Dubious Certainties: The NRC and Ethnic conflict in Assam

We take this opportunity to condemn Maulana Arshad Madani’s inflammatory statement made some days ago in Delhi in the context of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) updating process. The political objectives of making such a statement before the national and Assamese-language press are clear to all, and we strongly oppose his attempts to anchor the anxieties around this longstanding political issue in Assam to his communal agenda at the national level.

We find the ongoing attempt to cast a group of Assamese intellectuals present at the meeting as jatir xotru to be equally devious. We find it laughable that the BJP spokesperson should speak about ‘Sankar-Ajanor dex’, partly because their own legislator Shiladitya Deb would strongly disagree. Posturing for the media aside, it is the government who must answer why, despite the entire state apparatus at its disposal and its avowed “urgency” in completing the NRC process, it has once again asked the Supreme Court for an extension on the draft deadline? Moreover, how and why have the criteria for valid documents been changed as the process is nearing completion? It is indeed a sign of the upside down times we live in, when a small group of intellectuals is deigned to be more dangerous than the government of the day.

It is perhaps more than mere coincidence that despite their differences, both the government as well as Madani ultimately resorted to the “law and order” argument. And those who remember the Goalpara police firing in July this year are well aware of how the government’s idea of “law and order” actually works. In this back and forth between those who decide on “law and order”, it is the wide spectrum of critical political voices that are silenced.

Finally, it must be noted that in its haste to communalise the issue and target the event organizers most of the coverage on Madani’s statement seemed to momentarily forget that the meeting was held in support of a speedy release of an error-free NRC. It is quite clear that Madani’s statement has become a reason to discredit through implicit association genuine democratic demands being made by many political voices within the state as well.

What eventually happened at the meeting itself, to us seems somewhat unsurprising—it is but one more instance of Assam’s issues being hijacked by the national political agenda. Madani’s statement, after all, was intended not just for the Assamese-language electronic media, but the national press as well. In all of this, the organizers may be criticized for their political short-sightedness, but not for some purported “betrayal” or “compromise”. However, amid the noise over the legalities of the NRC and its implementation, we are concerned that a number of critical political questions about the ethnic conflict in Assam are being sidelined. We have also raised these concerns through discussions and private correspondences with the most publicly active intellectuals in Assam. It seems to us that amid the urgency of having to take sides on such questions as the number of illegal residents or the transparency of the Register, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a realistic perspective on what we can really expect from the entire process.

While many in Assam are hopeful that the NRC process will resolve the “illegal foreigner” problem once and for all, they are also realistic about how secure such a process will be. Like any other enumeration initiative being undertaken on such a large scale, it is not unreasonable to expect some degree of unevenness in the implementation of process itself. In such a situation, for those without legacy data, affairs can be, so to speak, arranged for a price. Now, the question that is no doubt playing on the minds of even the most ardent NRC supporters—what will the khilonjia do in the face of such subversions of the law? Similarly, in a context where non-possession of documents is being implicitly equated with being an illegal foreigner, all those without the requisite documents—due to whatever reason, be it erosion- or conflict-induced displacement or illegal immigration—are forced to make use of the very unevenness of the process itself. And this is possible at the cost of becoming subject to new forms of political and economic exploitation. “Kill or be killed,” say the ones who are guaranteed to survive.

All else aside, will the NRC solve the questions of land loss, migration and encroachment that affect all communities in the state? Are not “indigenous” communities also locked in ethnic conflict over questions of land, resources, political rights and markets?

The law might seem to be serving the khilonjia’s rights through the NRC. But it is again the law that could as easily jeopardize them, should the Citizenship Amendment Bill be passed. And this has been the case not just with the NRC process—as bitter historical experience has shown, citizenship as such in Assam is always “subject to conditions”. After so many betrayals, how much enthusiasm can we really muster for a purely legalistic process such as the NRC? And is another alternative possible? The answer to these questions is becoming clearer with every passing day.

Assam has had a long and bloody history of ethnic violence arising from extremely complex reasons. Ethnic violence in Assam implicates cultural, political and economic aspects of relations between communities in ways that cannot be captured in a simple majority-minority, or a khilonjia-foreigner dynamic. Here, virtually every community has at one time or another been the victim as well as perpetrator of ethnic violence. And in the shadow of a militarized state, political antagonisms among various communities have often been shaped by the force of arms.

“Bangladeshi” is but one of the names under which ethnic conflict over resources, market access and political power is playing out in the present. Neither is it the central aspect of the conflict as such, nor is it one that can be encapsulated within the neat boundaries of a legal solution. Rather, it is precisely the ambiguity of the term “foreigner”—and the slippage it creates between overlapping identities and legal definition—that makes it politically useful. At present, it serves as a convenient point of collaboration between Hindutva politics and the chauvinistic strains of Assamese nationalism. However, it is clear that at best, the NRC may help to change the terms of the conflict, but cannot approach the deeper antagonism that drives it—namely, Assam’s place in the cultural, political and economic logics of capitalist development.

The political present demands a bold new experiment rather than repeated attempts at cobbling together fragile and opportunistic political alliances that cannot bring us out of the cycle of ethnic conflict as such. Over the last three decades or so, we have also seen the assertion of new political voices. The hegemonic claims of Assamese nationalism have been challenged, and its most patriarchal and Brahminical articulations have been successfully resisted. The struggle, without doubt, is very much in progress and it is undeniable that today new intellectual trends and re-articulated political concerns are emerging among all communities in Assam. These are the historical result of transformative changes in the agrarian economy, ethnic-political relations, and cultural expressions of identity that have taken place in this duration. Some of these democratic assertions are important in that they demand a political future beyond the limits of liberal-secularism and ethnic identity politics alike. And it is in this context that we are somewhat optimistic that the NRC process will force an expanded definition of citizenship and a minimal space for such new democratic assertions.

Politics, as we know, always lies just beyond the law. The present context demands that we venture into this space uncertainty, but also possibility. To stop short of that is no longer tactical caution but admission of defeat. Gushing eulogies and desperate defences of the stalwarts aside, it is time to answer again for ourselves that critical question, “What is to be done?”

Gaurav Rajkhowa
Ankur Tamuli Phukan
Convenors, Uki Research Collective, Guwahati

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