The question of belonging

Print edition : February 16, 2018

In Guwahati on January 1, a man looks for his name on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens, which was published on the midnight of December 31, 2017. Photo: AFP

Sarbananda Sonowal, Assam Chief Minister. He had made a categorical statement that all those who failed to figure in the list would be deported. Photo: R. Ragu

The Luitporia Hindu Samabesh rally organised by the RSS in Guwahati on January 21. It triggered debates on social media about replacing the linguistic identity with that of religion. Photo: BIJU BORO/AFP

The first draft of the National Register of Citizens raises concerns in Assam, and the Sangh Parivar is trying hard to shift the focus of the Assamese from “language” to “religion” as the identity marker in accepting illegal immigrants as citizens.

SIXTY-SEVEN years ago, in 1951, Assam became the only State in the country to get a National Register of Citizens (NRC). On the midnight of December 31, 2017, the north-eastern State published the first draft of an updated NRC, listing the names of 1.9 crore people out of 3.29 crore applicants.

People of the State are now eagerly awaiting the publication of the final draft of the updated NRC hoping that it will settle, once and for all, the vexed issue of identification and expulsion of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the State. However, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and other Sangh Parivar constituents have been pushing for the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which seeks to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis and other non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This threatens to make the updated NRC infructuous as far as the expulsion of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants is concerned.

But for the list of 1.9 crore names, the first draft of the NRC does not indicate the number of foreigners who have entered without valid travel documents and are staying illegally in Assam. The NRC authorities have clarified that the verification process is still on and all those who are found eligible will be listed in the subsequent draft and that claims and objections will be accepted after the publication of the final draft too. The Supreme Court, which has been monitoring the process of NRC updation, had set the time frame for the publication of the draft. The apex court has fixed February 20 for further orders.

The Sangh Parivar has adopted a devious strategy to win the hearts of the indigenous people of Assam in the Brahmaputra valley by insisting on the publication of a correct NRC that will enable the government to drive out Bangladeshi immigrants who entered Assam after 1971 in accordance with the Assam Accord while at the same time pushing for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act so that all Hindu Bangladeshis who came after 1971 without valid travel documents can be granted Indian citizenship. Thus, the updated NRC will be reduced to an instrument for identification and driving out only illegal Muslim Bangladeshi immigrants or keeping them as “stateless” citizens if they cannot be expelled in the absence of a repatriation treaty between India and Bangladesh.

Religion, not language

The Sangh Parivar has also been making a desperate bid to convince indigenous Assamese people to shift their focus from “language” to “religion” as the most essential identity marker when looking at the problem of “unabated migration of Bangladeshis without valid travel documents and posing threat to alter the demography of the State”. The fact that at least some social media users endorse this shift in the “construction of Assamese identity” indicates that the Sangh Parivar’s strategy has found gradual acceptance among a section of the indigenous Assamese people. Political opponents may find it difficult to ignore the effectiveness of this strategy in the coming days.

To give a push to its religion-based identity construction, the Assam unit of the RSS organised a Hindu congregation called “Luitporia Hindu Samabesh” on January 21 in Guwahati (Luitporia in Assamese refers to the people living along the banks of the river Brahmaputra). Organised just three weeks after the publication of the first NRC draft, it triggered intense debates on social media about replacing the linguistic and cultural identity of the Assamese people with a religion-based identity.

The RSS rally also came close on the heels of a series of protests in the Bengali-dominated Barak valley over the exclusion of large numbers of people in the first NRC draft. BJP leaders in the valley have backed the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, pending before both Houses of Parliament.

AGP’s stance

The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a coalition partner in the BJP-led government in the State, has warned of snapping political ties with the BJP if the Centre goes ahead with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The party echoed the demand of student and youth bodies, including the All Assam Students’ Union, and the opposition parties that the NRC must be updated in accordance with the Assam Accord for the identification and “expulsion” of all illegal Bangladeshis, irrespective of them being Hindus or Muslims, who had entered without valid documents after the March 24, 1971, cut-off date. However, the AGP has not mobilised its workers and supporters on the question of the Sangh Parivar seeking to replace the linguistic identity of Assamese people with religion. This explains how the RSS, the BJP and their affiliates have got the political space they have been seeking in the traditional strongholds of AGP.

The BJP has crafted a tactical move to consolidate the support of the people in both Brahmaputra and Barak valleys, with Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal harping on the harmony of all communities in the two valleys and the hills. At the same time, Sangh Parivar members have been leaving no stone unturned to intensify their campaign that Assamese Hindus have nothing to fear from Bangladeshi Hindus and it is Bangladeshi Muslims who have posed a threat to the identity of the Assamese people and their culture.

Significantly, the fact that the data on language of the 2011 Census has not been made public has raised concerns among a large section of Assamese speakers. They fear that if the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is made into an Act to grant citizenship to post-1971 Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants, it might pose a threat to the Assamese language and its speakers. Their apprehension stems from the language data of the 2001 Census in which Assamese speakers were found to have declined to 48.80 per cent of the population from 57.81 per cent recorded in 1991 even as the number of Bengali speakers had increased from 21.67 per cent to 27.54 per cent in the same period. Non-publication of the language data of 2011 Census has triggered speculation that the percentage of Assamese speakers in the State has dipped further. The Sangh Parivar has been making use of the 2011 Census data on religion to push for religious binaries over language binaries.

The opposition Congress hailed the publication of the first NRC draft and claimed credit for it, hoping to strike a responsive chord with the Assamese voters in the Brahmaputra valley. However, the party was caught on the wrong foot with its leaders in the Barak valley, led by its Member of Parliament from Silchar Lok Sabha constituency, Sushmita Dev, supporting the allegation levelled by West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress president Mamata Banerjee that the BJP government in Assam had hatched a conspiracy to chase out Bengalis in the name of NRC updation. The Assam Pradesh Congress Committee described Mamata’s statement as “immature, unwanted and not based on facts” and rushed to clarify that Sushmita Dev’s views were personal and not the party’s position on the issue of NRC updation. Sushmita Dev is the president of the All India Mahila Congress, the women’s wing of the All India Congress Committee.

Both the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress appear to be playing to the gallery in the Brahmaputra valley as well as in the Barak valley in a bid to outwit each other over the NRC issue. However, the BJP seems to be playing its cards closer to its chest than the Congress and other political opponents can imagine.

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