In Assam, follow the rules

NRC and political provocateurs

In strictly legal terms, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) cannot deprive any Indian in Assam, whether he is an Asomiya or not, the right to citizenship and all that it implies. But political parties across the board choose to speak what they want to on the sensitive, and incendiary, issue of the ‘outsiders’ in Assam. The issue is not what the partisans want to make it out to be.

For the originators of the 1980s agitation in Assam, the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the NRC exercise meant excluding the dominant Bengali minority in the state, and it did not matter whether those Bengalis were Hindus or Muslims, whether they were from the neighbouring state of West Bengal (now Bangla) or from Bangladesh.

The BJP played with fire at the height of the agitation by pointing to the illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, a favourite divisive, but legitimate, issue for the Hindutva party. It is plain fact that Bangladeshis cannot be allowed free access into Assam because those are the compulsions of a nation-state with national boundaries.

The illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants may not pose a security threat of any kind, but neither India nor the state of Assam are obliged to absorb the ‘outsiders’.

But the incendiary speeches of the BJP leaders, including former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, were one of the reasons for the brutal massacre at Nellie in 1983, where children were hacked to death by the mobs in the riots that erupted.

But there is a history to the issue of the presence of Bengali Muslims and Hindus in Assam. The large Muslim population in pre-Partition Assam raised the question whether the state should remain with India or go to then East Pakistan, later Bangladesh. Assam remained in India, but the BJP and its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS), had a provocative issue on hand. So, the question is: which section of Bengalis is to stay in Assam?

For AASU, and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) later, all Bengalis are to be excluded, though they were ostensibly targeting the illegal Bangladeshi migrants, maintaining treacherous silence on whether Bangladeshi Hindus were acceptable and not Bangladeshi Muslims. The BJP, of course, tacitly wants Muslims out of the state, whether they are Bangladeshi or not. And, it dare not speak its secret desire in the open.

The Congress, under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, recognised the problem of illegal migrants, but they allowed the issue to fester. After the bloodbath of the agitation, Rajiv Gandhi chose to look the problem in the eye and promised to sort out the issue of ‘aliens’, without defining whether the term applied to Bengali Muslims alone or to Bengali Hindus as well.

The issue lingered even when AGP came to power and there was the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Vajpayee. It was also the case that post-Assam agitation, the Congress in the state was hunting with the hounds and running with the hares. Former chief minister Tarun Gogoi, during his extended tenure in office, played ducks and drakes on the issue.

It is also to be recognised that the All India Democratic United Front (AIDUF) of Badruddin Ajmal Khan is indeed a party of the Muslims in the state which emerged keeping in mind the political stakes of the community, like the All India Majlis Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMuM) in Hyderabad and the Indian Muslim League factions in Kerala in their respective regions. AIDUF would be standing up for Muslims in the state, though it would not do so for illegal Bangladeshi Muslim migrants.

The large chunk of Muslim population in the state, which forms the political base of AIDUF, is sure to include Bangladeshi migrants in it, and the BJP, AGP and even Congress may want to cut the AIDUF clout by weeding out the Bangladeshi Muslim migrants. Congress would want a smaller Muslim population in the state which would then depend on the party for its safety and survival. And the BJP wants the number of Muslims in the state to be reduced so that it can intimidate them more effectively. According to the 2011 census data, Hindus constitute 61.47% and Muslims 34.22% of the state’s population.

Facing the question

The key and unpalatable question is, how many Hindus and Muslims in Assam’s population are Bengalis, because the whole issue hinges on that of Assamese/non-Assamese rather than Hindu/Muslim, whatever may be the agenda of the political parties.

We have also the interesting and strange position of Bangladesh, which denies that there are any illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam at all. Bangladeshis argue that their poor ones migrate to richer countries in the Gulf Arab region, Europe and America rather than to poor and crowded India.

The stark fact is that there is a crossing over of people from Bangladesh into India, and it is also the case that there is movement of people from the Indian to the Bangladesh side, though the numbers are sure to differ.

The fenced border between the two countries may not be an effective one given the porous terrain, and blinkered legal provisions do not reckon with this movement of people, and consequently there will be the inevitable category of ‘illegal immigrants’. The governments of the two countries will need to face up to the question candidly and honestly and think of ways of dealing with it. The two sides need to concede that there will always be movement of people and it needs to be regulated in a sensible manner.

The only man who struck a sane note in the volatile atmosphere is Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. He spoke of processes. He should see to it that the processes are followed, which is also what the Supreme Court has insisted on. In the meanwhile, all political parties will voice blinkered views and contribute to the cacophony. The immense harm of political provocateurs can be contained if the government adheres to rules.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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