Changing religious equation in Assam

Imran Khalid

It is extremely painful and agonising for anyone to imagine that one day you are suddenly stripped of citizenship of country where you were born. This is exactly what is happening in Assam, where over 4 million people, mostly Muslims, who were unable to register in what they call the draft list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). In the 1980s era, the former saffron stalwart, Arun Shourie, reawakened the anti-Muslim sentiments with his articles on illegal immigrants in Assam comprising Bangladeshi Muslims. Since then, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been trying to use the issue as an effective tool to bolster its nationalist credentials by portraying the “aliens” as a security risk. The rhetoric also corresponds well with the party’s anti-Muslim worldview. The latest row over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state of Assam is actually the continuation of the anti-foreigner agitation launched by the All Assam Student Union (AASU) in the 80s, although its successor the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the BJP’s ally in the state government, is keeping a low profile in this matter.
Assam has long been a favourite province for immigrants, with the tea plantation labourers having been attracted from the tribal areas in Bihar by the colonial rulers and the “hardy” peasants of East Bengal being cajoled to settle down in the state in the pre-partition period to cultivate land. Assam has literally become a montage of various communities with diverse racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds. The riots and unrest during the creation of Bangladesh movement followed tens of thousands of refugees, mostly Muslims but also Hindus, fleeing to Assam through a porous 165-mile long border. At the same time, the acrimony and resentment between Muslims and Hindus kept on growing. Antipathies eventually led to an anti-Muslim premise in 1983 in which over 2,100 people were chased and killed by machete-wielding Hindu mobs in dozens of villages in Assam. This bloodshed was horrendous and culminated in the Assam Accord two years later, which decreed that anyone who would fail to prove that they had come to the state before March 1971 would be expelled and their names deleted from the electoral rolls.
The Assam Accord was never executed and it was practically forgotten until Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed power In New Delhi in 2014 and two years later captured the Assam state government and re-ignited the citizenship issue with full force in the form of NRC. The government released its final draft of Assam’s National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) this month in what many claim is as an effort by Narendra Modi to target Muslims hostile to his BJP nationalist party ahead of elections next year. Interestingly, in a bid to muffle the growing unrest, the Modi government is trying to “assure” through verbal statements of officials that no one will face immediate deportation to Bangladesh and that all those deemed foreigners has the right to appeal.
But the subsequent verification process to determine citizenship that has begun recently, however, is ambiguous, as a large number of Assamese, like in other parts of India, are illiterate and posses few if any documents proving their identity or resident status. To be eligible for Indian citizenship, it was mandatory for all Assam residents to produce documents proving that they or their families had lived in the Assam before March 24, 1971, the day before the war for Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan began. Many of those declared stateless were women who were born in Assam, got married there and raised families, but still had no documentation to support their claims as they believed they did not require them. At the same time, there is no sign that the BJP is willing to recognise the practical and logistical difficulty of weeding out the illegals from the other citizens without creating a social upheaval. The task is made all the more complicated by the problem of differentiating the Muslims of Bangladesh from the Muslims of Assam since there is little difference between them about their dialect and lifestyle, especially when the available documentary proofs are also not reliable and acceptable for India.
Unravelling the tangle of the diverse ethnic groups is obviously fraught with the spectre of extreme tension leading to violence. But the BJP, intoxicated with the success of anti-Muslim rhetoric, is fully bent upon pushing for the execution of the NRC and the related formalities as per the timelines. There is no denying that whole exercise has only one objective: to get rid of the Muslims from the state so as to realign the “disturbed” demographic equation in Assam. to a favourable “Hindu-dominant entity”. The BJP has also clearly stated its plan that “illegal Muslim migrants” would be deported to Bangladesh. But Bangladesh, already over-burdened by the Rohingya refugee crisis, has also categorically refused to accept a new wave of refugees from Assam, increasing the possibility of India deliberately creating a human crisis in the form of a batch of stateless people with nowhere to go.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Karachi.

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