Migrants and beyond

Against Assam’s chequered history of illegal immigrants, the recent campaigns against the updating of the National Register of Citizens are seen as attempts to communalise the exercise and overlook the historical loss of political and economic space suffered by its indigenous people.

Published : Sep 12, 2018 12:30 IST

At an NRC centre   at Mayong village in Morigaon district on August 13, people whose names were left out of the final draft wait to collect claim forms for the inclusion of their names.

At an NRC centre at Mayong village in Morigaon district on August 13, people whose names were left out of the final draft wait to collect claim forms for the inclusion of their names.

AFTER India’s Independence, the first Census of India was held in 1951, and on the basis of the census data, a unique document called the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was prepared only for Assam because it was noticed from the previous decadal census that the State’s demographic profile was changing fast owing to migration from eastern Bengal. Therefore, in the changed political situation, it was felt that a document was necessary in order to identify migrants who would now be foreign nationals. However, this purpose was not fulfilled as the register was never updated. Although it was used by the Police Department to identify Pakistani nationals under the PIP (Prevention of Infiltration from Pakistan) scheme from 1960 onwards, and though it is still in use under the PIF (Prevention of Infiltration of Foreigners after 1971) scheme, the project did not succeed owing to various pressures on the Police Department. A frequently heard complaint was that the minorities were harassed by the police who misused the scheme. 

The NRC also lost its credibility because it had not been updated. This happened because the migrants became a factor in the so-called vote-bank politics. The border itself did not have a physical barrier at most places, and migration continued through the porous border. 

During the Bangladesh War in 1971, a large number of East Pakistan nationals crossed over to India to escape massacre. They were treated sympathetically, but India did not keep count of those who returned to Bangladesh after it was formed. It was calculated in many research documents that even after the birth of Bangladesh, large-scale economic migration continued through the porous border and the demography of Assam continued to change rapidly, to the utter disadvantage of its original inhabitants.

The original inhabitants of Assam can be defined as those who were domiciled in Assam before India’s Independence and Partition. In 1979, during the correction of the voters’ list of Mangaldoi constituency in Assam, a large number of names of suspected foreign nationals were found in the list, creating a commotion. This was also when Sons of the Soil  by the American scholar Myron Weiner was published. This well-researched book on India’s internal and external migration analysed in detail the serious problem of demographic pressure on Assam owing to migration from across the border.

Meanwhile, in a meeting of Chief Electoral Officers at Ootacamund (now Udhagamandalam) in 1978, Chief Election Commissioner S.L. Shakdhar warned against the large-scale entry of foreign nationals’ names into voters’ lists in Assam’s constituencies. Thereafter, the Assam Agitation,    a popular movement against illegal immigrants, began in 1979, and it ended with the signing, in 1985, of the Assam Accord, which stipulated that all migrants from erstwhile East Pakistan would be accepted as registered Indians but all migrants who entered Assam illegally from the midnight of March 24, 1971 (the birth of Bangladesh) onwards would be detected, disenfranchised (if their names were included in voters’ lists) and deported.

The updating of the NRC of 1951 was a subsequent decision, issuing from the Assam Accord. The Accord did not explicitly mention the NRC, but according to one of the signatories, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, then president of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), which spearheaded the Assam Agitation, the Central government gave a solemn assurance about updating it ( Assam Tribune , August 14, 2018). However, the Central government continued to defer the updating of the NRC, even after the Governor of Assam, Lt Gen. S.K. Sinha, submitted a detailed report in 1987 on the gravity of the issue. Eventually, the Central government was compelled to undertake the exercise when the matter reached the Supreme Court through a few writ petitions. A division bench of the Supreme Court found that the problem of illegal migration had assumed a serious magnitude, akin to an external aggression. In 2015, the Supreme Court issued specific directions to the Central government to update the NRC of 1951 and accordingly, work began in 2016.

Updating the NRC

This time, the updating was not carried out on the basis of census records but on claims made by residents who submitted documents such as legacy data in support of their claims. There was consensus among all political parties and the approval of the Supreme Court on the issue of documentary proof. The draft NRC was published in two phases, and the status according to the final draft was published on July 30, 2018 (see Table).

According to the Census of 2011, Assam’s total population was 3.12 crore, an increase from 2.67 crore in Census 2001. Projecting the pattern of decadal growth of previous censuses, Assam’s population in 2016 (the year of commencement of NRC work) was estimated at 3.39 crore. 

