably the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI-M], while expressing serious concern over the exclusion of large number of Indians from the draft NRC, are of the view that both the BJP and the TMC were polarising people for their vested political gains and that people must boycott the two parties to stop such polarisation in the country. In the case of CPI-M, their main strategy appears to be to rebuild the eroded vote base in West Bengal by taking a leaf out of the NRC controversy. Thus, taking a dig at Mamata Banerjee, Surjya Kanta Mishra, state secretary of the CPI-M in West Bengal, recently held that she took a positive stand on the issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in 2005 and during her association with the NDA government. Now, she was campaigning against the NRC for political gains.

The minorities and the marginalised, especially the poor and illiterate sections of Muslims who are not in possession of the prescribed documents to establish their citizenship credentials or are unaware of the intricacies of the NRC updating process, could not find a place in the final draft NRC list. According to official sources, about 27 lakh Muslim women who do not possess any other documentary proof except the certificates issued by the local Panchayats do not figure in the list, as the High Court has rejected these certificates as proof for citizenship. The attempt to surreptitiously target Muslims during the updating exercise has been projected by certain Muslim organisations at national and international level. Recently, an organisation named ‘Avaaz’ launched a global campaign in a petition titled “India: ‘Stop deleting Muslims”’ which highlighted that “in a few days India would delete as many as seven million Muslims in Assam State from its master list of ‘citizens’ because they speak the wrong language and worship the wrong God.”.

However, there are a few Muslim parties or organisations which do not endorse such views.  The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a political party that bases its politics around the immigrant Muslim identity in the State, is of the view that the NRC process should not be linked with religion or language; it is only about identifying Indians and foreigners. Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, the leader of the party, commented that the people, who are alleging that Muslims are being targeted during the updation of the National Register of Citizens in Assam, are not helping the State or the nation.  He was also stated categorical that more than 94 per cent of the people in his constituency in the Muslim-dominated district of Dhubri have found their names in the list. Similarly, Anjuman Minhaj-e-Rasoon, an Islamic organisation working for peace and secularism, threw its weight behind the NRC saying that speaking against the process is tantamount to contempt of the Supreme Court, as the Court has been supervising the entire exercise. Significantly, some of the advisers of this outfit include prominent Congress leaders like Jakirul Alam (Assam PCC secretary) and Abdul Khaleque, MLA from Jania constituency in Barpetta district. These organisations are optimistic that the Apex court would ensure justice to those migrants, including Muslim migrants who do not figure in the draft NRC.

The Historic Journey Towards the Final Draft NRC

The National Register of Citizens is a list of all the legal citizens of a state. It is governed by The Citizenship Act, 1955, and The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003 (amended in 2009) and a 2010 order of the Ministry of Home Affairs, published in the Gazette of India. The first NRC was prepared in 1951 and included all those who were mentioned in the 1951 Census of India.

The idea of updating the NRC in Assam stems from the demand to identify illegal migrants who infiltrated into the State from the erstwhile East Pakistan/Bangladesh. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) had spearheaded the six-year-long (1977-85) historic Assam Movement in support of the above demand. The movement, which witnessed serious violence, bloodshed, and mass-killings in places like Nellie during 1983, ended with the signing of the “Assam Accord”3 in 1985 between the Centre, the State, and the AASU, in the presence of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Accord contained a provision that all ‘foreigners’ who came to Assam after March 25, 1971 should be detected and deported under the Illegal Migration Determination (by Tribunals) (IMDT) Act, 1983.  It also talked about the deletion of foreigners' names from the electoral rolls. This cut of date was a critical bone of contention in determining the status of migrants from Bangladesh to India. It was on March 25, 1971 that the Pakistan military junta started a crackdown on freedom fighters and civilians of East Pakistan. The large scale atrocities led to a steady exodus of over 10 million refugees to India, who primarily spread across the states of Assam, West Bengal, and Tripura. A bulk of these refugees was rehabilitated in accordance with the international norms and conventions. After the emergence of the new nation, Bangladesh, Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman signed an accord enabling the return of Bangladesh migrants who had migrated to India post-May 25, 1971. However, a majority of them who lost their roots in their own homeland continued to stay in India. As a major chunk of these migrants did not have the prescribed documents to prove their residence or citizenship, they failed to find their place in the final draft NRC. The BJP is against the expulsion of the post-1971 Hindu immigrants, who, according to some estimates, were over six million. Though the party is in favor of granting refugee status to them, all other political parties, including the AASU and student and youth bodies like the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), demanded that all immigrants who came in after March 25, 1971 should be detected and deported. However, it is not an easy task to distinguish, culturally and linguistically, between the pre-1971 immigrants and the post-1971 settlers as they all speak the same Bengali dialect, except for the pre-1971 Muslim immigrants of the Brahmaputra valley who adopted the Assamese language.

