The Spectre of Citizenship : History & Politics of NRC in Assam

On the night of 31st December, 2017 the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was released in Assam. This has set off a mini-storm in the political scene of Assam, Bangladesh and West Bengal. What is the NRC, why is it being updated and what politics is being played behind the curtain? These are some of the questions this article will address.

Why update the NRC?

The process of detection of foreigners has been going on for quite some time in Assam. The Illegal Migrants (Detection by Tribunal) Act and Foreigners Tribunals have been the instruments to identify and deport foreigners. The NRC updating is a more ambitious plan in this regard. The NRC stands for the National Register of Citizens of India. In 1951 the newly-independent India had its first population census. The data collected in the census were kept with the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC has not been updated since then.

On the other hand, Assam has been recurrently rocked by agitations against infiltrators. The Assam Movement of the 1980s was the strongest expression of these sentiments. It demanded detection and deportation of foreigners. The Movement wound up with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. The Accord mandated that foreigners who entered the state after 24th March 1971 would be identified and deported. In reality, few people got deported. It’s estimated that 2442 people were deported till 2012. The number of people declared as foreigners was about 54,000. Contrast this with the Minister of State, Home Affairs declaration that 5 million illegal Bangladeshis were staying in Assam in 2001 (1.2 crore in India). It is unclear how the figure was arrived at.

The Spectre of the Illegal Bangladeshi

Could it be that not many were declared foreigners because the foreigners, as defined in the Assam Accord, were not present in large number? Definitive conclusions are difficult. That would require extensive ground level data on a very sensitive subject. One can make rough guesses by comparing the growth rate of population of Assam and India. The assumption is, without mass infiltration population of Assam and India would grow at similar rates, if not the same rate.

Figure 1: Decadal population growth of India and Assam (in %) [Data Source: Census of India]
If we rely on such a method, it’s doubtful if substantial infiltration took place since 1970s (see figure 1). In the decades preceding 1971 population growth in Assam exceeded the national average by a big margin. This is true for all censuses since 1901. The reason could be mass influx of population from East Bengal (later East Pakistan), and other parts of the mainland. The growth gap between Assam and India persisted after independence. But since 1971 population growth of Assam fell. From 1971 to 2011 Assam’s population growth rate was below the national average. Perhaps instilling of political stability after the birth of Bangladesh stemmed the flow. There can be quibbles that no census took place in Assam in 1981 due to agitation; the 1981 population figure is only a projection. If we compare 1991 to 1971, ignoring 1981, population growth of Assam is still less than the national average. There is not a strong case for massive infiltration after 1971.

One can argue that Assam’s social and economic characteristics do not match with the all-India characteristics. Hence there is no reason to believe that without infiltration population of Assam and India will grow at similar rates. It is possible that given its special characteristics Assam population grows at a slower rate than Indian population. The fact that the growths are converging indicates presence of infiltration in Assam.

It is impossible of rule out low intensity infiltration. We are not arguing that there is no infiltration at all. But the objection above can be addressed by comparing Assam’s population with a state of similar nature. This will ensure that apples are compared with apples, and not oranges. We take Jharkhand. Jharkhand and Assam had about the same per capita income in 2010. Their population size is similar. Both are East Indian states. There is no indication that infiltration is taking place in Jharkhand. If Assam is experiencing mass infiltration then Assam’s population would grow at a faster rate than Jharkhand.

In figure 2 the decadal population growth data of India, Assam and Jharkhand are provided. We find that the population of Assam and Jharkhand has been growing at similar rates since 1971. In fact Jharkhand’s growth is a bit higher. Growth rate of India, Assam and Jharkhand have been close to each other since 1971. This indicates a kind of normalization of Assam’s demography with the all-India pattern. A comparison with Odisha will yield a similar picture.

Figure 2: Decadal population growth of India, Assam, Jharkhand (in %) [Data Source: Census of India]
We can also compare Assam with West Bengal. West Bengal is a bigger state, and has a higher per capital income. On these parameters the two states are different. But these are neighbouring states hence their social mores are similar, and both were subjected to the influx of refugees after partition. The comparison can provide interesting clues concerning infiltration. The comparison is provided in table 3.

