A controversy might flare up over Indian citizenship in Assam

By Md. Ali, TwoCircles.net,

In the North-Eastern state of Assam, a controversy over the issue of Indian citizenship is in making. This has to do with the updating work of National Register of Citizens (NRC) 1951, at present going on in the state.

This project is being carried out on pilot basis, in two places in Assam, namely Barpeta revenue circle under Berpeta district and Chayagaon revenue circle under Kamrup district. As part of the project the citizens have been asked to attach some documents, as proof of their Indian citizenship with the standard government form. These documents include the list of NRC 1951, electoral roll of 1966 and that of 1971.

Muslims in Assam are victim of frequent communal violence. In a relief camp in 2008

To identify Indian citizens

According to the government sources, the purpose of NRC is to identify and enlist Indian citizens in the state. The fact that NRC updating work is going on under the direct supervision of GK Pillai, Home Secretary, Government of India, shows how serious the government of India is, as far as this project is concerned.

Protest against NRC

The Bengali speaking Muslims, along with some Bengali speaking Hindus of the state have protested vehemently against this project. And the protest is getting stronger day by day. They have virtually boycotted this project.

For instance in the first phase, out of 47 thousand forms which were distributed, only 17 forms were submitted by the Bengali speaking people.

In simple words, for a Bengali speaking population of the state, NRC is an attempt to ‘identify’ and if possible prove them as Bangladeshi.

And if one agrees with Abdur Rahim Khan, secretary, All Indian United Democratic Front, the authorities are using illegal ways and means to prove genuine Indian citizens as Bangladeshi.

Talking to TwoCircles.net from Barpeta over phone, Mr. Khan pointed out, that the place of birth of all the 2 lakh Bengali speaking Muslims in Barpeta revenue circle, is mentioned as, “Maiman Singh, Dhaka, Bangladesh” in the government list.

“How can it be possible that the birth place of all 2 lakh people is the same place in Dhaka? It’s a complete lie being propagated by the government,” Mr. Khan questioned.

“NRC is discriminatory in nature”

Another atrocious fact which is very hard for the Bengali speaking population to come to terms with is that, nowhere in India this kind of registration of Indian citizens is going on. It is only in Assam.

“The fact that this kind of registration is done nowhere in India, brings out the dubious and illegal credentials of NRC. It has been launched with the precise purpose to target and discriminate against us,” said Mr. Khan.

He pointed out that, the government list supplied by the district authorities, identifies 25% of Bengali speaking population of Barpeta revenue circle as “doubtful” through a “D” which is there beside their name on the list.

Anomalies in NRC 1951

That is not all; there are several anomalies, irregularities and discrepancies in 1951, Electoral Roll of 1966 and 1971. According to Dr. Baharul Islam, general secretary, AIUDF, thousands of names are missing from the published copies of electoral rolls of 1966 and 1971. Many genuine citizens are being sent notices for being allegedly a foreigner (read Bangladeshi).

AIUDF on its part has submitted many memoranda to the chief secretary of Assam, the central registrar general of citizen of India and also the Prime Minister of India. But nothing has been done yet by the officials to fix these anomalies.

Although AIUDF has not officially objected to the idea of NRC updating work but the people who are involved in these protests come largely from the same kind of political affiliations and AIUDF is supporting unofficially these protests, said a journalist who has followed this story very closely in the state but who didn’t want to be named.

Barpeta boycotts registration

All the villages of Barpeta revenue circles, dominated by the Bengali speaking population, have unanimously decided to boycott the registration process and not to submit the form. Because their approach towards the government’s effort to update NRC 1951, is largely characterized by suspicion and distrust.

They think that these anomalies and various discrepancies are there to sideline their names while scrutinizing the forms, which will lead to the ultimate elimination of their names from the NRC by the state officials.

“All these things are part of conspiracy against the Bengali speaking people of the state by the AASU leaders, on whose instructions the Congress government is functioning these days”, accused Mr. Khan.

He alleged that the state administration has planned to run a detention camp, where all the suspicious citizens (read Bengali speaking Assami citizens) will be kept.

