The National Registry of Citizens: Violating Muslims, Violating Humanity in Assam

By Yasmin Saikia (Arizona State University), GLOBALCIT collaborator.

Overnight, on August 31, 2019, 1.9 million of the 33 million people in Assam were declared noncitizens through the process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC is an arcane method of determining citizenship that was initiated in Assam in 1951. In 2013, based on a petition by a local organisation called Assam Public Works, the Supreme Court of India ordered an updated NRC to identify ‘genuine citizens’ and detect ‘illegal immigrants.’ Nowhere in India, except in Assam, has NRC been conducted. Assam is a ‘special’ case because Bangladesh, which borders Assam, is assumed to be the source from where hordes are coming illegally, secretly settling down, and enjoying benefits and rights that are not legally theirs. After six years of scrutiny by 52,000 government employees and an expenditure of more than 170 million American dollars, 1.9 million persons were declared to be undocumented and missed off the register. The majority of the undocumented in Assam are Hindus.

The NRC list raises a series of questions: what were the Supreme Court officers and the technology company WIPRO, which were contracted to do the digital, expecting? Were they expecting and desiring that Muslims alone would be the undocumented? Why? What hides behind that desire? The BJP’s post-NRC rallies reveals what was hidden. In noisy public speeches, the BJP claims refugee status for the Hindu immigrants, promising them Indian citizenship. The undocumented are illegal Muslim immigrants, the BJP is certain about it. The BJP is simultaneously suggesting a nation-wide NRC. Through repetition of the same exercise they want to reduce people into passively accepting their version of the ‘truth.’ The BJP politicians blatantly talk about removing illegal Muslims everywhere in India and the people cheer this rhetoric.

For me, as a professor of History and Peace Studies, the NRC is a platform for divisive parochial politics, an anti-human project that reduces people into statistics and numbers. In India, the British colonials had introduced the census of people beginning from 1872. The effort was to categorise and box the colonial subjects within classificatory schemes of religions, castes, tribes, and so on. This was very confusing to the people of India. The current NRC is a further regression into undermining humanity. The individual human person disappears into an abstract NRC number and is recognisable only if she/he has that mark. It is such an unusual exchange, yet it reassures the people that this is what they want.

Thirty-three million people across Assam applied for inclusion in the NRC. However, many from the indigenous tribal communities were unable to do so because of the stringent requirement of documents. Ten approved documents, which included land documents, citizenship or permanent residence certificate, life insurance policy, a government issued license or certificate, employment history, bank account, birth certificate issued by a competent authority, educational certificate, and tax or land revenue receipts were demanded for NRC verification. These documents had to be in existence before March 24, 1971, which was deemed the cut-off date for demarcating citizens from noncitizens. Elsewhere in India, the Citizenship Act has the cut-off date for June 30, 1987. The Assam exception is not clearly explained.

Nonetheless, anyone entering Assam from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971 is deemed an illegal immigrant. But this explanation does not hold ground because the same rule is not applied to the neighbouring state of Tripura, which was inundated by war refugees even after Bangladesh was founded on December 16, 1971. The influx of refugees from Bangladesh into Tripura made the indigenous people into a minority community. Today, Tripura is governed by a BJP chief minister who was born in Bangladesh on November 25, 1971.

The confusion of the date aside, the Assamese-Bengali tension is not new. The Bengali Muslims are particularly disliked and they are unable to shake off their ‘outsiderness’ despite their long stay and ardent attempt to become closer to the Assamese by adopting the local language, Assamese, as their mother tongue. The Assamese view them as different and undesirable. The Assamese distaste for the community becomes evident in the term Miyah, a derogatory term which they coined for the Bengali Muslims. During the NRC process, the BJP party president and now federal Home Minister Amit Shah, called them ‘termites’ and promised their expulsion from Assam. For the Bengali Muslims, therefore, the NRC has been a harrowing experience. From 2013-2019 they suffered the daily experience of anxiety, hardship and insecurity. Many committed suicide and/or were impoverished in trying to gather the documents necessary to prove their citizenship. Even the extreme poor beggars were expected to produce the documents for the NRC! The absurd bureaucratic approach against the Muslim Bengalis seems limitless.

Although the number of undocumented Muslims in Assam demonstrate that they are only a relatively small percentage of all those left undocumented by the NRC, in public and government discourse the labels ‘illegal’, ‘immigrant’, and ‘foreigners’ continue to be heaped on Muslims, who are, in turn, imagined as ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators.’ The undocumented have a small window of opportunity to appeal their cases to the Foreigners Tribunal within 120 days, until December 31, 2019. But who can these undocumented people appeal to? The Foreigners Tribunals are not yet functioning at full capacity and the petitioners are required to produce documents that are attested by the government. How can they get attested documents without a government ID?

