Hindu vs Muslim, tribal vs others, Bengali vs Assamese?

Hindu vs Muslim, tribal vs others, Bengali vs Assamese?

My 80-year-old mother has been worried sick that I may get arrested by the Government of Assam for failing to qualify as an Indian citizen. I have been reassuring her that I live in the National Capital Region (NCR) and my inclusion or omission in the National Register of Citizens (NRC), being updated in Assam, will not affect my fundamental rights. Besides, I have sufficient documents to prove my citizenship (even though my ‘nationalism’ may not be on my sleeves). Curiously, the same ‘legacy’ document, a certificate from 1955, ensured the enlisting of names for the rest of the family but failed to prove my credentials. My mother’s fears, however, are not unfounded; since the exercise began, there have been numerous cases of people who have been picked up and jailed or sent to detention camps. The NRC is a record of ‘legitimate’ Indian citizens living in Assam and is being updated for the first time since 1951, and only in that state. The objective is to detect ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’ so that they can be deported.

The context of this massive disenfranchisement (reportedly the largest in the world) exercise goes back to August 15, 1985, when the Assam Accord was signed following a six-year-long mass agitation against illegal Bangladeshis making Assam their home.  The new Assamese identity formation was quickly challenged, and the state and the region went into the throes of sub-national assertions, often very violent. What simmered beneath was the most potent political card: the effective targeting of the Hindu and Muslim Bengali disguised as ‘outsider’ or the ‘foreigner’. Other ‘mainstream’ ethnicities were conveniently added and dropped from the target.

Since the Assam Accord, governments of all hues have promised to ‘throw’ Bangladeshis out of the state but the realities of deportation are different from electoral promises. The BJP, now in power in Assam, too, found this a suitable rhetoric, fitting well into their anti-Muslim propaganda, threatening Bangladeshis to “be prepared with their bags packed”. By the time the BJP won the state elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had forgotten his threat.

In the midst of this deepening crisis, about to implode by the end of the month, the Centre wants to push through a fifth amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955, granting citizenship selectively to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. They would be legitimised if they entered the country before December 14, 2014. It also proposes to relax the 11-years-for-naturalisation requirement to six years. In doing this, the proposed amendment contradicts the clauses of the Assam Accord, in which the cut-off date for citizenship is the midnight of March 24, 1971. This has caused widespread anxiety amongst ‘indigenous’ groups and the BJP’s own rank and file, including their own Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal. Needless to say, the amendment clearly discriminates against Muslims.

The complicated clauses of citizenship laws and the almost arbitrary nature of detection (my own case being a point) of non-citizens have not made the situation any easier for updating the register. The NRC office has issued clarifications that the June 30 list will only be a draft, a prudent declaration given that a large section of the state’s population may not have made it to the list yet.

This a throwback to the 70s, and the NRC updating exercise running parallel to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, has already driven a wedge between communities. There is an ethnic divide and an even more pronounced religious divide. The animosity between the Bengali-inhabited Barak Valley and the Brahmaputra Valley seems to have come to a brink.

It is a tricky political line that the BJP has to walk; its Hindu Bengali vote bank may be dented because most of the missing names are from this community. On the other hand, if they push through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, that would mean losing the Assamese vote bank. They rode to power on both Bengali and Assamese votes. In neighbouring Meghalaya, the new government formed with the help of the BJP has already expressed opposition to the Amendment. The BJP will need every seat and every vote possible in the 2019 general elections and they wouldn’t want to lose that on the issue of citizenship. They have worked hard in the region and would like to hold on to as many seats as possible. The man in charge of BJP’s north-eastern unit, Himanta Biswa Sarma, has fallen silent on this. The party is caught between a Supreme Court deadline and its own promise to drive out ‘illegal migrants’.

The updating of the register is an absolute administrative necessity, but without a plan and policy, this will end up in harassment of millions and futile deportation bids. What it will achieve is the energising of chauvinistic elements and strengthening the politics of ‘othering’ that has claimed millions of lives through death and displacement over decades of unreported and under-reported genocides.

(The writer teaches journalism at OP Jindal Global University and is the author, most recently, of ‘An Unfinished Revolution: A Hostage Crisis, Adivasi Resistance and the Naxal Movement’.)