Residents hold identity documents as they line up to check their names on the National Register of Citizens in a village in Morigoan district in Assam in July 2018. Photo: AFP

On Monday in the state of Assam in Northeast India, more than 4 million people were pushed toward what Suhas Chakma, former director of the Asian Center for Human Rights, described as the “biggest exercise for disenfranchisement in human history.”

After many years of efforts following demands and agitations from the state’s Assamese linguistic group, the state published a final draft of its National Register of Citizens (NRC) that left out 4 million of the 32.9 million people who applied for inclusion. Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced after the list’s publication that people whose names had not found inclusion would have the opportunity to file claims and objections, adding that the process had been carried out with fairness and transparency under the Supreme Court’s monitoring.

Identifying ‘original inhabitants’

The mammoth task of updating the NRC began in earnest after a 2009 petition filed by a civil-society group called Assam Public Works drew the involvement of India’s Supreme Court. The issue of alleged illegal migration from Bangladesh into Assam had long been a central feature of the border state’s politics, and the intention was to answer, once and for all, the question of who belonged in the state and who did not.

This desired “final solution,” however, had to deal with serious problems of methodology. The task was to identify the residents of Assam who could claim to have been citizens of India before the cut-off date of March 24, 1971, that had been agreed upon in the Assam Accord signed in 1985.

Those born after that date would have to prove their ancestors were present in the state. This was a massive task, and some shortcuts were worked in. For instance, there was, among the clauses relating to the manner in which an applicant might find inclusion in the NRC, a category for “original inhabitants” and their descendants. Those considered “original inhabitants” by the registering authority – the exercise was conducted by officials drawn from the Assam state government – would be included in the NRC by a “less strict and vigorous process.”

This brought to the fore the question of who are “original inhabitants” of the state of Assam, which is a complex multi-ethnic territory constructed by the colonial British in the years after 1826 when they came to rule these areas after defeating the Burmese.

Different ethnic groups, which migrated to these areas at different times, have claims to being “original inhabitants” of different places. The question of who among them could be considered original inhabitants went before the Supreme Court.

Justice Ranjan Gogoi, who coincidentally happens to be Assamese and therefore familiar with the state’s complexities, judged that, “The exercise of [updating] of NRC is not intended to be one of identification and determination of who are originally inhabitants of the state of Assam.” The learned judge found it unnecessary to issue any clarification or direction on the term “original inhabitant.” It was left to the wisdom of the officials of the state government bureaucracy carrying out the exercise to decide who could be included as original inhabitant and who could not.

As a result of this, on the ground, people of different ethnic groups complained of being subjected to differential treatment. Bengali speakers, both Hindu and Muslim, who have long faced the “Bangladeshi” tag in Assam and across Northeast India, were particularly affected.

The greater suspicion toward Bengalis revealed itself in the data from the first, partial draft of the NRC that was published on December 31, 2017. In that list, in which 19 million names were included, the percentages of inclusion in districts of Upper Assam with largely Assamese-speaking populations was in the range of 80% or more, while in districts with largely Bengali-speaking populations it was in the range of 40% or less.

In an interview to Scroll.in, the man heading the NRC exercise, Prateek Hajela, also principal secretary (home) of the Assam state government, explained, “In Upper Assam, a large number would be coming through the original-inhabitant category, whose citizenship we have established beyond reasonable doubt through field verification.”

Explaining the procedure followed, Hajela said, “Now, those people, I collected their documents. I saw prima facie they seemed to be OK. They did not have to go through such a vigorous process of matching like others as their citizenship is proven beyond doubt through local inquiry.”

No fixed criteria for identification

The criteria by which one person may be “prima facie OK” and another person not were not explained. Nor was “local inquiry” defined.

It is a fact of history in Assam that the Bengali minority in the state has long suffered discrimination and violence, going back at least to 1960, when there were riots against the community. Prejudice against the Bengalis is an old reality of Assam and Northeast India more broadly, where Bengalis, Muslim as well as Hindu, are often labeled “Bangladeshis.”

Entire Bengali minority populations have been forcibly driven out of various cities in Northeast India through ethnic cleansing that lasted decades. This has gone largely undocumented. The riots of Gujarat in 2002 and Delhi in 1984 are remembered, but the Nellie riots in Assam in 1983 in which around 2,000 Bengali Muslims were massacred overnight, and for which no one was convicted of any crime because of collusion among the various arms of Assam’s society and state cutting across political party lines, is forgotten.

The Bengali community of Northeast India have been the worst sufferers of the partition of India. The generation of the 1940s suffered Partition. The generations after that suffered ethnic cleansing. At best, they were treated as second-class citizens and tolerated.

The NRC has brought memories of these old wounds and fissures to the fore again. By threatening to disfranchise 4 million people, of whom the vast majority are certain to be Bengalis, it has set in motion a chain of events that may prove difficult to control.

The politics of undivided Bengal, which fell to the logic of religious divide in 1947, was superseded at the cost of 3 million Bengali lives in East Bengal in 1971 by the logic of linguistic unity. In West Bengal and among the Bengali communities of India, leftist politics dominated. Now, with the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise and its aggressive push into West Bengal and Assam, on the one hand, and the NRC’s massive disfranchisement on the other, there are indications that new forms of identity politics may emerge.

What will become of the millions of “Bangladeshis” identified by the NRC is not clear. It is almost certain that Bangladesh will not accept them. The fate of the Rohingya, who are called Bengalis by Myanmar, is already in the balance. Millions of people identified as Bengali in Northeast India and Myanmar are therefore both facing the “Bangladeshi” tag, and this situation will doubtless have repercussions in Bangladesh itself. It will also impact relations among the countries involved. The emerging situation is likely to affect India’s much-vaunted “Act East” policy.

Bengal is the biggest state and Bengalis the largest population in India’s east. India’s only land link to the Northeast passes through the Siliguri Chicken’s Neck in West Bengal, newly renamed “Bangla,” and unrest in the region that borders Bangladesh and Assam would have serious consequences. If implemented, the NRC’s planned disfranchisement of 4 million people may have ramifications far beyond Assam.

Reacting to the draft, Sanjoy Hazarika, author and director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Institute, said, “It’s a draft and that’s all it will ever be.”

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Samrat

The writer, an author and journalist, is a former editor of newspapers in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, India.

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