While the people suffer, politicians are playing on their fears by making the NRC into a divisive religious issue. The BJP has only one agenda: ‘Detect, Delete, and Deport’ illegal Muslim infiltrators from Assam. The slogan and policy was inaugurated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1980, during his tenure as the president of the BJP. The Assamese were easily swayed by his rhetoric. The crescendo to detect Bangladeshis grew in the public sphere during the election campaign of 2004. Vajpayee promised the detection of the illegals in Assam. The illegal issue became a salient feature of the BJP’s election manifestos in 2014 and again in 2019. In the BJP’s words, the ‘cultural nationalism of India is the most potent antidote to separatism and divisions.’ Muslims in India are the carriers of the germs of separatism because their co-religionists had created Pakistan by partitioning India in 1947, so the BJP’s Hindutva narrative goes. Today, the Muslims of India have to pay the price for Pakistan. The BJP Home Minister in Assam, Hemanta Biswa Sharma repeats a BJP mantra at every public rally that ‘India is not a dharamsala’ (Hindu place of refuge). And, that every illegal immigrant will be deported. The desire of the BJP to cleanse Assam and India of the Muslims might be unrealistic. But the politics of fear works; Muslims are feeling extremely vulnerable, anxious and uncertain of their future in India.

The BJP is not the only political party making noise against illegal immigrants. Borrowing from the BJP, the Congress Party, too, made the issue of illegal immigrants in Assam a feature of their 2019 election manifesto. There is no significant opposition to the project of eradicating the Muslims of Assam.

If we dig deeper into the history of the current NRC, its origins lie in Assam’s demography, riverine topography, and the Assamese fear of cultural colonisation. Assam’s Muslim population has historically been higher than the rest of India, leaving aside Kashmir, which is predominantly Muslim. In Assam, nearly thirty-five percent of its thirty-three million people are Muslim. This is a source of anxiety for politicians who want to use the Hindu religion card for their ambitions. Due to their large number and concentration in particular districts, Muslims in Assam can play a significant role in determining the outcome of the state’s elections. Reducing them numerically and making them impotent in the political arena is strategic politics for communalising Assam.

As early as the late 1970s, the Assamese concern over Muslims led to an identity movement demanding the detection of illegal Bangladeshis. However, in this phase of the Assamese struggle, the local people’s main concern was the preservation of their culture, better opportunities of employment, and economic advancement, particularly a share in the local businesses, which are controlled by mainland Indians. Violence against the poor Bengalis and the rich Indians became the Assamese way of claiming indigenous rights. The Assam Movement ended after six long years of public agitation, in 1985, when the Assam Accord was signed between the Congress government and the student leaders of the All Assam Students Union. But it did not solve the problems of the Assamese. The Accord, however, opened the fissure for an inhumane search for ‘illegal immigrants.’

The BJP’s political platform of Hindutva, or political Hinduism, enabled a rethinking for the Assamese to return to the ‘illegal immigrant’ issue. The NRC is its product. From its inception, the BJP was prepared to deal with the problem that the NRC was likely to reveal, i.e., that the majority of the undocumented were likely to be Hindus than Muslims. They developed a two-prong approach to address this. They entered into negotiation with Bangladesh to sort out land boundary issues that were unresolved since the partition of 1947 and made a bilateral agreement. On November 25, 2015, much to the chagrin of the Assamese, the BJP signed the Land Boundary Agreement. India received 51, while Bangladesh received 95 enclaves. Assam lost 40 square kilometers of land. The second and more important issue for the BJP was to tackle the so-called illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This they transformed into an internal matter; there was no discussion with Bangladesh on this issue. This works in the BJP’s favour allowing them to garner support among the undocumented Hindu Bangladeshis for future election support by promising them citizenship in India. Thus, on July 19, 2016, before the NRC list was released the government preemptively introduced a Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). CAB is a mechanism by which the illegal Hindu immigrants can become Indian citizens. Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians, too, who migrated to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan with or without documents, according to the proposed CAB, can become Indian citizens. In order to implement CAB, the BJP has to amend the Indian Citizenship Act and shorten the period of residency from 11 years to six years. Amending the Citizenship Act is a major change to India’s civil code.

The criteria for Indian citizenship had previously been amended from jus soli or right of the soil, a constitutional aspiration, to a narrower approach of jus sanguinis or citizenship determined by the nationality of parents who must be Indian by birth. The CAB proposes to change this yet again and make religion the criteria for Indian citizenship. Thus, a Hindu person living anywhere in South Asia (Sri Lanka is excluded) can become a citizen of India if they migrate there. The government’s proposal is a drastic remaking of India from a democratic secular republic into a Hindu majoritarian state. BJP also has made a number of changes in the social, cultural and educational arenas, which drives their agenda of Hinduizing India. This is violence against the history of India’s foundation and its freedom struggle from British colonial rule.