The AASU and the AAGSP, which have occupied a major space in Assamese society by whipping up the sentiments of Assamese people on the foreigners’ issue, continued their various campaigns and agitations highlighting the migrants issue even after the signing of the Assam Accord. Their main contention was that successive governments at the Centre and in the State failed to implement the Accord's provisions regarding the detection, deletion of names from voters’ lists, and expulsion of foreigners. The words of Samujjal Kr Bhattacharyya, the key functionary of AASU who played a crucial role in signing the Accord, highlighted this:

“Over the past 25 years, the AGP was in power for two terms but did nothing to implement the Accord. During its second tenure, not a single review meeting at the level of Chief Minister was held. The BJP was in power at the Centre for six years. However, not a single review meeting on the Assam Accord, either at the Prime Minister's level or at the Union Home Minister's level, was held during National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The Congress, which has been in power for most of the time during this period, also failed miserably to honour the commitments made by the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as well as the commitments made by the present Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. The Left parties and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) also cannot escape responsibility for the non-implementation of the Assam Accord as they too enjoyed power in some way in New Delhi and Dispur.”4

Naturally, the present AASU leadership has reservations to openly air such views, especially when Sarbananada Sonowal, one of the architects of the Assam Accord from the AASU side, is now heading the BJP government in the State.

From the very beginning of the Accord, AASU was critical of the various provisions of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 [IMD (T)] alleging that it provided a complicated and cumbersome procedure for detection and deportation of illegal migrants and had failed to meet even the standards prescribed under the Foreigners Act, 1946. In view such complexities, there was tardy progress in the detection and deportation of illegal migrants. These bottlenecks found mention in a memorandum (IA No. 6 of 2004), submitted on behalf of the Government of Assam before the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Home Affairs regarding the inquiries and detection of illegal migrants by the Tribunals as on August 31, 2003. Out of 3,86,249 cases initiated by the Screening Committees, inquiries were completed in 3,79,521 cases of which 76,228 were referred to Illegal Migration Determination Tribunals [IMD(T)] which decided only 11,636 cases. The consolidated total number of deported/pushed back illegal immigrants on being declared as foreigners by IMD Tribunals and Foreigners Tribunals collectively till July 2012 was only 2,442 for which crores of rupees were spent from the national exchequer.

Such issues were brought before the Apex Court through a writ petition filed by Sarbananda Sonowal (then Assam Gana Parishad MP and the present Assam Chief Minster) in 2004, challenging the validity of the Act. The Supreme Court on July 12, 2005 struck down the Act declaring that its exclusive application to Assam was unconstitutional and violated the equality guaranteed in Article 14 of the Constitution. The court further noted that the law violated Article 355 of the Constitution, which imposes a duty on the central government “to protect every state against external aggression and internal disturbance”. It directed that all tribunals constituted under the IMDT Act adjudicating the cases for identification of illegal migrants from Bangladesh cease to function with immediate effect. The cases pending before the tribunals would stand transferred to tribunals under the Foreigners Act.

Meanwhile, in view of the mounting pressure by various parties and organisations on the revision of electoral rolls, a formal decision to update the NRC was first taken by the Centre in 1999, but the work did not begin. Later, in a tripartite meeting between the central government, the Assam government, and the AASU on May 5, 2005, it was decided to update the NRC. However, nothing much progressed beyond talks. In July 2009, Assam Public Works—an NGO—filed a case in the Supreme Court demanding updation of the NRC. In 2010, the government decided to hold pilot projects of NRC updating in two blocks in the State. But violence in Barpeta district stalled work. It was only after the Supreme Court’s direction in 2014 to the government to update the NRC that work on updating the list began in full swing.

As regards to updating, people whose names appear on the 1951 NRC and those who appear on any voters’ list in Assam up to the midnight of March 24, 1971, and the descendants of the above are eligible to register for the NRC. Those who came to Assam from Bangladesh between January 1, 1966 and March 24, 1971 and registered themselves with the Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO) and declared by the Foreigner Tribunal as Indian citizens are also eligible. Indian citizens who moved to Assam after March 24, 1971 will need to provide proof of residence in another part of the country as on March 24, 1971.

