Assam on edge as final NRC draft set to be released tomorrow

Assam on edge as final NRC draft set to be released tomorrow

Courtesy : NJ WEB TEAM30/07/2018 09:07

Who is an Assamese? Nobody quite knows. A National Register of Citizens (NRC) was conceived soon after the country's Independence. But the answer has eluded the eastern border state — home to intertwining communities, sections of which have experienced deep-seated fears of losing out to 'outsiders', amid extremely divisive electoral politics.
The NRC is now being updated, the first such exercise in 67 years. Its second and final draft (the first part came about seven months ago) is set to be released on Monday. Assam and other northeastern border states are on the edge, as lakhs of people may eventually be declared foreigners.
But many in Assam are not quite sure if the highly-contentious document will be able to finally answer the all-important question. Mohammad Azmal Hoque, who was told in September to appear before a Foreigners' Tribunal and prove that he was an Indian, says finding the answer is impacting communities
 A national controversy erupted when Hoque got the notice, a year after his retirement from the Army, despite the fact that his parents' names were mentioned in all relevant documents.
But such notices have been frequent in Assam. Anyone suspected of being a 'foreign national' is issued a summon by one of the tribunals. Often, people from the Bengali Muslim community get the summons. Those told to prove nationality have included: a police officer, an MLA and the descendants of the Deputy Speaker in Assam's first Assembly. About 10 months after the controversial notice, Hoque says that Bengali-speaking Muslims of the state fear that they will be declared foreigners. "And there is no one to stand up for us. History won't forgive those who are silent now," he says.
Four special rapporteurs of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also wrote to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj last month, calling the NRC exercise a matter of great concern and asking whether those not making the cut will face detention and deportation.
They cited reports that members of tribunals were under pressure from state authorities to declare more and more people as foreigners. "On June 21, 2017, 19 members were dismissed for under-performance over the last two years. More than 15 additional members were warned to increase efficiency," the letter said.
The Cauldron
It is not just the Bengali Muslims. Bengali Hindus, too, are facing the brunt of the exercise. The influential All Assam Students' Union (AASU) has been driving anti-immigrant movements for years. For AASU, Bengalis, or people from any other community, who moved into Assam during Bangladesh's creation in 1971, are 'illegal Bangladeshis'. But some Bengali-speaking population also migrated to Assam from East Pakistan, during the Partition in 1947. This had followed divisions and redivisions of the geographically-complex region to carve out provinces, including Assam. Today, the state shares its boundaries with Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and Mizoram. A fluidity of language and cultures have always existed.
Samrat, a journalist who is working on a book on Assam's migration, says the sub-nationalism, of both Bengali and Assamese communities, and the process of identity formation, which now lies at the root of the complex situation, can be delineated from these historical evolutionary processes.
His grandfather migrated from Sylhet to Dibrugarh, following Partition. He faced anti-Bengali sentiments there, and moved to Shillong when it was still Assam's Capital. Samrat finds it shocking that the genocide and massive displacement during East Pakistan's creation do not find relevant mentions even today.
"When you move into a region, it is fair to expect that you adapt to the culture, which happens in a naturalised manner over the years. But to demand it of people is not fair, and to link it to the idea of purity of blood is fascist. I'm all for the politics of indigeneity, but not that of blood. If three generations of a family have been living in this country, how can we call them outsiders?" he says.
Massive Exercise
The idea behind publishing the NRC is to identify illegal immigrants. Assam is the only state to have an NRC, first prepared in 1951 based on the census of that year. Following the genocide in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), triggering a war between India and Pakistan, refugees fled to India. The influx of Bangladeshis led to a massive violent agitation in Assam between 1979 and 1985, demanding the ouster of illegal immigrants. It was driven by fears that the Assamese land was being given to 'illegal Bangladeshis'.
A peace accord was signed with the Central government on August 15, 1985, in the presence of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, to start the process of identification of illegal migrants in the state. The cut-off date for Indian citizenship to those living in the state is March 25, 1971. The date for the rest of India is November 26, 1949. It's July 19, 1948, for those who migrated from East Pakistan.
But the successive governments failed to determine the exact number of foreigners in the state. In 2004, the then Deputy Home Minister in the UPA government, Sri Prakash Jaiswal, said in Parliament that there were five million Bangladeshis in Assam. He later withdrew his statement because he could not back it up. 
A decision to update the NRC was taken in 2005 with the signing of a tripartite agreement between the Assam government, led by then Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, the Central government, led by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and AASU. The Supreme Court directed in 2014 that the NRC be updated. It is a court-monitored exercise.
Prateek Hajela, Assam's Principal Secretary (Home) and state NRC coordinator, says: "When the rules prescribed under the NRC were formed, the modalities were discussed by all stakeholders for two-three years before they were accepted by all." The application process began in May 2015, and a total of 65 million documents were received from 6.8 million families across Assam. In 2016, the NDA government informed Parliament that there were 20 million Bangladeshi immigrants staying illegally in India. It is estimated that there are more than two million Muslims in Assam who trace their roots to Bangladesh.
After several delays and extensions, the state government published the first part of the draft NRC during the intervening night of December 31 and January 1, 2018, amid tight security. It gave Indian citizenship to only 19 million people, out of a total 32.9 million applicants, leading to widespread apprehensions. The government assured that the draft list had names of only a section of the people.