The undocumented Muslims in Assam contrary to the BJP’s myth about them are not Bangladeshi, they did not hail from the country now called Bangladesh that was founded only in 1971. The Bengali Muslims have lived in Assam for multiple generations. Originally from the region of British Bengal, they came to Assam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The British colonial government encouraged and coaxed them with bribes and promises to migrate to Assam. In British opinion the Assamese were numerically too small and habitually lazy to undertake the tasks of colonial expansion. Both Muslim and Hindu Bengalis migrated to Assam in the hope of a better life. They became part of the labour force tasked with increasing food and cash crop production to feed the British oil and tea labourers and the local population. These industrious peasants brought new land under cultivation, but they often encountered problems with the indigenous tribal and Assamese people. Anti-Bengali sentiment and violence emerged in these unpleasant exchanges. They found safety in banding together in concentrated settlements, mostly at the margins, along the unstable sand banks of the Brahmaputra River. This marked them as different and made them vulnerable too. Increasing intensity of annual floods have eroded away a lot of the sand banks forcing the Bengali Muslim peasants to abandon home and fields for safety. Dislocation become their crime and they are suspected as illegals. Thus, although the vast majority of the Bengali Muslims have lived in Assam for multiple generations, they are the target of attack. But the condition of fear and anxiety is not confined to them alone.

All Muslims in Assam are now vulnerable. They can be reported to the Foreigners Tribunal as ‘doubtful.’ Once paperwork is generated against anyone, a fresh process of verifying his or her citizenship can start, all over again. The BJP wants to push Muslims to the margins so that they cannot have a voice in the electoral domain. In Assam this is particularly important because Muslims are over a third of the total population. The BJP has a track record of undermining minorities in their electoral ambitions as was proven in the 2017 elections in Uttar Pradesh. Not a single Muslim candidate was on the BJP ballot despite the fact that the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh have traditionally played an important role in the state’s politics.

As for the undocumented Muslims in Assam, the government has a new solution: send them to ‘Detention Camps.’ There are six detention camps where 1000 people are currently imprisoned and ten more are under construction in Assam. Many more detention camps are under construction in Maharashtra and Karnataka. Construction of each camp would cost the government of Assam more than six million American dollars. On September 20, 2019 The Hindu BusinessLine, calculated that 160 camps would be needed to house the ‘500,000 who will end up classed as ‘illegals’.’ It would cost the government nearly 960 million dollars. The construction of camps is ‘a new sunrise sector in the economy that’s poised for boom times.’ The profiteers from the detention camp business stand in stark contrast to the people who will become its inmates. The labour force that is summoned to build these prisons are the undocumented wage labourers. Once completed, these same people will be thrown into these prisons, many fear. Even nursing mothers, children, and the extreme poor, homeless beggars will be imprisoned in these camps. Since these camps will run as private prisons, the criminalised inmates would be required to pay for their accommodation, which would be several dollars per day. According to the government the camps would offer many facilities, such as schools, hospitals, training centres, and so on, on payment. By and large the undocumented people are poor, illiterate, without advanced work skill, and they are not high earners. An ordinary work day fetches them about $10. They cannot generate large savings to pay for their detention, which could be years. How are they going to afford the cost of their imprisonment when they are no longer allowed to work? Indebtedness, mass poverty and pauperisation of the marginal people in Assam is the future awaiting us. This would be a return to the times of pre-independent India, a time when the Indian peasantry was destroyed by colonial taxation policy. The undocumented poor in Assam have no hope for a human life in BJP’s Assam. The gravity and absurdity of the situation is not discussed in public or political discourses. The BJP is able to convince their audience that the disaster will affect only the ‘outsiders.’ Such detachment is possible because divisive politics has made the human person absent.

Muslims in other parts of India, too, are feeling the anxiety of the government’s anti-human policy toward the minorities. The BJP government’s attack on Muslims is an ontological issue. They have been reduced to less than human; they are ‘illegal infiltrators,’ ‘termites.’ Being non-human they do not have rights, which are the purview of the human citizens.

India’s political direction is shifting far away from democracy. Everyday life of the minorities—Muslims, Christians and Dalits—is a daily experience of oppression and tyranny. The minorities are not silent, but is the world listening? As an Assamese, my fear is not about statistics and numbers. I am indifferent to counting people. I am, however, afraid that the brutalisation of minorities would be an irreparable loss for India, the demise of her humanity, and the humane qualities of her people. It would be a shared loss for the rest of the world too; we are all connected and interrelated to one another. We can’t have a Holocaust in the twenty-first century in the name of religious nationalism. Our humanity cannot be sacrificed at the altar of a material document called the NRC.

The cover photo portraits Assamese women busy planting paddy seedlings in their agricultural field in Pahukata village in the Nagaon district of Assam. It was taken by Diganta Talukdar and it originally appears here

This contribution is part of a short blog series on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the Indian state of Assam. Read the other contributions: India’s National Register of Citizens: Fine intentions, Ominous portents by Sanjib Baruah and Paths to Citizenship, Paths to Statelessness by Niraja Gopal Jayal.