Figure 3: Decadal population growth of India, Assam, West Bengal (in %) [Data Source: Census of India]
From figure 3 it’s clear that population growth of West Bengal has been lower than Assam in most decades. This trend is present since 1901. This perhaps indicates that in a relative sense Assam has been the recipient of more migrants than West Bengal. It’s possible that West Bengal received more number of migrants than Assam. But since West Bengal’s population is about three times bigger than Assam, the absolute increase of population did not register in terms of high percentage growth of population in Bengal.

Both Assam and Bengal had population growth higher than the national average from 1951 to 1971, indicating possible infiltration in these two states. After 1971 the population growth of Assam, Bengal and India have become similar (like figure 2). Assam and Bengal’s population grew at a slower rate than India’s population in the 40 years since 1971 (113%, 106% and 121% respectively).

In short, there is reason to believe that since 1971 the abnormal growth of population in Assam has subsided. Since 1971 Assam’s population growth has been consistent with India, if not a bit lower. Assam’s population growth has also been similar to its East Indian neighbours. All this indicates that migration from East Pakistan/Bangladesh has been checked. But, political rhetoric deployed to whip up nationalistic sentiments is often blind to cold facts. The issue lived on.

The NRC updation

After prolonged litigations, in 2014 the Supreme Court came out with the judgment that the NRC should be updated. Foreigners who came to the state before 25th March 1971 and their progeny can register with the NRC. Those who came after are termed D-Voters, D for Doubtful.

Of all those who applied about 58% found their name in the first draft list. The final list is not out yet. The release of the first list has already jolted the political scene of Assam. The chief minister had to come out with the assurance that genuine Indian citizens need not worry.

Is there is any reason to worry? Take the indigenous people first. It is doubtful if all indigenous people have their paper in order. For instance, how many poor people belonging to nomadic tribal communities would be able to produce documentary evidence that they lived in the state forty seven years ago? To calm nerves, the state coordinator of the NRC Mr. Prateek Hajela has assured, “It is my duty to note that no genuine citizen, that is, someone from an indigenous community is labeled as a D-Voter or a Doubtful Voter. I have personally tried to ensure that no such errors creep up in our listing process”.

The comment is notable. It implicitly proposes that “genuine citizen” implies “someone from an indigenous community”. The former does not imply a migrant, irrespective of when she entered the state. Understandably, the anxiety is palpable among migrant settlers. Incidents of harassment on the charge of being illegal Bangladeshi on flimsy ground, or no ground at all, are making the migrants nervous. To complicate matters, many indigenous in the Barak valley are Bengali speakers. A part of the erstwhile Sylhet district was cut off and merged with Assam during partition. Is Mr. Hajela’s assurance meant for the Bengali indigenous as well, or is there an assumed equivalence between Bengalis and settlers?

Migration history and politics

The migrants’ anxiety has roots in the “son of the soil” politics. This politics has a long history in Assam. One may not endorse it but it’s not hard to see where it comes from. Many waves of migration reached these shores after the British annexed Assam in 1826. In the 1891 census it was estimated that nearly one-fourth of the population of the Brahmaputra valley was of migrant origin. Tea garden workers were brought in as indentured labourers from the Chhotanagpur plateau region. Bengali traders, clerks migrated from East Bengal – Sylhet was a part of Assam since 1874. Marwari traders were some of the earliest migrants. Nepali grazers were attracted by the lush grasslands of the Brahmaputra. Most importantly, from the last decades of 19th century and early 20th century the colonial government embarked on a policy of encouraging migration of peasants from East Bengal. The aim was to settle the peasants on the so called “wastelands” by the river to grow jute. Jute area was saturating in East Bengal by that time, whereas demand for raw jute was rocketing courtesy the growth of the jute mills around Kolkata. These peasants were mostly Muslims from Mymensingh district. Notice the large gap between India and Assam’s population growth in the first decades of 20th century in table 1.

Trade and commerce grew in the colonial economy, but the commercial capital that grew in tandem was mainly in the hands of the outsiders. European tea planters were the biggest players of course. But merchants from the mainland were also numerous. Exploitation which occured through the route of commerce was bitterly felt by the local population. The anger would be often directed against commercial establishments owned by the outsiders. The partition of the country and the Bangladesh war of independence brought influx of refugees.