Expressing his views on the NRC updating work, Ishaq Ali Deewan, president of Assam Khilanjia Muslim Unnayan Parishad, said “We don’t want pilot project. NRC is poison for us. What will we do with a list in which our names won’t be there finally?”

Arfan Ali, aged 80 born before independence of India, does not want to
die in relief camp.

NRC to be challenged in Supreme Court

Some are also planning to challenge the legality of this project. “The NRC is being done through a law which was passed and implemented in 2003, but it hasn’t got yet the approval of the Indian parliament. So it’s actually illegal” said Mr. Khan.

“If the state or the central government doesn’t do anything to stop the pilot project in its present form, then on July 20, 2010, we will file a PIL in the Supreme Court to stop this”, announced, Mr. Khan who is one of the leaders in the Barpeta revenue circle, leading the people’s protest against the pilot project of NRC.

Politicians not serious about Bangladeshi issue

Interestingly, the fear expressed above, by the Bengali speaking Assami population, is not without some basis. It’s substantiated and shared by a journalist in Agradoot, an Assami daily, who preferred to remain anonymous.

“Over the years it has been the government policy to officially underestimate the exact figure of Bengali speaking population, by eliminating their names from the voter list or identifying millions of the genuine Indian citizens as “doubtful”.

He also pointed out: “to be very frank, the problem of illegal Bangladeshi in Assam does exist. But nobody wants, neither Congress nor AGP who claim to be pro-Indigenous Assami people, to solve this issue of presence of illegal Bangladeshis in Assam. Had they wanted, they would have sealed the border which is the first step they would have done, had they been serious. And all these parties have been in power then why didn’t any one of them try to solve these issues?”

“Everybody wants to keep this issue alive and use it in terms of political vote banks. For instance, AGP, which is publicly anti-Bengali speaking population, has got 4 MLAs from predominantly Bengali speaking areas,” he said.

“It is very interesting, as through ways like NRC, the government think that it will deal with the problem temporarily and will maintain the status quo. Actually through NRC they will eliminate few thousands Muslim names so that the Assami population’s anger and fears of becoming minority, are placated. ”

Sensitive issue, none ready to speak on record

The fact that no body, no government official, retired or working, ironically not even journalists, were ready to speak on record on this issue, only proves how sensitive the issue of Indian citizenship is in Assam. Except the representatives of the political parties in the state, only few journalists agreed to talk to TwoCircles.net, on the condition of anonymity.

TCN contacted H. S. Das, Commissioner & Secretary, Tourism as well as Finance departments, Assam but he was not ready to talk on this issue. Even PC Sharma, former Chief Secretary of the state, who had been instrumental in formulating and framing NRC policy for the government of Assam, refused to comment on this subject, saying: “I don’t have any opinion on such a sensitive issue. I want to lead a peaceful life.”

Indigenous Assami welcome NRC

On the other side of the spectrum is the Assami speaking indigenous population. All Assam Student Union (AASU), which claims to represent them, thinks that the pilot project of NRC is the ultimate medicine and will solve the problem of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam.

That is why, AASU, the influential student organization in the state, has welcomed this move. In fact it is helping the state government in propagating this project in the state.

AASU is politically very active organization of the state. It is best known for leading the six-year Assam Movement against alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, which culminated in the infamous Nellie massacre of more than 2,000 immigrant Muslims by the indigenous tribal people of Assam in 1983.

Samujjwal Bhattacharya, advisor to AASU, told TCN: “It is very important to identify the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, who have become a threat not only for the security of the state but also a threat for India. So we want that the NRC 1951 should be updated as per the Assam Accord 1985, which was a tripartite accord between the then Rajiv Gandhi Government, the Assam government and the AASU. The Assam Accord says that people whose names have appeared in the electoral lists from the period of 1952 to 1971 are Indian citizens, and people who have come to India after 1971 should leave the country.”