On July 2, the Supreme Court extended its June 30 deadline for publication of the final draft of the NRC by a month because of floods in the state.
The Politics
The BJP came to power in Assam for the first time in 2016, vowing to act against 'outsiders'. Party leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had promised voters in the state that all 'illegal Bangladeshis' would be driven out.
But the party soon said Hindus would be allowed to stay on. "The core commitment of people during the Partition was that whoever has been left in Bangladesh, mainly the minorities of Bangladesh and Pakistan, can come back to India at any point," BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma had told this reporter during the campaign.
"India is their motherland and Partition was imposed on them. But, Bengali Muslims asked for Partition," Sarma, now No. 2 in the state government, had said. His party's pre-poll promise to "close borders with Bangladesh" is yet to be realised.
What has complicated the situation is the BJP's introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, which promises asylum in India to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Christian migrants from neighbouring countries. This led to differences within the state's coalition government. Ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta took out a rally against it in Guwahati in May.
AASU has also opposed the Bill, saying it "strikes at the preamble of the Constitution and violates the terms of the Assam Accord". The body has also said the NRC must not deviate an inch from the Accord. Mahanta, a student leader in the 1980s, rose to popularity and used anti-immigrant agitations, in which hundreds of people were killed, to become the state CM.
He says that both the BJP and the Congress are to blame for the situation. "While Congress leaders have spoken in Parliament as well, it must be remembered that it was during the tenure of Gogoi that the NRC was initiated. There is still no answer to what happens next," says Mahanta.
He is not alone. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal's political journey began with AASU. He was feted as 'jatiyo nayok' for single-handedly getting the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) or IMDT Act repealed in Supreme Court in 2005. The Act had been brought in 1983 to drive away outsiders, but was resented because it placed the burden of proof on complainants. Even Gogoi, who has questioned the NRC's process, ironically, lost power for sitting on the upgradation issue for too long.
Trouble Ahead
Leaders such as Assam Congress chief, Ripun Bora, have alleged that the NRC Authority is dropping the names of lakhs of Indian citizens, at the behest of the state government, which wants to gain politically by triggering religious polarisation. "There is panic everywhere," the Rajya Sabha MP has said. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has also alleged that the NRC is an attempt to drive out Bengalis from Assam. There have been demands to drive out Bangladeshis from West Bengal as well.
Several northeastern states that share borders with Assam have asked the police to thwart possible infiltration of illegal immigrants after the final draft is published. The Central government has sent 22,000 central paramilitary troops to Assam and adjoining states, amid concerns that even Assamese Muslims may be targeted under the guise of detecting illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Assam is home to more than 32 million people, about a third of them Muslims. The tea-growing and oil-rich state has the second-highest percentage of Muslims of any Indian state. When the NRC was first prepared, Assam's population was only eight million.
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has said there is no need to panic and all Indians will be given adequate opportunities to prove their citizenship. "People whose names are missing will not be automatically declared foreigners or detained. People will get justice and will be treated in a humane manner. They will have sufficient opportunity for all remedies available." Those not satisfied with claims and objections can appeal in foreigners' tribunals. The final NRC will be published after that.
The Home Ministry has asked Assam government not to take any action against those whose names do not figure on the list. Such people may be barred from all constitutional rights, including fundamental and electoral. They will have only human rights, till they are in India. Dhaka has, however, said it has no information about any deportation plan by India.
IDENTITY CRISIS
•    Some of the Bengali-speaking population in the state migrated to Assam during Partition, while some during the time of creation of Bangladesh. Several Bengalis from Sylhet, earlier part of pre-partition Assam, migrated during these periods.  
•    Another precursor to this was the redivision of Bengal by the British in 1874, who included Sylhet, the Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills (both in Meghalaya now), the Naga Hills, Cachar-Goalpara and the five districts of Assam — Kamrup, Nagaon, Darrang, Sibsagar and Lakhimpur — to form the East Bengal and Assam Province. The Lushai Hills (in Tripura and Mizoram now) were made part of the province in 1897. In 1911, the province was further divided to form the Assam Province.
WHAT IS NRC?
National Register of Citizens is to identify illegal immigrants, including Bangladeshi Muslims. Assam is the only state to have an NRC, first prepared in 1951. It’s being updated now. 
WHO IS A KHILONJIA?
In local parlance, a khilonjia is a son of the soil.
300 Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam
32 million Assam’s population, a third of it is Muslims. The state has the second-highest percentage of Muslims of any Indian state.
8 million Assam’s population when NRC was first prepared in 1951.
32.9 million Applicants. 19 million got Indian citizenship when the first part of the draft came out on the intervening night of December 31 and January 1.
5 million Bangladeshis in Assam, said Deputy Home Minister in the UPA government, Sri Prakash Jaiswal, in Parliament, in 2004. He later withdrew his statement.
20 million Bangladeshi immigrants staying illegally in India, said NDA government in Parliament in 2016.
2 million Muslims are estimated in Assam who trace their roots to Bangladesh.
22,000 central paramilitary troops rushed to Assam and adjoining states before the NRC release.
 WHAT NEXT?
People whose names are missing will not be automatically declared foreigners or detained. Those not satisfied with claims and objections can appeal in Foreigners’ Tribunals. The final NRC will be published only after that.

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