Response to: "The Crisis of Citizenship in Assam"

Autonomy and Social Justice in Assam
Assam, a Wounded Society

Sanjay Barbora’s essay is a meticulous account of the political past of Assam. It brings out the myriad fault lines created by British colonialism on a cross-section of people, and the web of complexities the north-eastern border state has thereby found itself in, with no easy solution in sight. What I write here must be looked at more as complementary to Barbora’s commentary than as a contestation.

Going against the current of popular belief in Assam about developments in pre-Independence India, Barbora rightly points out that the Muslim League’s best known politician in Assam at the time, Syed Sadullah, was actually castigated by peasant leaders like Maulana Bhashani for creating impediments in the acquisition of land by settlers. What is important to add here is that like Congress leaders such as Ambikagiri Raichoudhury frequently reminding Nehru of the similarities between Assam and Palestine on the immigration and settler question, Sadullah too did the same closer to Partition. This he did after having come under pressure from Bhashani, the then the state League president, to accommodate more immigrants in Assam’s soil.  

At the third provincial Muslim League Conference at Barpeta in Lower Assam on 7–8 April 1944, Sadullah bitterly defended himself by citing examples of the Matabors, promoted by Bhashani, chasing away even Assamese Muslim residents. He equated the situation of the native population with the problems faced by the Arabs due to Jewish immigration into the Arab homeland (Nirode K Barooah and Gopinath Bardoloi (2010): ‘The Assam Problem’ and Nehru’s Centre, Bhabani Books, Guwahati, page 166). Such facts are important to better understand what top League leaders like Sadullah, who belonged to the Assamese Muslim community, finally went through when it came to the question of embracing East Pakistan as a Muslim homeland.  A few families of Assamese Muslims did migrate to East Pakistan on religious lines. One of them was Mohammad Ishfaul Majid, who is better known in Bangladesh history as the first Bengali speaking general of the Pakistan Army. But he was an Assamese Muslim from Jorhat. For the likes of Majid, religion took precedence over language, but as Barbora pointed out, religion was not the only criteria for the Assamese Muslim community for deciding on whether or not to move out of Assam then. Sadullah, who stayed back in Assam, is a prominent example of the complex criteria at play at the time.

The Bengali Muslims, however, chose to stay back not because of their preference for the local language over their religion but because of their attachment to land. They had moved to colonial Assam because of the paucity of land to till in East Bengal. The Bengali Muslims began to migrate to colonial Assam much before the British embarked on an immigration scheme for them, unlike the indentured labourers of the tea gardens. When Assam was kept out of East Pakistan, they chose to stay back as they did not want to face the same situation, and adopted Assamese in their official papers and gradually began to assimilate with the majority population.

Today, in none of the areas where Miya Mussalmans reside would you come across a Bengali-medium school. Unfortunately, since occupation of land was in the foreground of conflict between the native population and the Bengali Muslim settlers in the colonial period, the attempt of the community post-Independence o realign itself through linguistic affinity with the majority population met with road blocks. Even though concepts like “Na Asamiya” or “neo-Assamese” were coined in the early years of Independence to usher them into the composite Assamese community, the prickly aspect of land began to be exploited by the state’s divisive identity politics. This gradually came in the way of the process of assimilation that a society experiencing migration otherwise goes through.   

The matter has been made worse by the entry of right-wing Muslim outfits into the community, particularly among the poorest from the mainland. The All India United Minority Front (AIUDF), formed in 2005 as an answer to the Congress’ “betrayal” of the community for not adequately defending the Illegal Immigration (Determination by Tribunal) Act at the Supreme Court, was the first Jamiat backed political party in the country. This development, to my mind, was disastrous to the community, as it once again accentuated the religious identity of the community in the state’s delicate political sphere. Hindu right-wing forces, which had been trying to influence the overriding identity politics of the majority Assamese community since the anti-foreigner agitation then got the opportunity to spread in the Brahmaputra Valley, the Assamese heartland, like never before. The unfinished task of these forces since the agitation thus could be brought back to action to help rouse an anti-Muslim sentiment among the majority community. It helped such forces to cement, to a large extent, the popular notion of an “illegal Bangladeshi” as a lungi-clad, skull-cap wearing Muslim.

The massive opposition to the Citizenship (amendment) Bill in Assam, has however, brought the focus back to that definition of an “illegal Bangladeshi.” Yet again, it has gone back to the notion based more on language and roots than religion. These protests can therefore be seen as a failure of the Hindu right-wing forces’ religious designs on Assamese society.

Coming to the question of taking the National Register of Citizens (NRC) 1951 as the basis for updating the electoral rolls of the state, Barbora is mostly right in pointing out that though the exercise is being carried out to fulfil the main clause of the Assam Accord, which is to identify who is a citizen of Assam based on the 24 March 1971 deadline, the Accord does not mention the NRC to be the chosen tool. Barbora too has argued that the 1951 NRC “was not central to the debates around citizenship for a greater part of the political history of Assam.” He is right in the contention that “no elected government took it upon itself to revise the NRC until 2010,”  but the very reason that it was chosen as the tool to fulfil the main terms of the Accord highlights that the demand for it has been central to the students’ agitation for identifying undocumented immigrants.

