NRC in Assam: What Happened? What’s Next?

Ali Riaz

People check their names after the publication of the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at a roadside shop in Pavakati village of Morigoan district on August 31, 2019. Photo: AFP

by Ali Riaz September 08, 2019

The bizarre phenomenon called updating the National Registry of
Citizens (NRC) in Assam, completed under the auspices of the Indian
central government with direct supervision of the Indian Supreme Court,
which made 1.9 million people stateless citizens, has engendered strange
events to date and indicates the likelihood of stranger episodes in the
coming months. Since the culmination of a four-year process with the
publication of the final list on 31 August, not only did those who have
been excluded became devastated, but also the progenitors of this
controversial task are now dissatisfied with the outcome but for a
different reason.

Although the genesis of the crisis is well known, it is necessary to
recall as many of the current features of the crisis and the possible
trajectories shaped by it. The issue of updating the 1951 National
Register of Citizens (NRC) came to the fore in in the six-year long
agitation by All Assam Students Union beginning in 1979 which demanded
the “identification and deportation of illegal immigrants” from Assam.
The expression “illegal immigrant” was a clear reference to Bangla
speaking people, alleging that they have “migrated” from Bangladesh. The
movement, initially billed as against the “outsider”, was transformed
into a movement against “foreigners”. Massacres throughout the period,
particularly in 1983, of Bangla speaking Muslims who have lived for
generations, were neither spontaneous nor sporadic, but instead were
well planned and brutally executed; in some cases, plans were hatched
for months.

While the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana
Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), were at the forefront, the All Assam
Volunteers Force (AAVF) was a key actor in the agitation and violence.
There were allegations that the AAVF was acting on behalf of or was at
least connected to the RSS. Besides, by the admission of the RSS
ideologues Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha, (The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-east, 2017),
the RSS had established its branches all over the Assam by 1975 and the
“selfless service by swayamsevaks from all across the country” was
instrumental in building the organisation. As such, the tone, tenor and
contour of the agitation had the marks of RSS’s long-term agenda.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the BJP, as it became stronger all
around the country and had its eyes set in the northeast, weaponised the
issue of citizenship in the 2000s.

The Assam Accord, signed in 1985 with then Prime Minister Rajiv
Gandhi, remained on paper until the Supreme Court in 2013 pushed it to
the politicians’ court. The BJP’s initial slow move, which the BJP
supporters are now trying to portray as the BJP’s reluctance, was not
because it was less enthusiastic, but instead it was preparing the
ground for a larger gain—tying it up with its national anti-Muslim
agenda and xenophobic exclusionary jingoism that has permeated the
Indian society in the past decade. Day by day the ground was prepared in
Assam and nationally, by the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), the legatee of
the so-called anti-foreigners’ movement, and the BJP, the product of the
RSS, respectively.

With the interjection of the Supreme Court, various institutional
actors, such as the bureaucracy, became entangled in the politics of
identity in a highly polarised society where religion has been pushed by
Sangh Parivar as the principal marker. The exercise no longer remained
about who is or who is not a citizen in the legal term, but what
constitutes citizenship, who determines the citizenship and how the
discourse of citizenship is framed, propagated and consumed. The
implication of this exercise will neither be limited to Assam—as the BJP
has already demanded NRC in other states; nor will it be restricted to
the outcome of the “appeal process” in Assam, for it has already shaped
the discursive terrain of citizenship. Who among the 1.9 million, now
being referred to the Foreigners Tribunal, escape the
disenfranchisement, is important from the humanitarian point of view and
in legal terms, but how politics of religiously informed identity
becomes the essential part of being Indian is the more important issue
with larger ramifications. That is what the NRC debate and the list have

Of course, the BJP’s claim that Assam is inundated by millions of
“infiltrators” and “termites”—in other words Bangladeshis—who need to be
thrown out, has not been validated; even the initial list of 4
million—a figure which was close to the BJP and AGP propaganda—tuned out
to be grossly inaccurate. In equal measure, the expectation that the
list will contain overwhelming numbers of Muslims, has not come true.
Instead the majority, according to some account 60 percent, are Bangla
speaking Hindus. There are also many people of Nepali origin, despite
living in Assam for decades and generations, excluded. Those who are
taking comfort in this information and arguing that the BJP has lost the
game, should be careful as to whether this argument will feed into the
BJP propaganda and eventually help similar exercises in other states.
The inherent bias of the exercise against Muslims can’t be ignored
because the list has a smaller number of them. Throughout the process of
NRC, BJP and its ilk had made it amply clear that Muslims are the
“enemy” who will be identified. This is not isolated from the lynching
of Muslims in the name of cow protection, and the activities in Kashmir.
Additionally, if we juxtapose this with the previously proposed 2016
Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which promises to offer citizenship to all
except the Muslims, there is no scope for doubt as to the content of
the BJP agenda.

Since publication of the draft list and more so after the final list,
the BJP and its ilk are crying foul and demanding rectification. The
bizarre development is that one of the principal backers of the NRC in
Assam has called for a general strike and threatening to launch
agitations. There seems to be consensus among political parties—from the
BJP to Congress to TMC—that the NRC list, which cost 1300 crore Indian
rupees, is unacceptable. Notwithstanding the political objective of the
NRC process, one can say without the hesitation that it has been bungled
up. Assam’s finance minister, Himanta Biswas Sarma, a vocal supporter
of NRC has spewed anti-immigrant venom, and claimed in August 2018 that
legacy papers—those which prove longstanding residency of the
inhabitants—have been “managed”, rendering the process of updating the
NRC ineffective. But there is no reason to expect that the NRC will be
scrapped altogether.

What comes next?

Those who are not listed can appeal to the Foreigners Tribunal (FT)
in the next 120 days, and later seek redress from the court of law.
According to media reports, Assam has 100 Foreigners Tribunals, 221 more
are to be set up in all districts soon, and eventually the number will
be about 500. But there are reasons to be concerned about the process
itself. The discrepancy between the draft list and the final list
clearly points to an inefficient bureaucracy. It took almost a year for
it to sort out some of the mess. Will the FTs be another example of the
incompetence? Can an issue which is fraught with political overtone be
addressed fairly by a state appointed institution? There are logistical
questions, can such a huge number of applications be dealt with in such
short time?  Will the poor people have the resources to pursue the
process, especially those whose appeal will fail in the FT process?

The Indian government clearly said that until the legal process is
exhausted nobody will be considered as a foreigner, and that pushing
them back to Bangladesh is not on the table. But there is no clear
direction as to what will happen thereafter. The news that new detention
centres are being built does not send a positive message to those who
are to be disenfranchised. In June the press reported that the state
government was preparing to build ten more detention centres in addition
to six it already has. During the negotiations between the Congress-led
central government and the agitators, leading to the Assam Accord in
1985, one suggestion was to resettle those who will be deemed “outsider”
to other states, under the auspices of the central government. The
proposal didn’t make into the 1985 Accord. That seems to be not in the
mind of the central government at this point.

The logistical issues aside, despite the debacles of the process, the
belligerent rhetoric of the Sangh Parivar hasn’t subsided. Therefore,
what is most likely to happen in the coming months is the enactment of
the Citizenship (amendment) Bill. The implication of this requires no
elaboration—religion as the principal marker of Indian citizenship will
be enshrined in the constitution, forever.

Ali Riaz is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University, USA.

The article appeared in The Daily Star on September 08, 2019

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