It started at 9 am, and for the next six hours there was widespread blood-letting of men and women, the slaughter of young and old; official numbers put the dead at 2,200 people, but unofficial figures indicate that in those few hours over 10,000 were slain for their religious beliefs. They were Muslims and therefore ‘foreigners,’ even if they had lived in those villages for generations.
Assam has the second largest percentage of Muslim (30 percent) residents after Kashmir. The ‘Nellie’ massacre as it has come to be known has disappeared from the Indian public consciousness, and the world – well, to be honest, it had never really been aware of it in the first place.
On Friday 18 February, 1983, Nellie and its surrounding villages (14 villages in total—Alisingha, Khulapathar, Basundhari, Bugduba Beel, Bugduba Habi, Borjola, Butuni, Dongabori, Indurmari, Mati Parbat, Muladhari, Mati Parbat no. 8, Silbheta, and Borburi) in Assam, India, saw a massacre of Bengali ethnic Muslims many of whom had lived in the area since the British first took over Assam in 1826.
The Indian Supreme Court’s rejection of the law took the state back to the 1946 British era law the Foreigners Act, in which the onus of proving citizenship was on the individual. It was a victory for the protestors. While justifying its controversial decision, the court said illegal immigration was “external aggression”
The official Tiwari Commission’s 600 page report on the massacre, submitted to the Assam government in 1984 is still hidden from the public. Not a single person received punishment – of the 688 criminals charged – 378 cases were closed due to a “lack of evidence,” and the remainder were dropped by the Government of India as a part of the 1985 Assam Accord.
India and the world may not remember Nellie, but it is only in this background that we can understand the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam, that was finally published on 31 August 2019, as the culmination of state, executive and judicial push to accede to the Assamese nativist demands.
And as promised under the Assam accord in 1985, with the stated aim to detect, detain and deport immigrants that could not prove their roots in Assam prior to midnight 24 March 1971. This date – 24th March, 1971 – is important because the next day, Bengali separatists, that had been incited and encouraged – militarily, economically and ideologically – by the Indian government, declared independence from West Pakistan. That year saw thousands leaving tumultuous East Pakistan for Assam.
A draft list published earlier in June 2018 left out over 4 million people, of which many were Bengali Hindus, which created a ruckus even from the BJP (whose vote base in Assam includes many Bengali Hindus) that rechecking should be done. The final list has still excluded six percent of the state’s population, 1.9 million people, including the relatives of India’s fifth President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.
The state government has already started building mass detention centers– saying it will build ten more detention centers to house the undocumented immigrants until they are deported – though no agreement has been reached with Bangladesh, who has declared this as an internal matter for India.
Ironically, all this BJP led defense of nativism in Assam against the foreigners (mostly Muslims) is happening at a time when in occupied state of Jammu & Kashmir natives have been deprived of their rights to make laws for themselves and have been put under an indefinite curfew to make them accept the new regimen under which Hindu citizens from India will be allowed to buy property and become residents of India’s only Muslim majority state.
The 1985 Accord was the culmination of the six-year agitation and protests that had been led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) since 1979, calling for the deportation of ‘illegal foreigners’ from our state – mostly ethnic Bengalis thought to have come from Bangladesh.
The Indian government agreed to conduct a register of all people living in Assam, and anyone who could not prove their origins in the state prior to midnight 24 March 1971, would be removed from the voters’ registration list and deported. Under the agreement, they also restricted the acquisition of land and other immovable properties by foreigners and agreed the state should promote only the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese.
A subsequent amendment was also made to the Indian Citizenship Act to incorporate the agreed definition with the Assamese protestors. The Indian citizenship act defines citizens by birth as Section 3 (1) (a) ‘Every person born in India on and after the 26 January 1950, but before 1 July 1987 shall be a citizen of India by birth.’
There was no discussion of parental lineage or their citizenship being a necessary stipulation for the individual’s own citizenry. In 2003, this was further amended and citizenship accrued if: (i) both of his/ her parents are citizens of India; or (ii) one of whose parents is a citizen of India and the other is not an illegal migrant at the time of his/her birth, shall be a citizen of India by birth.