The demand to identify “illegal immigrants” in the state on the basis of NRC 1951 was raised during the first formal negotiations with the government of India on 2 February 1980. That the Assam Accord did not fructify during Indira Gandhi’s regime was primarily because the government wanted the citizenship cut-off year on the basis of the Indira-Mujib pact of 1971, and not on the basis of the 1951 NRC. What is to be looked into is also the politics behind that demand. Under what circumstances did the AASU leaders have to finally accept 1971 during the Rajiv Gandhi regime, and also what lay behind the Congress’ decision to agree to update it finally in 2005 through a tripartite agreement of the central and state governments with the AASU? It was with this agreement that the Congress changed tack on in Assam, shifting towards majoritarian politics and continued to rule in Assam till 2016. And it was on the basis of the failure of the party to fulfil this demand that the BJP made its maiden entry in the state by joining hands with the AGP, a party born of the Accord.

The opinions and counter opinions published in national and regional media after the publication of the final draft NRC in 2018 unfortunately did not go beyond the political narrative. Writers of several such pieces ended up as mere representatives of their communities, presenting their own as victims and the other as the perpetrators. But in the long political history of Assam each community is a victim and perpetrator, at least in each other’s eyes. That the issue is overwhelming on the ground demands that each stakeholder be heard and attempts be made to arrive at a solution based on social justice. Assam is also an issue about smaller communities demanding the protection of their rights in a society that has faced decades of migration.

The decision to update the NRC was seen by many as a consensual exercise of various stakeholders to arrive at a solution of give and take. But lack of political will by the Congress and the BJP has reduced it to a vehicle of state oppression and prejudice unleashed on the poorest. The worst example is the presence of detention centres housed in six jails.

When the final draft was announced, my sister-in-law who hails from one of the oldest families of Delhi, could not find her name in the list. My 84-year-old father was outraged; this despite her Assamese surname “Barooah” attached to her maiden surname. The same outrage that a Monirul Hussain must have felt after having served as a senior professor of Gauhati University; D-voter (“dubious or doubtful voter”) Shah Alam Bhuyan felt after serving in the chief minister’s security; and 70-year-old Deben Barman, a Koch Rajbonshi resident of Dhubri, felt on not finding his only son’s name in that list and decided to take his life.

Assam is a wounded society; each community is hurt and offended. A solution is in sight only if the political class rises above vote bank politics and each stakeholder widens her heart just a little bit.

Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, New Delhi
The Supreme Court and the NRC

Sanjay Barbora in his article, “The Crisis of Citizenship in Assam” gives us a rich account of the historical as well as contemporary political and social events that have lead us to the debates about the NRC project currently underway.

In many ways, and despite his own dilemma on what to make of the chaos, his account is a mirror to those who fall on either side of the debate; the arguments he makes inform and provoke us.

The complicated history of ethnic groups in the North East who are spread across the region including India, Burma and Bangladesh is central to how we understand migration in the north east, yet this is absent in policy formulations on the response to forced migration. For the Indian state, movement of people from across its international borders has always elicited a compartmentalised response; and this is unlikely to change in the near future. In fact, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 which sought to give preferential treatment to the minorities from the neighbouring countries, is in that vein. Barbora rightly observes that the legislations on “foreigners”, which have been inherited from the British , have either been conveniently bypassed or implemented with a firm grip, depending on which ethnic group, nationality or community the state is confronted with.  This is the conclusion that one can draw if one were to consider a long-term view of India’s account of forced migration and how it deals with people on the move.

Courts in India have always been an integral part of the management of forced migration. From cases that have deferred to the decision of the executive on whether those migrating from Pakistan after Partition ought to be given Indian citizenship to cases that have recognized that asylum seekers have a right against refoulement, there is no doubt a useful body of judge-made law that has made the foreigners’ right to residence real, even if precarious.  But the Supreme Court’s handling of the Bangladeshi immigration matter is new in many respects. While the courts have shown a hands-off policy on questions relating to aliens and foreigners in India, in the case of Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha v Union of India and ors, WP(C) No. 562/2012 or the NRC case, the Supreme Court is doing the opposite.

Following a trend that started with the environmental cases where the judge and the executive were rolled into one (read M.C Mehta v UoI and Godavarman), the Supreme Court’s orders that have been passed from time to time and the central questions it has identified (to be heard by the Constitutional Bench) have been truly baffling. The order dated 17 December 2014 is at once this chronicle of what the Court intends to achieve and how it seeks to do so.

First, the Court, in invoking its jurisdiction under Article 142 (which gives the Supreme Court powers to pass any order to do complete justice between the parties), has gone beyond its powers and jurisdiction by regularly reviewing, among other things, the progress in the updation of NRC, the fencing of international borders and the setting up of the Foreigners Tribunals.

When this case and the five others clubbed with it are taken up for final hearing, the Court would be considering questions such as whether illegal immigration from Bangladesh amounts to “external aggression” as defined in the Constitution. The Supreme Court bench will also consider what it means for a community to conserve its culture and whether Bangladeshi immigration dilutes the Assamese people’s right to protect and conserve it. These questions will speak not only to the present but also to the future, not only to how citizenship is understood in India but how India relates to its neighbours in 21st century South Asia.

There is not yet a conclusion to the migration question in Assam that has brought in its wake new questions and dimensions. All of those questions will have a far reaching impact. For instance, that the NRC exercise has the potential to make people stateless was pointed out in 2012. Therefore, when Barbora asks whether it is a toothless exercise meant to pacify agitated opinions, what we see unfolding in front of us does not indicate that it is a toothless exercise. However, what it does tell us is that the enterprise that seeks to impose a particular idea of citizenship, either through the NRC or the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 or any other in a similar fashion cannot pass muster that easily.

Sahana Basavapatna, Bengaluru
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