Why has there been so little uproar in Assam about NRC?

This article was written before 30th July and published in Sanhati when the second NRC draft was released. 4 million people risk losing their citizenship as per the second draft. Silence from progressive quarters has only got louder.

The lack of outrage in progressive quarters over NRC updation or detention of suspected foreigners is worth mulling over. Do they not see that perfectly innocent people are being incarcerated on dubious grounds by the Foreigners’ Tribunals? Or, that people are going bonkers trying to procure the right NRC papers, and killing themselves when they are unable to? Most of the unfortunates are Muslims – 70% of those lodged in detention camps are Muslims. Some, though Hindu, speak Bengali. But the considerations of religion and language were important to the blood and soil politics-propagating rightists. Not to the left, who stand by the marginalised. Indeed, should they err, it better be on the side of the weak. Or, so one thought. Unfortunately, as a friend put it, it has become hard to distinguish the position of the left from that of the right. What explains the want of empathy?

There are probably four reasons behind this. One, the broad rightward shift in the political climate. Manifestations of this rightward shift are evident at the national and international level. From Trump to Brexit to our very own Modi Sarkar, son of the soil politics is the zeitgeist. So it has been in the state. During the Assam Movement the left parties had an independent mind to not give in to xenophobic sentiments. They paid a price with the lives of their comrades, but stuck to their stand. Forty years hence, the enfeebled left is incapable to articulate a position which foregrounds working peoples’ politics. Left liberal voices outside political parties have been bought over by a shrill nationalist narrative. This narrative absolves the State and its military highhandedness, as well as rapacity of capital. Instead, it puts the blame on migrant labour for loss of natural resources, culture, and the persistent backwardness of the region. A coalition of son of the soil political forces of different shades and ambit, led by the BJP, won the 2016 assembly elections handsomely. The call to protect the indigenous – defined in terms of Assameseness, or Hinduness, or different tribal ethnicities – against the encroachers (read migrant Muslims) provided the glue to the coalition. The ineptitude and corruption of the previous Congress governments made the victory easy.

Second, fear of extreme nationalist forces. It is worth recalling that the NRC updation was not the brainchild of the Supreme Court. In 2005 the then Congress government under Tarun Gogoi started the process on a pilot basis. The implementation, unsurprisingly, created havoc at the grassroots, especially among the migrant settler communities. Protests by the AAMSU (All Assam Minority Students Union) led to police firing and killing of four youths. The government took a reasonable decision and shelved the project. However, after the fateful judgement by the Supreme Court to update the NRC, there has not been much murmur. Why? It is possible that a part of the silence is out of fear of the majority. To be sure, the political forces which led the Assam Movement are a spent force today. The AGP and AASU are either riding piggyback on the BJP to stay politically relevant, or are clutching at the straw supplied by the Supreme Court. They do not have the strength to create and lead a movement. What makes them potent however is that they are acting in collusion with the establishment. And the character of the establishment has been shifting to the right.

Third, the disconnect of organised politics from the reality at the base of the pyramid. Economic inequality has been rising all over the world, including India. The opinion makers’ lived experience is getting distant from those they think they empathise with. The inability to gauge the consequences which invasive policies wrought on the lives of the marginalised follows from this. Urban talking heads, living in the citizens’ world which is fortified with internet, Aadhaar, voter id, PAN card, bank account and other such passports to legitimacy, do not grasp the helpless anxiety of not finding one’s name in the list of legitimate citizens. Or, the agony that visits a daily wage earner migrant Muslim man when served a notice by the Foreigners’ Tribunal. In their world, if such an eventuality befalls, whose possibility is remote, it is taken care of swiftly. The opinion makers are legitimate by default. The innocent wonderment often heard from this quarter is, “If they are not Bangladeshi let them prove, no?” In the legitimate citizens’ world, everything can be proved. And everything ought to be proved, too.

Fourth, veneration of the judiciary. Veneration of powerful men, and powerful institutions, is part and parcel of the hierarchical society that is India. Limited spread of democratic values contributed to it. The veneration of the judiciary, and technocrats in general, has also to do with the debasement of organised politics. Organised politics has been losing the high ethical ground which it secured during the anti-colonial struggle. This loss of legitimacy is well deserved as well. What fills the vacuum is an interesting question. The strength of civil society has been weak. It does not have the wherewithal to reflect popular will and make it count. For those who pull the levers of the neoliberal economy, a vibrant democratic polity is a bother anyway. It slows things down in red tape, when not wasting resources in profligate populism. The debasement of politics is something that the captains of industry will not lament. Instead, neoliberalism promotes technocrats. Technocrats are endowed with special, and many a time, mysterious knowledge. They are not answerable to the pesky public. In our unquestioning obeisance to judiciary and other such technocrat-run institutions we resort to selective suspension of disbelief. The rubber stamping of Emergency by the Supreme Court is papered over. Putting the onus on the accused to prove that she is not a Bangladeshi, the updation of the NRC — both these decisions baffle common sense, if not do violence to the principle of natural justice. Both echo an ominous majoritarian impulse. Both are going unquestioned by a people tutored on the infallible benevolence of technocrats.

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Debarshi Das Written by:

Debarshi Das lives in Guwahati and writes on matters related to political economy.

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