Meanwhile, the middle class among the local communities gained strength. Assamese nationalist sentiments, as well as nationalist sentiments of other indigenous groups, found articulation and grew. Competition with the settlers in land ownership, jobs, education and so on lent legitimacy to demands to protect the son of the soil. Government administrative jobs was a preserve of educated Hindu Bengalis during colonial times, it became a bone of contention. The indifferent health of the economy, evidenced in large scale labour migration to other states, bolstered these demands. Aside from economic conflicts, cultural anxieties heightened as well. Recalling this history would help us understand why there exists support for the NRC updating in some quarters. A hope against hope that the foreigners’ issue would be settled.

Changing electoral politics of the state also needs to be put in the context. The party of Assamese nationalism, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), was born out of Assam Movement. Today it is a feeble shadow of its 1980s avatar. It is surmised that the militant form of Assamese nationalism has been on the wane. In the meantime there has been a remarkable ascent of Hindutvavadi nationalism. This change in political balance had the effect of subtly shifting the political discourse: from indigenous communities versus outsiders, to Indians versus illegal Bangladeshis, to Hindus versus Muslims. The coalition government in the state is led by the BJP. The AGP is only a minor ally in the coalition government. Difference between the two visions of nationalism often leads to frictions, like the one over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The bill grants citizenship eligibility to Hindu refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya has demanded that the AGP must support it. The AGP, on the contrary, is up in arms on the bill. But it is not walking out of the coalition.

What will the updation deliver?
Notwithstanding hopes in certain quarters, it is difficult to fathom what the mammoth and distressing exercise of updation of the NRC will deliver. One sees two possibilities, none of which is reassuring.

First possibility: few foreigners are detected at the end of the process, for, (a) the infiltrators got themselves enrolled in the NRC courtesy corruption and callousness, or (b) there were not many of them to begin with – we have seen that population growth of Assam has not been out of line with India after 1971. This is similar to demonetization when almost all denotified notes came back to the banks. In this eventuality one may ask, what was the point of it all?

One answer could be, “Now we know for sure that not many illegal Bangladeshis were present. So, no more bickering on this issue.” This invites two responses: (i) The population data indicated this anyway. Should not the political parties be studying facts to know the truth instead of egging on violent nativist tendencies? (ii) Will political grandstanding over illegal Bangladeshis really stop if very few of them are found?

Second possibility: it so happens that a large number of people are identified as foreigners. What will the government do with them? Bangladesh does not acknowledge that illegal migration exists. While campaigning during the 2014 elections Mr. Modi assured that illegal Bangladeshis would be sent home if he wins. But diplomatic talks have not progressed on this front, despite Supreme Court’s direction. If Bangladesh does not take them will the government forcefully push the detainees across the border? Or, will military tactics be deployed, like Myanmar does on the Rohingyas?

Amid all these unanswered questions there is a certainty: the BJP is solidly backing the NRC updating. BJP MP Mr. R. P. Sharma went to the extent to demanding NRC updating for the entire country so that the five crores illegal Bangladeshis can be sent home. Assam Governor, an RSS BJP old-timer, Mr. Jagdish Mukhi has declared NRC updation for other states. Why is the BJP so eager?

The two-stage game of the BJP

One reason is ideological. Citizenry purity drills and xenophobia are the fodder on which a right-wing nationalist party thrives. The humongous exercises we are trudging through in the last few years – Aadhaar, demonetization, NRC updating – have something in common. They give us a rude jolt and remind us our connection with the State. They invert the relation though: instead of people bestowing legitimacy on the State, people must prostrate before the state and plead for legitimacy. A muscular, meddling State is up the BJP’s alley.

But there are important matters of practical politics too. It has to be conceded that the Hindu Bengali constituency of the party is worried. Silchar town in Barak valley has seen press conferences, citizen meetings. Less than 40% of the valley has got a place in the first draft. This disaffection will register on the cost side of the book. On the benefit side is the assurance given to indigenous groups: we are doing something about the foreigners. After the demonetization pains, the benefit the common man received was questionable. Yet, the party could successfully convey that they are serious about tackling black money. Something similar can happen here.

But what will happen to the D-Voter Hindu Bengalis? Forsaking them goes against the core Hindutva belief that India is the punyabhu of Hindus. Perhaps the answer lies in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Mr. Vijayvargiya is confident that the bill will be passed before the 2019 general elections. If that comes to pass Hindu Bengalis would be inducted in the NRC, Muslims would be declared illegal. The march towards the Hindu Rashtra would advance a step.


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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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