Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay |
Who is an Indian and what is India? Much before the British vacated large parts of South Asia which they controlled, this question assumed importance in the course of struggle for independence. The matter would not have erupted into public discourse if it were not for the non- inclusive Hindu strand in Indian nationalistic thought which began making inroads since the last decades of the nineteenth century. Till that time, especially during the 1857 uprising against the East India Company led colonialists, religion was not the principal basis of social identity for the people of the country and they gathered under the symbolic leadership of the Mughal empire based out of Delhi.
The establishment of the imperial rule — with the passage of Government of India Act 1858 — after the failed rebellion and the banishment of the last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar to Burma contributed to a lot of poetry. A vacant spot in New Delhi, earmarked by the last emperor as his final burial place, remains poignant testimony to not just a dislocated resting place but also to a discourse which was shaped differently after history altered its course. Call it a tragedy or eventuality, truth be told that people woke up on both sides of a hastily drawn borders on two opposite frontiers of the land mass on the morning after being declared independent, without knowing in which country they had awoken – theirs or in a nation which they would leave eventually.
Over months while the blood and gore of partition riots played out, people slowly settled in their new homes and soon began calling the land or the country their own. Although India became independent in August 1947, the people legally remained British subjects for a couple of years in the course of which they evolved from initially being British subjects with Indian citizenship to Commonwealth citizen and finally in 1955, every resident Indian was granted citizenship after passage of the Citizenship Act of India (1955). But the shape of India as known today did not exist in 1955 and as new territories ceded to India — Goa, Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli from Portuguese control; Puducherry, Karaikal, Mahé, Yanam and Chandranagore which were French colonies; and eventually Sikkim which merged with India in 1975 — amendments were brought periodically to the Citizenship Act.
Instead of being a boon for the BJP, the issue of citizenship in Assam and eviction of alleged illegal immigrants have become a bane for the party. Quite clearly, something has gone down the wrong pipe!
By and large, the issue of citizenship did not create much problems for the Indian Republic and there were few disputes over people wishing to be included in the registry or demanding for others to be excluded. But for reasons which spanned history as well geography, matters pertaining to the complex phalanx of matter related to identity, undocumented immigration and citizenship rights became matters of grave contestation and public dispute in India’s north eastern state of Assam immediately after independence. The state had been home to indigenous tribal people since the middle of the nineteenth century and was witness to large scale migration, followed by settlement of people of Bengali origin.
This was principally due to relaxations in land acquisition provided by the colonial regime to peasants who arrived from Bengal in search of fertile land. As early as 1931, a British-era census official, CS Mullan noted that the “most important event” in Assam in recent decades that had potential to “alter permanently the whole feature of Assam and to destroy the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilisation” was the “invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry immigrants.” These immigrants were divided among those whose traced ancestry to districts that eventually became part of East Pakistan and eventually Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. However, with partition, immigration to Assam increased further whereas there was little reverse migration to newly formed East Pakistan.
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People who were both Hindus and Muslims, but more significantly they were all non-tribals, migrated chiefly for economic reasons as regions contiguous to Assam were comparatively underdeveloped to adjoining regions in East Pakistan. This generated a sentiment among the local people that they were being overburdened and would have to share resources. Consequently, and to quell outbreak of major protests and protect the social and cultural interests of the Assamese people, the Indian Parliament enacted a law which gave the central government the right to order removal of any person who had come into Assam from outside India.
New Delhi was in fact, empowered under this law to even decide whose stay in Assam was “detrimental to the interests of the general public of India or of any section thereof or of any Scheduled Tribe in Assam”. Armed with these powers the government embarked on drawing up a National Register of Citizens (NRC) and in 1951, Assam became the first and only state to have such a listing. By a long drawn process however, the NRC, prepared under the purview of the Foreigners Act of 1946, was challenged in court and eventually the state High Court in 1970 ruled that it was not admissible as evidence of citizenship. In the meanwhile, the process of immigration from East Pakistan continued unabated and successive census enumerations and electoral lists noted the exponential rise in the state’s population.
The state had been home to indigenous tribal people since the middle of the nineteenth century and was witness to large scale migration, followed by settlement of people of Bengali origin.
The state government made clumsy progress and eventually aborted to issue identity cards to prove citizenship. The 1970s was also a period of both euphoria and challenge for the Indian government. The elation stemmed from the formation of Bangladesh and the challenge was due to increased immigration from East Pakistan initially and later the new nation. Because the Indian government under both Indira Gandhi and subsequently under Morarji Desai who in 1977 became the first non-Congress Indian prime minister, failed to realise the threat from haphazard management of refugees from Bangladesh, the situation in Assam became volatile when both indigenous Hindu and tribal communities began supporting the agitation launched by a new outfit, the out-of-mainstream political formation of Assam’s youth – All Assam Students’ Union (AASU).
In the initial phase of this agitation which caught public imagination, as a result of which, the young members of AASU received support from Assamese elders. The movement was essentially directed against outsiders or ‘foreigners’ although there was no way of knowing of who was a ‘local’ and who was an ‘outsider’ because of the century-long immigration to the state. It soon became evident that the agitation had the makings of a cruel tragedy for all. On the one hand there were people whose ancestors had been living in the region for decades and in this period many had intermarried.