The documents that could be submitted as proof are: a) 1951 NRC;  b) Electoral Roll(s) up to March 24, 1971 (midnight); c) Land & Tenancy Records;  d) Citizenship Certificate;  e) Permanent Residential Certificate; f) Refugee Registration Certificate; g) Passport;  h) LIC documents; i) Any  government-issued license/Certificate; j) Service/ Employment Certificate; k) Bank/Post Office Accounts; l) Birth Certificate; m) Board/University Educational Certificate and n) Court Records/Processes.

Monitored by the Supreme Court, the updating process started in late 2014, inviting applications for the NRC. Around 3.29 crore people sent in 6.6 crore documents that were verified as part of the updating process. Besides, house-to-house verification was undertaken for the verification of the family tree to ensure that claims of parenthood and linkages were not false. Despite such measures, many applicants were excluded from the list mainly due to their failure to submit authentic documents to prove their citizenship claims. However, they have been given further option to submit documents to prove their citizenship.

History of Illegal Migration to Assam

In fact, geographic-demographic features, history, language, religion, economy, politics, and the socio-economic and political conditions in the neighboring countries, notably Bangladesh and Nepal, influenced the influx of illegal migrants to Assam.' The State has an international border stretching to 533 kilometers, of which 267 kilometers are with Bangladesh, the rest being with Bhutan5 Geographically, river Brahmaputra and her tributaries form a large number of riverine islands (‘Char areas’), which, having remained inaccessible for human habitation for many centuries, had become fertile ground for the migrants from across the borders. Added to this were the vast stretches of forest land, especially those in the districts coming under the Barak valley bordering Bangladesh.

The initial trends of migration started when the Burmese ceded Assam to the British on February 24, 1826 as per the treaty of Yandabo, thus bringing to an end Ahom rule in Assam, which had begun sometime in the 13th century. The British annexed Assam and placed it as an administrative unit of the Bengal Province. The organised migration from Bengal to Assam was recorded at the beginning of the 20th century when a few migrants had gone beyond the Char land of Goalpara district. Soon, it gained momentum during the 1921-31 period when hordes of migrants from the Bengal Province entered Nagaon district and spread themselves throughout Lower and Upper Assam. Their cultural and linguistic similarities enabled them to easily merge with the indigenous population. The Census Report of 1931 highlighted this; “The invasion of the vast hordes of land-hungry Bengali migrants, mostly the Muslims from the districts of East Bengal, and in particular Mymensigh, would destroy the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilization”.

The British, instead of taking steps to check the migration, encouraged the process as the migrants formed cheap labour for the tea and oil industry. They introduced a ‘line system’ which envisaged an imaginary line in the districts, beyond which the migrants were not allowed to settle. With the introduction of the ‘line system’, polarisation began setting in between the migrant Muslims and Hindus. The issue had become more complex when leading political parties entered the scene with different lines: the Hindu leaders of the Indian National Congress (INC) clamoured for the strict enforcement of the line system, whereas leaders of the Muslim community and the Muslim League stood for its abolition. A powerful ‘migrant lobby’ that emerged in the State had virtually hijacked the issue with the support of peasant leaders from East Pakistan, especially the legendary leader Moulana Bhasani. This ‘pro-immigrant lobby’ fully made use of the political scenario that arose out of the INC’s withdrawal from the Provincial Government and initiated legislative and other measures to promote the interests of migrants. Saiyid Muhammad Saadulla, who was selected as Premier (Chief Minister) of Assam by British in 1937 and served in his post three times till independence, liberally encouraged the settlement of migrants disregarding the opposition by Assamese Hindu leaders. The missionary zeal shown by Saadulla in increasing agricultural production was so brazenly in favour of the migrants that Viceroy Lord Wavel described it as “not grow more food, but grow more Muslims campaign”. 

The partition of the country in 1947 and the formation of East Pakistan had accelerated the influx of refugees into Assam. Vast numbers of Bengali Hindus were either driven away forcibly or compelled to leave that country due to widespread violence and intimidation. The rehabilitation of millions of such refugees had become an onerous task for the State alone. The suggestion of Gopinath Bordoloi, the legendary Chief Minister of the State, to the Nehru government to share the burden of refugees with other states was not accepted. Moreover, the Nehru-Liaquat Ali Pact of 1952, which essentially provided for the safety and security of migrants/refugees and their properties on both the countries on reciprocal basis, had given more impetus to the influx of refugees from East Pakistan to Assam. A similar situation had developed during Bangladesh liberation struggles in 1970-71 when there was steady exodus of migrants from East Pakistan in the wake of large scale atrocities by the Pakistan Army and security forces against civilians supporting the liberation movement. They were accommodated mainly in Assam, West Bengal, and Tripura by upholding the international norms and conventions on the status of refugees and asylum seekers.