Now if as many as 3.29 crore had applied for the inclusion of their names in the NRC, then there is a population of about 10 lakh that did not apply for citizenship. This figure will have to be reconciled eventually. If many Indian nationals had not applied, being weary of the process, surely they cannot be declared either foreigners or stateless. Moreover, the 40 lakh-odd applicants not included in the final draft cannot be declared foreigners because the process of claims is to be gone through and corrections may take place.

The Supreme Court has directed the Central government to submit a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for undertaking this crucial exercise. Moreover, this exercise is only to determine the citizens among the applicants. Those who are left out cannot, ipso facto , be called foreigners. Until they are declared illegal migrants, according to established procedure, they will be a questionable category. On the other hand, once the NRC is completed and approved by the Supreme Court, the Election Commission will have to refer to it for the inclusion of names of citizens aged 18 and above in the voters’ list.

Campaigns against the NRC

Despite the fact that the updating exercise was undertaken under the supervision of the Supreme Court, a massive international campaign was launched on social media by a relatively unknown New York-based organisation called Avaaz to paint it as an exercise to deprive 70 lakh “Indian Muslims” of their citizenship. Equating the fate of this population to that of the Rohingya of Myanmar, Avaaz launched a signature campaign against the NRC and obtained lakhs of signatures. Interestingly, they stopped the signature campaign on August 14, 2018, perhaps realising that their allegations were based on fake information.

Another campaign carried out by some organisations and individual intellectuals from the Barak Valley of Assam called the updating of the NRC an exercise against the Bengali-speaking people of Assam. This, too, died down. However, there is a point of intersection in these two separate campaigns. Both, despite issuing from two different sociocultural registers, attempted to paint this as a conspiratorial exercise in favour of the indigenous people who, ironically, have been at the receiving end of migration pressure on demography since the time of British rule.

British-era migration

The British encouraged continuous migration of immigrants from erstwhile Bengal, particularly land-deprived peasants, in order to increase colonial revenue from their labour on fallow land, then abundantly available in Assam. In 1874, Sylhet, a district of undivided Bengal, was added to Assam. Sylhet was rich in tea resources, which were promoted as a lucrative colonial revenue-generating industry in Assam. Significantly, the addition of the populous Sylhet to Assam increased the Bengali population virtually overnight in the province, to the disadvantage of the Assamese population. The Bengalis became the majority population and remained so until Partition. This was a source of mistrust between the two communities and caused tension in the migration phenomenon even during the British Raj, until Sylhet went to Pakistan by a referendum during Partition. 

It merits mention here that the Assamese had already felt insecure when the British introduced Bengali as the language of official correspondence, in court and for education. The Assamese language gained its rightful place only in 1873 on the intervention of the Baptist missionaries who had come to Assam to proselytise but took up the cause of the Assamese tirelessly. In this regard, Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, a progressive educated Assamese in the employ of the British administration, also played a pivotal role. An element of competitiveness emerged between the speakers of the two languages following the addition of Sylhet district to Assam. The Assamese speakers were apprehensive that the migration of land-hungry but hard-working Bengali-speaking Muslim peasants to the State would further increase the domination of Bengalis over the Assamese. The much-sought-after clerical-level employments in government offices were practically dominated by the Hindu migrant community and the Muslim immigrants from East Bengal spread over rural Assam, who first occupied fertile wasteland and then squatted over grazing and other reserve lands. For educated Assamese, job opportunities remained limited to the sectors of agriculture, tea plantation, primary and high school education, and so on. 

In the 1930s, Basanta Kumar Das, a member of the Central Legislative Assembly from the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley, went to the extent of demanding a change in Assam’s name, since at that point the addition of Sylhet had made Bengali-speaking people the majority. This move created further distrust in the Assamese psyche against the perceived design of Bengali speakers even during the British regime. However, the Brahmaputra Valley, geographically considered the main valley of Assam, continued to be dominated by the Assamese population through several censuses during the British regime. Once Sylhet became a part of Pakistan, the Assamese gained overall majority throughout the State. 