On the other hand, it could not be denied that economic hardships had forced people, and was continuing to do so, to journey with bag and baggage from what was now Bangladesh as the economy of the new nation simply could not bear the burden of rising population and growing expectations of a nascent country which like always had ignited a million dreams. While the stir continued to rock Assam and prevented elections in the state during the national polls in 1980 in which Indira Gandhi staged a triumphant return after being out of power for three years, global attention came Assam’s way due to the horrific Nellie massacre in February 1983. In this ferocious mass execution, more than 2200 people from several smaller villages close to the epicentre and the place from which the massacre got its name were slaughtered.
Those killed were mostly Bengali Muslims who had relocated to the region in the colonial years although the locals believed they had moved only recently. This massacre in fact, was also seen as a retaliation by supporters of the Assam movement against the central government’s decision to hold state elections in early 1983. The agitation lingered on, partly due to Indira Gandhi’s preoccupation with Sikh militancy which reared its head in Punjab. Eventually, after her assassination and her son, Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister. He initiated a series of placatory talks with different agitating groups in India and an understanding, popularly called Assam Accord was signed with AASU leaders.
The process of immigration from East Pakistan continued unabated and successive census enumerations and electoral lists noted the exponential rise in the state’s population.
Under this, elections were held and the AASU which morphed into a political party, swept the polls. But more importantly, it was agreed that those people who could not legally establish that they or their ancestors had entered Assam or India before midnight on March 24, 1971, when the Bangladeshi nationalists declared independence, would be declared foreigners and face deportation. But with the Accord signed and the AASU leaders in power, little effort was made to implement the Assam Accord and no effort was made to detect and thereafter delete names of illegal immigrants from either electoral rolls or from a new NRC.
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Meanwhile, AASU leaders got co-opted in the political process and failed to run a government efficiently. Eventually, with their implosion, it appeared for long that Assam had turned the page as the Congress was back in the saddle for years from 1991 to 1996 and again from 2001 to 2016.
when the BJP came to power for the first time in the state. The party remains in power and this particularly queers the pitch, for the party appears to be speaking in two voices — one in Assam and the other in rest of India.
For the major part of the last 71 years since the independence of India, the BJP or its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have been just a marginal electoral force in Assam. However, the RSS has been working, not in just Assam but in the entire northeastern region, in a concerted manner since the 1970s. The third chief of the RSS, MD (Balasaheb) Deoras, propounded a contentious theory when the anti-foreigner agitation was at its peak. He argued that “infiltrators and refugees can’t be put on par” and elaborated that the case of Hindus coming from Bangladesh was different, because they were “refugees who had fled their homes after being persecuted.”
He further argued that if Hindus could not escape to India, where would they go? Muslim immigrants, according to him were all infiltrators had to be pushed back regardless of the fact that no such agreement of mass deportation exists between Indian and Bangladesh. To get back to the complex NRC story, real impetus to get down to redrawing the list started after 2013 when the Indian Supreme Court provided unequivocal instructions to complete updating the NRC and ensure its implementation – that is, make certain those who were not citizens were expelled from the state. Since 2014, the apex court also supervised the process of updating the NRC to ensure that the exercise was not abandoned as it had been done previously under various governments.
Although the exercise was conducted steadily since then the BJP created an impression that the exercise had been sped up after it assumed power in the state in 2016. Such claims were made because by now the entire exercise has been given a majoritarian dimension as the political discourse under the BJP has painted all illegal immigrants — different from refugees as Deoras theorised — are Muslims. As a consequence of this, an issue which challenged indigenous culture and life has been given a communal dimension, a confrontation between Hindus and Muslims which is at the heart of much of India’s social malaise. In December 2017, the first draft of the NRC was published and the final draft was due in June. The process however, could not be completed and the Supreme Court after castigating the government, granted a month’s extension.
Those killed were mostly Bengali Muslims who had relocated to the region in the colonial years although the locals believed they had moved only recently.
This was eventually published in July and since then the issue has been treated as a major victory for the BJP’s majoritarian agenda. Even though the process of review is ongoing and appears to be lengthy and a while before the final NRC is readied and published, BJP leaders of different states have started to demand a NRC specific to their state. The effort is obviously to polarise the voters before the 2019 elections. Recent ratings have shown decline in support for Mr Modi and a rise in voters’ preference for Rahul Gandhi. This has largely to do with the realisation in the BJP that it will be difficult to secure another term in office on the basis of its performance and without an over-arching national narrative. The ‘NRC- for-whole-of-India’ is part of the exercise to construct such a political discourse.
At the moment, the BJP remains firm to its campaign that pushed the idea of NRC: ‘Mission 3D’: Detect, Delete and Deport. The problems, however, is that the draft final NRC left out more than four million people from the list and this includes even former lawmakers, both Hindus and Muslims and a former chief minister. As a consequence, the BJP is in a bind — if it pushes the NRC project without displaying consideration for those left out from the list due to errors in documentation or because of absence of key family documents, there is fear that the party will lose the support of even Hindus and tribal population.
On the other side, not being aggressive and promising the NRC model in other states, especially where communal conflict is a major source of social dispute, runs the risk of the BJP failing to create a robust electoral campaign which could result in setback in 2019. From a situation where the BJP hoped that by getting the Damocles’ Sword to hang over heads of alleged illegal immigrants, read Muslims who immigrated at any point of time, the BJP is now caught between the proverbial devil and the deep sea. Instead of being a boon for the BJP, the issue of citizenship in Assam and eviction of alleged illegal immigrants have become a bane for the party. Quite clearly, something has gone down the wrong pipe!
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based author and journalist. His books include, Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and The Demolition: India At The Crossroads. He writes columns in leading Indian papers and websites, appears as a commentator on various TV channels and is working on his future books. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.