A controversial citizens list in India could potentially be used as cover to force Muslims out of the northeastern state of Assam and "back" to Bangladesh.

As 2018 rolled in and the state of Assam in India’s northeast began to roll delicacies made of rice and jaggery for the harvest festival of Bihu, one question opened small talk everywhere: “Is your name on the NRC?” 

The NRC, or the National Register of Citizens, is being updated for the first time since 1951, and was the catalyst that brought the BJP into power in Assam in the 2016 elections. It thrived on anti-immigrant rhetoric, however, this rhetoric has largely taken on an anti-Muslim manifestation.

The NRC aims to separate “illegal” immigrants from “legitimate” residents of Assam. Those unable to prove they migrated before 1971 face the threat of deportation, languishing in detention camps, or losing voting rights.

The first draft of the NRC was released on 1st January. It bore the names of 19 million Indian citizens living in Assam, out of 32.9 millions who had submitted their documents. The remaining 13.9 million cases are under various stages of verification. 

Some 550,000 documents have been sent to other states for verification, but those states have returned only around 150,000 of the documents to date.

Through various government ads, those who didn’t find their names were assured that their names would appear in the second draft. But there is a conspicuous pattern to the names that have gone missing.

Many Muslim families, who furnished 1951 legacy papers or property papers dating back to 1937, didn’t find their names on the list, while some alleged that Hindu families furnishing far fewer documents made it to the list.

The opposition party in Assam, the Indian National Congress, allege that in 13 of the 33 districts in Assam where the majority is made up of “religious minorities” – a euphemism for Muslims – the names of 90 percent of these people have been left out.

In October 2017, Prateek Hajela, state coordinator for the NRC, told the Supreme Court that about 1.7 million women had been identified as “original inhabitants”, which sparked fears that only non-Muslim Assamese people were being marked as such.

But can the politics and economics of this land be determined definitively by identifying migrants alone? And even if this is successful, is a there a humane process in place for Bangladesh to take back the deported persons given that Bangladesh denies any illegal migration in the first place, and there is no extradition treaty between the two countries?

At a time when identity politics has largely defined the politics of Assam, and much of the nation at large, the question of a person’s roots has to be seen in the context of a historical process dating back to more than a century.

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Migration into Assam can be traced back to the late 19th century, when the East India Company brought in people from other parts of India to work on tea estates and paddy fields. This migration was also from the ­erstwhile East Bengal as the region was one monolith. 

However, after the 1931 Census, this migration was coloured as an “infestation” – a perception that refuses to recede.

The Assam Movement started in 1979, right after the Bangladesh war and the religious persecution which had driven thousands of Hindus and Muslims into Assam. This blurred the distinction between Muslim migrants and Hindu refugees. Led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the focus shifted from religion to indigeneity, language and culture, with an emphasis on Assam for the Assamese alone.

The Asom Gana Parishad, which evolved out of AASU, came to power in the 1985 election based on this rhetoric, which was followed by the signing of the ‘Assam Accord’. 

The accord stipulated that Assam would take in illegal migrants who entered the state, until 25 March, 1971. However, the issue of the cutoff date – whether it should be 19 July, 1948 or 25 March, 1971 – is pending before a constitution bench of India’s Supreme Court. 

Another contentious issue is that of citizenship for children born to migrants who entered Assam after March 1971.

The ambiguities of citizenship and voting rights were evident in the way the NRC accepted pre-1971 electoral rolls as documentary evidence, but the 2014 electoral rolls were not accepted to prove the same. Put simply: if someone was on the pre-1971 election rolls, then they are deemed a citizen, but just if a person could vote in 2014, that doesn’t automatically make them a citizen.

Security offered to the migrants by the then-ruling Congress party to swell vote banks is widely known to have fomented further discontent in Assam, and “weeding out outsiders” was one of the prominent campaign agendas by the BJP and Narendra Modi in the 2014 elections. 

That same election promise led the BJP into power in Assam in the 2016 elections. However, it is widely acknowledged in silenced corridors that the level of migration from the 1980s no longer takes place.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric has been widespread across India for a while now with the rise of Hindu nationalism, and this has been emboldened in the wake of BJP coming to power in most of the states in India.

The identity of being a Muslim in Assam comes with a double-edged sword on the basis of religion and place of origin, and thereby, ethnicity: in order to prove that, indeed, the roots can be traced to Assam and not the erstwhile East Bengal. 

The narrative after 1985 has ensured the absolute dismissal of the Nellie massacre of 1983, in which more than 2,000 Muslims were hacked to death in a single day. 

School textbooks have entirely eliminated any mention of the incident even as the Assam Movement of 1979 is detailed. Any mention of Nellie is met with prompt rebuke and justification that Muslims also had blood on their hands.

But what could be a long-term solution to this issue, at a time when the economics of labour demands Assam to depend on a large army of underpaid, unskilled workers in the informal sector, most of whom happen to be followers of Islam?

Former journalist Sanjoy Hazarika suggests granting work permits to those who are proved non-citizens, to ensure their access to labour and human rights. However, for many of those who haven’t found their names on the list, the bitter truth is that the process of NRC is impractical for the Hindu Assamese, when it is only the ethnicity and identity of the Muslims that is questioned.

This question, of whether a Muslim in India is truly “Indian enough” has been a bone of contention among Hindu nationalists. Misleading Census data about the numbers of the Muslim population are wielded to oxygenate the shrinking idea of a secular India. 

In the case of Assam, it is imperative that the history of erasure, pertaining to Nellie, is accounted for from a rights perspective. While a work permit might be a temporary way forward for those who may indeed be identified as migrants from Bangladesh, the larger question of a sense of alienation as experienced by the Muslim population within Assam will persist. Perhaps one step towards bridging this chasm could be atonement for the Nellie massacre, towards restoring the idea of secularism that India boasts of.

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