During normal times, too, the illegal migration from East Pakistan/Bangladesh to Assam continued unabated, much like the concept of lebensraum justifying more physical space and new territory to supply food and raw materials to the overgrown population in Bangladesh. Demographers agree that migration of people from poor regions to less poor ones is a natural process just as water seeking its level. “For example, during the heydays of migration from East Pakistan/Bangladesh, the population density in Bangladesh was over 800 per square kilometre as against 287 in Assam”6. Moreover, East Pakistan was one of the poorest countries in the world, frequently inflicted by floods, cyclones, and epidemics, leading to more poverty and miseries for a larger chunk of the population.

Similarly, socio-economic and political factors led to the steady influx of Nepalis and Bhutias from Nepal and Bhutan to Assam for many decades. The monarchial form of governments in both these countries for centuries that failed to meet the aspirations of large segments of the population, coupled with poverty, unemployment, and ethnic conflicts and violence, resulted in the continuous exodus of these sections to Assam. The porous nature of borders with these countries and liberal immigration rules accentuated the process. Moreover, the migrant Nepalis formed the bulwark of Assam’s agrarian economy.

Migration and Demographic Changes

The continuous illegal migration to Assam has created drastic demographic changes in the State. In terms of religious communities, the Muslim population of Assam had increased from 25 per cent in 1951 to 34 per cent in 2011. As per the 2011 census figures, nine out of 27 districts in the State are Muslim-majority districts, as against six such districts listed in 2001 Census. Three other districts, namely Cachar (Muslims-6.5 lakhs; Hindus-10.3 lakh), Kamrup (Muslims-6.01 lakh; Hindus-8.77 lakh) and Nalbari (Muslims-2.77 lakh; Hindus-4.91 lakh) have sizeable Muslim population.

Table 1- Muslim-Hindu population in Muslim-majority districts:

Name of Districts

Muslims (in lakhs)

Hindus (in lakhs)

Nagaon      

15.6

12.2

Dhubri       

15.5

 3.88

Barpeta       

11.98 

4.92

Karimganj

6.9

5.3

Darrang      

5.97

3.27

Goalpara

5.8

3.48

Morigaon

5.03

4.51

Hailakandi  

3.97

2.5

Bongaigaon

3.71

3.59

(Based on 2011 census)

These demographic changes had their impact on the ethnic, linguistic, and religious complexion of the Assamese society and paved the way for internecine strife and conflicts. The steady increase of migrant population accentuated the concerns of the ‘sons of the soil’, including Ahoms, Bodos, Karbis, and other tribal communities, that led to serious violence and bloodshed in the Bodo tribal belt during 2012 and 2014. On the linguistic plane, there is steady decline in the number of people speaking Assamese in the State. The percentage of Assamese speakers which was 57.81 per cent in 1991 came down to 48.38 per cent in 2011. On the other hand, the Bengali-speaking population showed a marginal increase from 21.67 per cent in 1991 to 28.91 in 2011. The language Movement of 1960, the biggest manifestation in the socio-cultural history of State, was the outcome of the conflicting interest of Assamese and Bengalis on the question of the official language. The movement which gained momentum in the post-independence era, finally came to an end with the historic Assam Official Language Act, 1960, with its declaration of making Assamese as the sole official language of the State. ‘Similar apprehensions exist among sections of indigenous population about organised movements of migrants to establish hegemony of a particular religious community in the State with the tacit support of fundamentalist forces from Bangladesh and other countries’7.

The political undercurrents due to the demographic changes have come up as a matter of serious concern for mainstream political parties. Till 1962, the number of Muslim MLAs in 105-member State legislative Assembly remained 14/15 for three successive elections. There were 20 Muslim MLAs in the 126-seat State Assembly during 1967; their number has increased to 30 after the 2016 Assembly polls. Moreover, the migrants have a decisive role in deciding the outcome of Lok Sabha Polls. The Muslims constitute more than 20 per cent of the electorate in six out of twelve parliamentary constituencies in the State. The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a political party whose main plank is the immigrant Muslim identity, has now emerged as a major political force in the State.

In this backdrop, the NRC issue assumes more political significance, especially when all the major political parties are focused on their electoral calculus. Over the last few years, the BJP was quite successful in Assam exploiting these demographic changes, especially in giving the linguistic and ethnic issues a communal colour. They are known to mainly concentrate on the indigenous Assamese and the Bengali Hindu vote bank. Both these sections are contented with the final draft NRC, which excluded over 40 lakh migrants.

