Assam’s updated National Register of Citizens, published on August 31, leaves out 19.06 lakh people. Nineteen lakh who must now appeal against their exclusion before the foreigners tribunals, quasi-judicial bodies tasked with deciding on cases of disputed nationality. If the appeals are rejected, they will be declared foreigners. Going by initial reports, many of those deemed non-citizens are women and children, from the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society in Assam.
It portends a humanitarian crisis of staggering magnitude. Those excluded are not likely to find a sympathetic hearing at the foreigners’ tribunals. These tribunals have been known to short circuit all processes of justice, handing out thousands of ex parte judgments. Members of the tribunals are pressured by the state government to declare people foreigners rather than clear them as Indian citizens. The fate of those finally declared foreigners is not known; whether they will be deported to Bangladesh, which does not recognise them as its citizens, interned at detention centres or turned into a labour force without any rights.
But most political parties in Assam appear to be oblivious to the looming crisis. The NRC is the nerve centre of a fraught politics in Assam, where the rights of those defined as indigenous to the region were pitted against the rights of those who fell outside these ethnicities. The NRC borrows its criteria for citizenship from the Assam Accord of 1985, which had provisions to detect “illegal migrants”, delete them from electoral rolls and deport them. With the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state, a communal politics that viewed Muslims as “infiltrators” and Hindus as natural residents of India gained prominence. Although the NRC itself does not distinguish between religions, the BJP seeks to accommodate non-Muslim undocumented migrants through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that it hopes to clear in Parliament soon.
So far, the statements that have emerged from various groups and parties have hewed to the old ethnic and communal faultlines. On August 29, the All Assam Students’ Union and 30 other groups warned against “conspiracies” to safeguard “illegal Hindu and Muslim Bangladeshis” on the “pretext” of protecting human rights when the real agenda was vote-bank politics. The Asom Gana Parishad, the Assamese nationalist party that grew out of the AASU in the 1980s, said the number of people excluded from the NRC was “ridiculously small”.
BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma appealed to the Supreme Court for another round of verifications. Earlier, he had objected to the fact that Muslim-majority districts bordering Bangladesh had a lower rate of exclusions than “bhumiputra”, or son of the soil, districts. Other BJP leaders in the state have agitated against the large number of Bengali Hindus left out of the NRC. Not to be outdone, the Congress’s Tarun Gogoi, who served three terms as chief minister of Assam, found fault with the list because it let in “foreigners” and left out “genuine Indians”, including Bengali Hindus.
As the major stakeholders remain frozen in old political positions, they ignore how the NRC could have serious repercussions on the social fabric of Assam. The state has a violent history of ethnic strife. Over the last three decades, it has seen periodic massacres, often targeted at religious or linguistic minorities. Assamese subnationalism also gave rise to a militancy that drew a brutal response from the state. The NRC has brought old resentments to the surface once more, threatening to upset the fragile peace in the state.
For too long, the fear of illegal migrants has been the mainstay of politics in Assam. Most parties fuelled the fear; others created vote bases by projecting themselves as protectors of communities held suspect as foreigners. This is the moment for everyone to counsel restraint, to evolve from a politics that saw the distribution of rights as a zero sum game between communities.
It should start with the Assam government, which has promised legal aid to those left out of the NRC. This aid should be dispensed evenly among communities, Assamese or Bengali, Hindu or Muslim. As the tribunals hear appeals in the months to come, it should also ease pressure on members to declare foreigners. The politics of exclusion has already resulted in too many tragedies.