We have always been Indian

When asked about the objection of AIUDF about the alleged anomalies, irregularities and discrepancies in 1951, Electoral Roll of 1966 and 1971, and missing names of thousands of Bengali speaking people from the lists, he said; “It’s very clear, that the names of all the Indians will be there. People who are genuinely from India don’t have anything to fear about. We will give them full protection, irrespective of their religion and language. But yes, the illegal Bangladeshis will have to leave India.”

AASU was a part of a meeting on May 6, 2005, which was chaired by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. The meeting decided to update the NRC 1951. The group was also part of the meeting chaired by home secretary GK Pillai which decided to start pilot project of NRC updating work from Barpeta and Chaygaon revenue circles.

Background of fresh NCR

In order to understand the gravity of the situation, one needs to know the background in which this issue of National Register of Citizens is going on, because it will explain quite well, why the Bengali speaking population has objected to the NCR and why the indigenous Assami citizens have welcomed it.

Indigenous Assami afraid of becoming minority

It is very interesting to see how the fears of the indigenous Assami population is affecting the fate of Bengali speaking population particularly Muslims in the state.

AASU actually plays on the fears of the indigenous Assami population which thinks that soon they will meet the same fate as that of Tripura, where the indigenous Tripuris have become minority with Bangladeshi Hindus becoming majority.

In Assam according to Census 2001, Muslims constitute 31% of the state population. Out of these 31% Muslims, more than 75% people are Bengali speaking whom the indigenous Assami population largely homogenizes as “Bangladeshis.” So in a way they see themselves sandwiched between these Bengali speaking Assami on the one hand and the Bangladesh on the other side. This makes them fearful of getting eaten by Bengali population.

Because they are afraid that soon they will be outnumbered by what they call as “Bangladeshis”, at any cost they want the government to throw them out of the state or deport them to Bangladesh. It’s on these fears of becoming minority that parties like Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), BJP and Congress base their politics in the state.

The turbulent history of Assam is a witness to the fact that the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migrants vis-à-vis the issue of indigenous Assami speaking population is a very sensitive one. And it won’t be wrong to say that the fear of both the Bengali speaking population and Assami speaking indigenous population is playing out quite forcefully in the background of NRC project.

Bengalis fear deportation

The Bengali speaking population which includes both Hindus and Muslims doesn’t want to be identified as Bengali speaking citizen of Assam, because of various reasons.

One among them is the historic accord of 1985, between the Rajiv Gandhi government at the center and AASU, according to which the Assami speaking people will get extra privilege in the socio-economic development schemes of the government.

But probably the stigma of being categorized as Bangaldeshi (and then who knows of being deported to Bangladesh) is perhaps the biggest reason why the Bengali speaking Assamees are against NCR.

NRC just a political ploy for Congress?

One journalist who has followed this issue very closely told this correspondent that “now when the assembly elections are months away, it is very much possible that it’s a ploy by the Congress government to attract the votes of the indigenous Assami speaking community, a traditionally AGP and BJP vote bank, to its own side and at the same time to scare the Muslims once and then delay or postpone the project. As it will serve both the purpose of reinforcing the Muslim votes and it will also manage to attract votes of the indigenous Assami people.”

Congress has at present 14 MLAs from the Bengali speaking areas which in total constitute around 40 assembly seats

However, he also said that, lately there have been quite a number of meetings by the concerned officials in both the central as well as the state governments. Because the way Bengali speaking population, which constitutes more than 30% of the state, has protested against NRC till now, the Congress government in the state and at the center wouldn’t ignore them because they cannot afford to antagonize the community particularly when elections are just 6 months away.

Situation potentially explosive

He pointed out that the NRC is an issue not only for Assam but Bangladesh also is following this process very closely because after identifying the so called Bangladeshis, the next logical step is to deport them. So it’s a foreign relations issue also.

“For both the Bengali speaking and the indigenous Assami population this issue of NRC is getting very serious and sensitive. Although the state is divided on linguistic cum communal lines but this issue has the potential to rip the state apart on those lines.”

“Given the turbulent history of the state over the issue of illegal Bangladeshi population, this issue of NRC has all the recipes for a perfect disaster, and if not handled sensitively, it might explode”, he ominously predicted.