Cascading Effect of NRC on National Politics

The preparation of a comprehensive National Register of Citizens for the entire country or detection of all illegal migrants, especially from neighboring countries hostile to India, is salutary from internal security angle or in the matter of sovereignty and integrity of the nation. But such initiatives would meet with the desired success or achieve the exact goals when there is national consensus. This was lacking in the case of the NRC in Assam, which has now become a major controversy in view of the divergent approach of mainstream parties. The main reason for this discernible trend is the organised move of these parties to politicise or communalise the issue in pursuance of their ‘vote-bank politics’.

The BJP, which seems firmly committed to the NRC interpreting it as the party’s ‘promise to the people of India’, is bent upon taking it at the national level with clear political and communal overtures. On one hand, their strategy is to politically corner the INC alleging that its vote-bank politics prevented it from implementing the accords the party signed in 1972 and 1985, which contained clear provisions on the NRC. On the other hand, the party would play its communal card by linking the NRC issue with the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, which proposes to grant citizenship to non-Muslim migrants/refugees or asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. This strategy is intended to better the electoral prospects of the party in 2019 LS polls by capitalising on the ‘Bengali Hindu vote bank’ in states like West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura, and the rejuvenated pro-Hindu sentiments in its citadel in the North.

Considering the sensitivity of the illegal migration vis-a-vis the NRC, the BJP strategy cannot be undermined. The total number of illegal migrants in India is around 10.83 million, with West Bengal having the largest number of 5.4 million, followed by Assam (4 million), Tripura (0.8 million), Bihar, Maharashtra and Rajasthan (0.5 million each), and Delhi (0.3 million).8The BJP is gearing up to implement its strategy in West Bengal based on their conviction that the a bulk of these illegal migrants who were the solid vote bank of the CPI(M)-led Left Front, have now turned into a vote bank of the Trinamool Congress. By uprooting the vote bank of migrant lobby and winning over the sentiments and support of the Bengali Hindus on this account, the BJP hopes to fly its flag high in the political horizon of West Bengal as well. No doubt, West Bengal may turn into a fierce battle ground for the BJP and the TMC on the NRC issue in the coming months.

(The Author is a retired Assistant Director of Intelligence Bureau, who served in Assam- during the period of Assam Movement (1978-83) and anti-ULFA operations1989- 1993). He is also a former Public Policy Scholar of The Hindu Centre for Politics &Public Policy. He can be reached at [email protected])

References:

[All URLs last accessed on October 6, 2018.]

1. ^ Sen, Suhit K., 2018. "Assam NRC final draft: Communal colour in upgrading register sparks fear it's aimed at furthering BJP agenda", First Post, June 30.

[https://www.firstpost.com/india/assam-nrc-final-draft-communal-colour-in-move-to-upgrade-register-sparks-fear-that-its-aimed-at-furthering-bjps-poll-calculations-4852541.html]

2. ^ Kumar, Chirantan, 2009. "Migration & Refugee Issue between India & Bangladesh", Scholar’s Voice: A New Way of Thinking, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2009. pp. 64-82, Centre for Defense Studies Research & Development.

[http://www.academia.edu/1840404/MIGRATION_AND_REFUGEE_ISSUE_BETWEEN_INDIA_AND_BANGLADESH]

3. ^ Assam Accord

[https://assam.gov.in/documents/1631171/0/Annexure_10.pdf?version=1.0]

4. ^ Talukdar, Sushanta, 2010. "Fretful Wait", Frontline, Volume 27 - Issue 17: Aug. 14-27.

[https://frontline.thehindu.com/static/html/fl2717/stories/20100827271704100.htm]

5. ^ Boundaries of Assam

[https://dbpd.assam.gov.in/portlets/boundaries-of-assam]

6. ^ Migration in Assam-Nature, trend and Magnitude

[http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/69503/8/08_chapter%203.pdf]

7. ^ Pramanik, B. 2008, "Present Bangladesh Scenario and its Impact on India's Internal Security", Dialogue, April-June, Volume 9, No.4 

[https://www.asthabharati.org/Dia_Apr08/bima.htm]

8. ^ The India Today, August 10, 1998 issue quoting Home Ministry/Intelligence Bureau sources. Inderjit Gupta, the then Union Home Minister, stated in Parliament on May 6, 1997 that there were 10 million illegal migrants residing in India.

 

 

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