Immigrant Muslims who had settled in Assam after Partition adopted Assamese as their mother tongue in Census 1951 at the behest of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, as a pragmatic approach for social reconciliation with the mainstream Assamese. This helped Assamese speakers remain the majority in Assam for a considerably long time. After the Assam Agitation, a percentage of these immigrants, weary of Assamese mistrust, recorded their mother tongue as Bengali in the subsequent censuses, skewing the ratio in favour of Bengali speakers. This caused demographic insecurity among Assamese speakers and the apprehension that Bengalis would establish political hegemony in their land.

Often, the stressful, competitive relationship between the two communities degenerated into mutual mistrust in socially tense situations. However, culturally, particularly in art and literature, it was a completely different picture. Artistic exchanges took place without rancour. This later phenomenon did help create mutual respect for each other’s culture and literature even when there were many ugly situations in the politico-social space.

After Independence, the phenomenon of internal migration within India changed to that of infiltration by people of a foreign country. The migrants took advantage of a very lightly guarded and improperly demarcated Radcliffe line. On India’s side, political calculations of successive ruling parties found in immigrants eager to settle down in Assam a pliable community of people to use as vote banks. So, through successive census operations, demography continued to change in favour of non-indigenous people, with an alarming reduction in the percentage of the original natives who were the sons of the soil since before the time of British occupation. (The indigenous communities include not only the Assamese community but all tribal communities of this region from prehistoric times.) 

Censuses 1961 and 1971 show that there were large-scale migrations into Assam from across the border, particularly Mymensingh and Rangpur districts of what was then East Pakistan. Assam’s population, which numbered 80,29,000 in Census 1951, rose to 1,08,37,000 in 1961 and to 1,46,25,000 in 1971, the decadal rate of growth being 34.98 per cent and 34.95 per cent respectively. Even as early as 1931, the Census report likened the exodus of people from eastern Bengal to Assam to “a mass movement of a large body of ants”. 

The subsequent Census reports show that the movement continued unabated even after Partition. In the 1940s, the Muslim League, which was by then very active in Assam, made serious efforts to include the whole of Assam in Pakistan and brought in more Muslim migrants from eastern Bengal in a planned way. This led to political friction with not only nationalist Assamese political leaders but also local villagers, since many of these newcomers had settled too close to the villages of the indigenous communities.

Assam Agitation and after

The Assam Agitation (1979 to 1985) was a reaction to such continuous large-scale illegal migration. The demand for detection, disenfranchisement and deportation of foreigners was raised mainly by the Assamese community; the tribal people kept away as they were seeking a solution to their aspirations differently through tribal concessions. Yet it was a major agitation with a direct impact on the sociopolitical sphere of the State. The agitation was largely peaceful, although by 1983 there were reports of violence. 

When the Central government decided to hold elections in 1983 on the basis of existing voters’ lists, disregarding the resistance of the agitationists, and when a section of the minority population decided to vote in a volatile situation, it generated strong communal tensions at sensitive places. This was further complicated by intercommunity issues over squatting on reserved lands by the so-called illegal migrants. Even after Independence, the squatters came too close to the villages of the indigenous people for comfort.

It was in this frenzied situation that the Nellie and Chawalkhowa massacres took place and were condemned worldwide. The outside world blamed the agitationists through a simplified rationalised reading of a complex situation. But the blame should partly be apportioned to the obstinacy of the Central government, which ignored the writing on the wall and held the election against stiff resistance. The election became a farce as only a few people voted.

IMDT Act struck down Ironically, after the disasters of Nellie and Chawalkhowa, the Central government enacted the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, making the detection of illegal migrants extremely difficult and encouraging further illegal migration. Under the Foreigners Act, the onus of proof is on the person accused of staying illegally, but under the IMDT Act, the onus was on the complainant. Subsequently, in S. Sonowal vs Union of India  in 2005, the Supreme Court found it ultra vires  the Constitution and struck it down. This showed how the then Central government failed to understand the existential crisis of the autochthons and acted in favour of dubious immigrants instead of protecting the rights of its own citizens in a sensitive border State. 

Vote-bank politics gained precedence over questions of national security arising out of large-scale illegal migration of foreign nationals to a sensitive border State, not to speak of the future plight of the autochthons. When Rajiv Gandhi came to power in 1984, he brought a fresh outlook for solving the issues raised by the Assam Agitation. By that time, the agitation leaders, too, were faced with a situation where the long agitation affected the younger generation’s educational prospects, with educational institutions remaining closed for a long time. Eventually, in 1985, the Assam Accord was signed. 

