Counterview on NRC

This is a response to Tanweer Fazal’s article “NRC: Tested frequently since Partition, the Indian theory of citizenship has faltered once again”. Several of Fazal’s arguments are not only misleading but also factually incorrect.

The amendment to the Citizenship Act that speaks of 1987 as the cut-off date for eligibility refers to citizenship by birth, whereas the cut off date of 1971 refers to the entry of individuals from Bangladesh. Far from being “chauvinistic”, the cut-off date of 1971, made especially for Assam, was a departure from Article 6 of the Constitution, which sets 1948 as the cut-off date for individuals from Pakistan (East and West) who sought refuge in India after Partition. The very constitutionality of amendment 6A of the Citizenship Act has therefore been referred to the Supreme Court.

Fazal provides no evidence for the claim that “Assamese chauvinism” led to the introduction of the principle of birth – one parent had to be a citizen in the amendment of the Citizenship Act in 1986. This amendment is applicable throughout the country. 6A, which refers specifically to Assam and 1971 as the cut-off date, makes no reference to birth and parentage as factors.

The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act was passed in 1983 and was voided by the Supreme Court since it was seen as placing too much of the burden of proof on citizens to detect foreigners. The Act cannot in any sense be used to bolster an argument about “Assamese chauvinism”. Contrary to what Fazal argues, the fight for repealing the Act, in court and in the streets, was carried out by the votaries of the Assam movement.

Also, there is no category called “doubtful citizens”.

Moreover, contrary to Fazl’s claim that the NRC has been received dichotomously in the Bramhaputra and Barak valleys, all data released after the NRC militates against facile generalisations: the districts with both the highest rejection rates (32.5% Darrang and Hojai) as well as the lowest rejection rates (Upper Assam) are in the Brahmaputra Valley (as pointed out earlier by Udayon Misra)

The NRC exercise is being monitored by the Supreme Court and the provision for the “original inhabitant category” – which has been and ought to be criticized – has been used by the Court with reference to verification processes. But Fazal’s equation of the original inhabitant category with indigeneity is flawed. This category has nowhere been defined and arguments about bias and prejudice will require further research.

Contrary to what Fazal writes, apart from a listing in the 1951 NRC and in electoral roles, there are at least 14 other documents that could be used for inclusion in the NRC. By not mentioning them and speaking about the stringency of requiring a listing in the electoral rolls, Fazal misleads.

The phrase “Assamese or tribal surnames” also displays Fazal’s ignorance of Assamese society where “tribal” often signifies “Assamese”.

Then, Udayon Misra and Sanjeeb Barua, the Assamese intellectuals Fazal names as having joined “the chorus of Assamese chauvinism”, have researched and published at length on the history of migration from Eastern Bengal into Assam that he accuses them of ignoring. Had he consulted their works, he would have learnt that migrations from East Bengal began not in the mid-19th but at the turn of the 20th century.

On the communal paradigm of the debate, Fazal should know that sections of National Democratic Front of Boroland militants have targeted not only Muslims and/or migrants from Bangladesh but various other communities, such as the Adivasis, Biharis and the Assamese. Suffice it is to say here that this violence cannot be co-opted into a larger framework of violence solely against Muslims and/or Muslim migrants.

The humanitarian crisis and the need to resolve the migrant issue on humanitarian principles has been publicly written about by all the “chauvinistic” Assamese intellectuals named in the article. Fazal’s own specific contribution thereby remains obscure, all the more so since he has no previous published research on the issue. – Sanghamitra Misra, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Delhi

Tanweer Fazal’s response

I am thankful to my friend Sanghamitra Misra for her response. However, it pains me deeply to see her position approximating the likes of Sarbananda Sonowal, who, as one of the “votaries of the Assam movement” challenged the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act in the Supreme Court – proof apparently of the non-chauvinistic character of the Assam movement. Whether in court, or on the streets, Sonowal and the Assam movement leaders agitated against the Act, because in their view, it afforded “preferential protection” to “illegal migrants”. In other words, it wasn’t draconian enough – it did not place the burden of proof on the accused, or the alleged foreigner to prove that he was not a foreigner, as the stringent Foreigners Act did.