Bongal Kheda (kick the Bengalis out)
Assam has always been a fertile region of imperial India. British, had encouraged people from all over the country – particularly, Bengalis to come in – to cultivate the luscious tea plantations in the area. After the 1947 independence and partition of the old state of Bengal between India and Pakistan, many Bengali Hindus moved to Assam; the 1951 India census identifies this at around 274,000.
Later more Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims) moved into Assam during the turbulent period of the 1971 Pakistan civil war which created an independent state of Bangladesh. While Indian government incited and supported the insurgency in former East Pakistan and encouraged flight of Bengalis into camps this sparked further anti-immigrant protests in Assam.
Ironically, all this BJP led defense of nativism in Assam against the foreigners (mostly Muslims) is happening at a time when in occupied state of Jammu & Kashmir natives have been deprived of their rights to make laws for themselves and have been put under an indefinite curfew to make them accept the new regimen under which Hindu citizens from India will be allowed to buy property.
Since the 1960’s the tension among the local inhabitants and the indigenous Assamese people had already seen anti-Bengali movements like Bongal Kheda (kick the Bengalis out). In 1978, after the death of a local Member of Parliament required a by-election, it came to light that the number of registered voters was much larger than expected.
This raised the specter of foreign voters on the registration lists and boosted the demands of agitators behind what became known as the Assam movement and lasted for six years. The movement led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) protested against foreigners, who they identified as being illegal immigrants (from Bangladesh).
Student agitators wanted Bengalis deported from the state and demanded that Assamese land and other rights be safeguarded from intrusion by the immigrants. It is during this period that the Nellie and Khoirabari massacres occurred, in which thousands of Bengali Muslims and hundreds of Bengali Hindus were killed.
The central government under Rajeev Gandhi buckled under the pressure of the agitators and in 1985 signed the Assam accord and agreed to their demands. However, not much movement on the issue happened until 2005, when in Sarbananda Sonowal v. Union of India, India’s Supreme Court scrapped the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act, set up by Indira Gandhi’s government in 1983. This Act provided for the trial of suspected foreigners and their expulsion.
The act – was only applicable to Assam – had been enacted during the peak of the Assam agitation movement to protect minorities. It put the onus of proving an individual a foreigner on the state and thus made it difficult to deport immigrants. The Indian Supreme Court’s rejection of the law took the state back to the 1946 British era law the Foreigners Act, in which the onus of proving citizenship was on the individual.
It was a victory for the protestors. While justifying its controversial decision, the court said illegal immigration was “external aggression” and ironically quoted a 20th-century Indian civil servant Mullan – a superintendent during the 1931 Assam census – who had compared Bengali immigrants to “an invading, conquering army to terrifying birds of prey, and insects.”
However, the Assam accord agreement was silently ignored by the Indian central government until 2013, when the Supreme Court took up the Assam Public Works (APW) petition that asked for the deletion of foreigners’ names in electoral rolls and to update the NRC.
The Supreme court directed that NRC State Coordinator’s office be set up and ordered the Centre, and State government to begin the process for updating the National Register for Citizens. These court orders synchronized nicely with the BJP winning the 2014 Indian general elections and the 2016 Assam state elections and the rest, as they say, is history.
Flash forward: Ogre of the Hindu Rashtra combines with Assam Nativism
This decades-old demand from Assamese agitators to remove Bengali foreigners coalesced with the BJP’s desire to transform India to bring in Savarkar’s Hindu Rashtra and convert India as a land for Hindus. Sarbananda Sonowal a former youth leader in the Asom Gana Parishad party (AGP), formed after the 1985 Assam Accord, joined the BJP in 2011 and is currently the BJP’s chief minister of the state.
Amit Shah BJP President, before the 2019 general elections, referred to Bangladeshi immigrants as “infiltrators” and “termites,” and he threatened them “A Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal.” As Anis Ahmed, Publisher of the Dhaka Tribune wrote recently in the New York Times the NRC reflects the “convergence of Assam nativism against Bengalis and the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda against Muslims.”
The BJP party has throughout supported the Assam NRC exercise as identifying ‘genuine’ Indians which is a euphemism for ‘Hindu.’ During the general elections, in order to strengthen their anti-Muslim posture and consolidate their Hindu vote base, Amit Shah promised to conduct an NRC across the country.
