Indian Muslims rally in Kolkata against the Assam government  and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to demand the immediate withdrawal of the National Register of Citizens on July 31, 2018. Photo: Debajyoti Chakraborty / NurPhoto / AFP
Indian Muslims rally in Kolkata against the Assam government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to demand the immediate withdrawal of the National Register of Citizens on July 31, 2018. Photo: Debajyoti Chakraborty / NurPhoto / AFP

If one rewinds their memory to a few years back, a very disturbing image comes to the fore. It’s a picture of a group of Israelis seated on sofas watching Palestine being bombed. It spoke countless words of collective human decay.

Years later, an image with similar intensity surfaced, flashed across media platforms in the northeast Indian state of  Assam. It showed members of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) distributing sweets after the publication of the draft National Register of Citizens. When such a powerful student body should have shown some grace in the face of a xenophobic victory – and anxiety and humiliation of millions – it decided to celebrate and ridicule the victims with jingoism.

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a Supreme Court-sanctioned database of Indian citizens in Assam. The list is being updated for the first time since 1951 to include people who have legal identity documents issued before March 24, 1971 and their descendants. The implied intent, mixed with a narrow regionalism, is to exclude settlers from other states and neighboring countries. Millions were left off the list.

The NRC has been an exceptional exercise. It is one riddled with multiple contradictions and filled with exclusion and a type of violence. These issues stem from the manner in which legal and state institutions dealt with the NRC process. The changing legal goalposts of the register only added to the anxiety of people who stood to lose citizenship.

The string of problems include deadlines for filing claims and objections, which kept changing. Five out of a total of 15 documents which were accepted for the NRC verification process were later excluded by the honorable court months after the process was done. These issues could have been easily avoided. Moreover, reasons why an individual was left off the list were not given, and they were central to filing claims and objections. This ambiguity and hopelessness was coupled with a cumbersome and arbitrary process that drove many to the rope.

The amount of suicides that are linked to the NRC process is testimony to the violence that our institutions are capable of. The NRC process shows how jingoism and chauvinism can snowball into legal and state infrastructures. At the very least, they could have shown some sympathy and accepted their failure to handle the situation sensibly and for not being able to provide adequate legal and psychological counsel.

Burden of proof put on victims

What we have here is a unique case where the burden of proving citizenship as well as the cost of the process is entirely borne by the victim. By being part of the system, such lacuna and insensitivity assume a legitimacy that pronounces danger to our democratic values and institutions.

The NRC process and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill generated a lot of debate in Assam. In such a milieu, violence became a common language. In everyday conversations, xenophobia and jingoism were rife. Local media houses were also quick in adding fuel to the fire instead of responding to the tense social environment with some responsibility. Most media outlets, both print and digital, lost no time in cultivating hatred towards the other in the dominant public sphere and reported uncritically about the NRC. Such lack of sense and responsibility further increased the rising anxiety and anger in the state.

Four million odd people filled for re-verification of their citizenship after being left off the first draft of the register. A few weeks ago, the media seconded a popular blind consensus that since only about one-quarter of the excluded people filed for re-verification, the rest ought to the ‘Bangladeshis’.

The Dhola Killings in November, when five individuals were gunned down, is a product of the social milieu that the NRC and the Bill generated. If there was a certain rise in sympathy for the United Liberation Front of Assam in the Brahmaputra Valley, as was reported by the media, new symbols of Assamese nationalism also came to the fore.

The Lanka incident right after the Dhola killings, where a woman wielded a bamboo rod to defy a mob of 50, was picked up by the symbol-manufacturing elites as a defense against Bengalis. The manufacturing of symbols from hengdang (sword) to bamboo to protect a caste Assamese identity marks the changing contours of Assamese nationalism.

The bhaluka (a bamboo species found in Assam) incident shows how symbols are also expected to be masculine and strong, appropriated from another culture and passed off as our very own by elite middle-class linguistic nationalists. One can also see how ecology is reduced to an artificial construction of nationalism and belonging. One can visibly witness how raw products of nature are used to enunciate a narrative of blood, soil and culture.

The NRC process has also made our intellectuals heartless, blunt and an empty vessel that are only capable of xenophobic noises. They seem to have run out of ink to write about such gross inhumanity, social decay and violence. Instead, they remain happily gathered by extending their solidarity to bamboo nationalism and detention camps.

Between AASU distributing sweets and use of the bamboo symbolism, we have seen a new face emerging of Assamese jingoism and chauvinism. It presents a homogenous Assamese culture, which is still incapable of accommodating difference and one who is ignorant about one’s own self and history. In its misplaced sense of identity, culture, poverty and uneven development it destroys its own plurality. It celebrates its jingoism over its inner diversity. The case of Assamese chauvinism and jingoism sustains its leadership and origin in the middle class, as it has been invested in creating a safe homeland.

We need freedom from mystification of our customs and habits, as Jewish philosopher and writer Vilém Flusser reminded us after he took a long and trouble-filled journey of being a migrant unsettled by the loss of all his family members in German concentration camps. To be really free, we don’t need freedom for the homeland, but freedom from the homeland.