In the course of the agitation, a section of youths who were enamoured of the Naga rebellion took to the path of insurgency, and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) was born. The ULFA took a different trajectory, and a solution to the insurgency problem is awaited. A sort of romanticised idea of rebellion overtook sections of tribal youths of different communities, too, and many splinter insurgent groups emerged among various tribal communities. This idealism degenerated into attraction for easy money and, in fact, has been a very negative outcome of the complex situation in the State.

To return to the immigration problem, history cannot be undone and the pre-British original natives of Assam cannot expect to reclaim the comfortable position of absolute pre-eminence of yore. This is the lesson learnt from the Assam Agitation, resulting in the compromise of the Assam Accord. The one thing the indigenous communities will not accept is being a minority in their homeland and being politically beholden to immigrants who may, in course of time, try to grab the major share of the political cake. The campaigns against the updating of the NRC are attempts not only to communalise the exercise but also to cause an amnesia about the historical fact of continuous loss of political and economic space by the indigenous people.

The reactions of some political parties to the draft NRC have been negative, as if the NRC in one stroke made 40 lakh Indian citizens foreigners. Such naive reactions arguably camouflage the politics of vote bank in the guise of humanitarian consideration—at least that is the reaction of the autochthons of Assam. The reaction of the Trinamool Congress, in particular, is seen as sectarian, provocative and unmindful of the ground reality. 

In this respect, some questions need to be answered. If all the 40 lakh people are Indian citizens, where have all the illegal migrants gone? Are the history of migration and the enormous increase in the migrant population, as shown by successive censuses, all wrong? Will the bitter pill of this claim harden those who have been seeking liberation through insurgency and provide them a constituency to increase their support base? These questions cannot be dismissed lightly.

The NRC is an exercise to ensure that genuine Indian citizens are not deprived of the entry of their names in the Register and that those who entered India after March 24, 1971, from Bangladesh are not included in the same register. The acceptance of the entire stream of immigrants from the time of Indian Independence until March 24, 1971, is not only a recognition of the historical situation of the birth of Bangladesh, but also, for the autochthons, a great sacrifice of their interests and rights on their native soil. Whatever the campaigns launched against the NRC, there cannot be a halting of the exercise now. Since the Supreme Court is overseeing the exercise, it is hoped that it will lend its weight to the preparation of a correct NRC after all the stages get completed without room for accusations from any quarters.

The entry of names in the NRC needs proof in the form of documents, with multiple alternatives, and everyone, including the indigenous people, have been required to collect and submit these documents. Everyone has taken a lot of pains to submit them. If there is some mistake, and if there is some mischief, all such aberrations have to be rectified during the ongoing process of submission of complaints, and if it is found that any official is indulging in mischief, such official/s must be taken to task according to procedure. 

Unfortunately, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has provided ammunition to the detractors of the NRC by bringing in an amendment Bill to the Citizenship Act to grant citizenship to illegal migrants of Hindu and some other religious communities, excluding Muslims, until 2014 (and having already legitimised the illegality of their migration until 2014 by allowing them to continue to stay through an amendment to the Foreigner’s Rule by an executive order). The party has been accused of giving a communal colour to the updating exercise. The proposed Bill is under the scrutiny of a Joint Parliamentary Committee, which, in its hearing in Guwahati, faced massive objections to the Bill. Such an amendment will always be resisted by the indigenous people of Assam. The protest against the Bill has been voiced from other parts of the north-eastern region as well.

On the whole, a correct NRC must be prepared and digitally maintained. The Central government should stop its attempt to amend the Citizenship Act, prejudicing the secular character of the polity enshrined in the Constitution.

This exercise is not the end of the struggle of the indigenous communities to preserve their native identity. Clause 6 of the Assam Accord has to be implemented in order to ensure constitutional safeguards for the future of these communities. 

Then again, the updating of the NRC is not a one-time exercise. The citizens will have children, and so there has to be a continuous process for updating the NRC to include newborns. Therefore, in all future updating of the NRC, birth and death registrations have to be linked to the NRC database.

Harekrishna Deka is a retired IPS officer and a former DGP of Assam. He is also a prominent Assamese writer who received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1987.

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