How does their opposition to Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act – coming as it did from a conservative plank – become evidence of absence of chauvinism? One might also ask that if the Foreigners Act already applies to Assam, and was in fact insisted upon by Sonowal and members of the Assam movement, then why call for the NRC?

Misra would also have us believe that the cut-off date of 1971 is an improvement over the 1948 cut off date applicable to the rest of India, and hence not a chauvinistic exercise. This is a bit deceptive. The 1971 cut-off date forecloses the option of acquiring citizenship by birth (and all other options as well) in Assam, unlike in the rest of the country. Instead, the NRC requires them to trace their ancestry through a legacy tree. This exceptionalism in citizenship acquisition is a product of Assamese chauvinism.

Certainly, there is no category called “doubtful citizens” but isn’t Misra aware of a category called D-Voters or doubtful voters? Perennially suspect, those labelled D Voters are denied their basic citizenship rights, namely the political right to vote.

Misra counters my point about contrasting reception of the NRC data in the two valleys, of which anecdotal evidence is plenty, by referring to the data “released after the NRC”, (also used by Professor Udayon Misra). However, the NRC is yet to release any district-wise data on inclusions and exclusions. Given Misra’s insistence on evidence in opinion pieces, a final comment should be avoided therefore.

Misra accuses me of omitting the full list of documents accepted by the NRC but how does this omission change the central argument, namely that the overlap between citizenship and nationality has produced disastrous consequences, and how the NRC is inclined to do exactly that? In any case, the NRC itself creates a hierarchy of documents. The 1951 NRC and electoral rolls make up the legacy data. A majority of the people (more than 90%) have reportedly used the legacy document rather than the other listed ones. There are another 14 documents in list A, as Misra mentions, but they have to be of pre-1971 period. Then there are list B documents, eight in number, to establish link with legacy ancestor.

It is also facile to argue that there is no overlap between “original inhabitant” and the “indigene”. The category indigene, though undefined in law, has been employed widely by Assamese intellectuals in their defence of the NRC process. Who populates this category, and who defines it? The transactions between law and commonsense ideas about who belongs, and who doesn’t, who is authentic and who isn’t, should be obvious to any social scientist. The use of the category of original inhabitant in the NRC is a consequence of precisely such a transaction. For isn’t it true that NRC used surnames as one of the basis for determining original inhabitants, in which the Supreme Court intervention ensured the inclusion of tea-tribes as well?

While it is difficult to put an exact date to a historical process such as migration, it is true that going by colonial Census, large scale Bengali Muslim population from Mymensingh district in Bengal took place in early 20th century. However, Sylhet’s incorporation into Assam in 1874 also considerably swelled Bengali (including Muslim) presence in the state. Interestingly, the Census data also does not support any large-scale migration into Assam after 1971 (look at 1971, 1991, 2001, 2011 growth rate of population for Assam for evidence).

Also, nowhere does the article claim that the NDFB targeted only the Bengali Muslims. What it argues instead is that despite the efforts of the Bengali Muslims to adopt Asamiya identity, their exclusion has continued. The violence at Nellie, in Bodo areas and other places, is a grim reminder of that. Misra may refer to my more detailed reflection on the Bodoland question in an earlier article.

It’s hardly true that “tribal” often signifies ‘Assamese’, as Misra herself lets slip about Bodo-Assamese violence, implying that Bodo and Assamese are two quite distinct categories. Indeed, the tribals are embraced into Assamese category when convenient, and banished when not needed. (For more see Professor Monirul Hussain’s article). I hope she would accept the fact that Assamese identity today stands deeply contested, and the pluralist vision of Assam is under real danger.

Merely saying that humanitarian principles need to be applied to the lakhs of excluded while holding on to “Assam for Assamese alone” position does not absolve these intellectuals from their complicity in a project that is essentially chauvinist. Besides, what the nature of that humanitarian resolution is never spelt out.

As for Misra’s closing remarks, I was not aware that only those with previous published work on the region could rightfully comment on the NRC – an issue that is fundamentally about larger questions of citizenship and nationhood, on which in fact I do have published work. The real question is why there is hardly any voice questioning the exercise, and its underlying ideological framework, from amongst the Assamese “secular” intelligentsia. – Tanweer Fazal