The Indian media has reported that on 31 July 2019 Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification to prepare and update the population register across India. Earlier this year, the Mizoram State Assembly on March 2019 stated that it would create separate registers for residents and non-residents.
BJP leaders in Telangana, Manipur, and Delhi have also said that there are large numbers of undocumented immigrants in their states, and they would also like to conduct an NRC. Human rights experts at the UNHCR and Amnesty International have therefore expressed their concerns over a potential nationwide witch hunt for foreigners.
Reflections of German Nazism
Scary parallels can be drawn between these actions in India and what happened to Jews under the Nazi party in Germany. Nazis after being elected drew up a series of laws, step by step, that initially curtailed the social, economic and political freedoms of Jews before the penultimate conclusion of sending them to concentration camps.
Under the 1933 German Denaturalization Law the government could take away the citizenship of those who were deemed “undesirable;” and under the Nuremberg Laws adopted in 1935, citizenship rights were granted only to those individuals classified as being “German or related blood”; therefore, Jews were excluded, essentially making them foreigners in their own country.
Supplemental laws even forbade marriage between Jews and Germans; similar trends have started in India under the brutal caption of ‘love jihad’ – where Muslim men are being killed for marrying or having a relationship with a Hindu woman. Post-2014 election win of the BJP, numerous stories have come to light of ‘Gau Raksha’; Hindus lynching Muslims for eating beef or slaughtering cows.
These acts are reminiscent of German local governments, under the Nazis, that did not allow the Jews to slaughter animals as per their dietary laws. Savarkar’s admiration for Hitler is no secret; he often gave analogies in his books comparing India’s Hindu majority to Germany’s Germans and the Jewish minority to India’s Muslim minority.
He condemned the latter in both countries for their inability to assimilate and advocated that Muslims should not be employed in the military, police, and public service as they were ‘potential traitors.’ Admiration for the ‘fuhrer’ control over the country is prevalent within the BJP; Amit Shah, former president BJP and current interior minister recently, questioned the efficacy of the multi-party democratic system and what it had delivered for India in 70 years.
Like all political exercises – the published list of the NRC which has excluded over 1.9 million people – has not left any side happy. The Assamese nativists say that too many foreigners have managed to make it onto the list through ‘forged’ documents and other methods and a re-verification is needed. Others have pointed out the politicization of the register with a large number of those excluded being Muslims.
The onerous document requirements were impossible for many villagers to fulfill. Those living along the river banks of the Brahmaputra which floods the state regularly are often dislocated and lose everything. Many of these villagers are now being asked to produce documents from generations ago, which have long ago traversed with the mighty Brahmaputra.
Many rural women, in particular, have been left out, because they could not prove their paternal lineage to be considered residents of the state. Most births in villages are home births and especially before 1971 birth certificates were rare. Many women in the region become married long before the age of 18, and only show up in electoral rolls after marriage in their husbands’ villages.
Even with the promised 400 tribunals, if all are set up, it will be an impossible task. Law requires that each tribunal has to get through 5000 cases each; if these tribunals work for 24 hours and for seven days a week, they still have to clear around two cases per hour.
Those excluded have 120 days to prove their citizenship at especially set up “foreigners tribunals”, and if rejected there they can further appeal through higher courts. The cost of each tribunal, hiring a lawyer and finding documents will cost an individual easily in the region of a couple of hundred dollars – money that poor families do not have access to – most earning a couple of dollars a day.
Furthermore, even with the promised 400 tribunals, if all are set up, it will be an impossible task. Law requires that each tribunal has to get through 5000 cases each; if these tribunals work for 24 hours and for seven days a week, they still have to clear around two cases per hour.
For the Bengali Hindus – there may be a light at the end of the tunnel- as the BJP is already in the midst of passing a new citizenship law – waiting for approval from Rajya Sabha – to enable their Hindu Rashtra, where any Hindu can take citizenship of India if he is from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh. However, for the teeming Muslims, many no doubt will end up living in mass detention centers for years as political wrangling between Bangladesh and India starts over the issue.