Let me draw your attention to a state flung far to the east of India. I wonder how many Indians would be able to point it out on a map? The beautiful state of Assam. Incredible things have been happening there for half-a-century, now presenting in climactic fashion. Assam had been home to indigenous tribes (notably Bodos) for many centuries. The land is at the border of a multitude of ethnographies and has hosted diverse migrants from antiquity. It was in the 1920s that Assam’s citizen first declared their anti-outsider sentiments. Over the years, this issue has become a sitting time-bomb in Assam and neighboring states. There is an Immigration Game being played by politicians across the Assam border today, that deserves our attention. Here is all you need to know about the trials and tribulations surrounding Assam’s immigration issue.
The Early Birds – Bengali Hindus
When you dissect the immigration situation in Assam, one thing becomes quite apparent. Assam is not averse to a migrant population. The State has hosted immigrants from Bangladesh and Nepal regularly, making the population fairly fluid, demographically speaking. The earliest migrants to the area were largely high caste Hindus with knowledge of agriculture and administration. This elite group married into the local tribal families, leading to detribalization (or hinduization) of the populace.
Also read: The Opium Threat of Arunachal Pradesh.
In the colonial era came the Hindu Babus from erstwhile Bengal, encouraged by the British to settle in the region for administrative purposes. The first seeds of dissension were sown when the Assamese language was displaced in favor of Bengali in 1836, a misstep that was corrected after protests, in 1873. But, the inter-mingling became deep leading to a growth of advocates for Assam-Bengal ties. It must be noted that the lack of proclivity from the Bengali Hindus to adopt Assamese culture and language has been the least among all immigrants. The ‘Bengali conspiracy’, seeing the Bengali elites as a threat to the Assamese language and culture as well as competitors in the job market, is a popular sentiment in Assam even today.
Sponsored Illegal Immigration
It was the partition in 1947 that first led the Bengali Muslim peasants to start seeking asylum and occupation in Assam. This presented itself as an opportunity for the corrupt politicians of the area, who encouraged the illegal immigration in exchange for a new, loyal vote bank. There has been an attempt to contain this since 1951 when the first National Register of Citizens (NRC) was created in the state. In the ’70s, the issue came to a head when Prafulla Mahanta of All Assam Students Union (AASU) stormed to power highlighting the issue. Rajiv Gandhi hastily signed the Assam Accord in 1985 to assuage the angry youth, promising identification, and deportation of illegal immigrants. Then everyone in power promptly forgot about the issue and let the wounds fester. There was no political will to improve the situation even when more than 70 people died in the clashes between Bodos and Bengali Muslims in 2012. It needs to be noted that political forces have given these immigrants legitimacy and allowed them to set roots in the area for more than 40 years now. It is believed that the TMC government is funding a similar influx of illegal voters into Bengal today. Hence, Mamata Banerjee’s vocal discord of the NRC situation is seen with some cynicism.
A State of Confusion
The tides have turned since the BJP came to power in 2016. Riding on their larger agenda of Hindu supremacy, the current ruling party grabbed the opportunity to act on the long-pending NRC issue. A list has been prepared and published that over the last few days has thrown 40 lakh excluded residents into a state of pandemonium. The list is crazy in many ways. Name of the father is included somewhere but not his children. Somewhere the wife has legitimacy but not the husband. In the most extreme case, the children of India’s 5th President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed’s kin have been left out of the list. They couldn’t apply within time since their data was not part of the legacy list of 1951. Thankfully, the SC has given the verdict that no coercive action would be taken basis this list until clarifications and claims can be processed in the coming months.
For a moment, understand the challenge that faces these 40 lakh people. They are at risk of losing their citizenship. Some of them were born in the country. But that’s not enough. They have to prove one or more of the following:
- They are related to someone who is part of the legacy list of 1951
- They owned land in India before 1971
- They rented land/housing in India before 1971
- They were enlisted in a different voter’s list of another Indian state
How often do we keep documentary evidence of rental agreements from 40 years back? How many people had rental agreements at the time, other than a verbal token? How many could afford land after fleeing the ethnic cleansing of their native land? We are telling people who had lost everything to build a new life in a new nation to prove legitimacy through property or lineage! Take a moment to think how laughable it would be for the underprivileged. Of course, Bangladesh has already declared they have nothing to do with the turn of events.
In some ways, I understand the need for a tighter process for immigration control through these porous borders. I empathize with the plights of these over-burdened states, ignored and written off by their prosperous counterparts. But, I can’t get over the dehumanization of the people kept off that list. In one bureaucratic sweep, by forces that have created the problem, to begin with, they are now without identity. They are a people without a nation. Reminds me of the beautiful movie, The Terminal. To the politicians and followers who are incentivizing the problem today, in some other part, only to let it blow up in the face of posterity, can you please stop? In the name of humanity and empathy, stop this game of power with real human lives as pawns.