Proving one’s identity is a tricky business in India and a torturous one too, even for a simple matter of renewing a driving license or opening a bank account – thanks to the gargantuan level of corruption and ceaseless nitpicking by officials to harass people. Against this prevailing scenario one can imagine ordeal faced by as many as over 30 million people of the state of Assam from about 6.8 million families who have been asked to submit their documents with the government to prove their Indian citizenship. Not just that, they have been asked to prove their ancestors’ identity. Most of them are Muslims of course.
No wonder that a strange sort of fear has swept over the poor Muslim population of Assam (and some Hindus too who will bear the brunt of this Bangladeshi tag). Some experts rightly fear that this exercise will end up creating a much bigger Rohingya refugee kind of crisis. Certainly a large number of people who are not able to prove their ancestor’s identity and their genuine lineage will be uprooted from their homes and they will have nowhere to go.
This massive exercise is being ostensibly done with the aim to identify and segregate illegal Bangladeshi migrants in the Northeastern state of Assam. The ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata party (BJP) both at the state and the center knows very well that Muslims don’t vote for them and hence they are outside their preferred electoral constituencies. They found this monstrous exercise the best means to divide the voters on religious line and hence accruing two direct advantages. One main advantage is weakening the electoral rivals once and for ever who largely depended upon Muslim votes. And the second most significant advantage the BJP is getting is that they will be able to please and placate the xenophobic and racist groups who have sizeable followings.
An Unfair exercise – no justification
But no matter how ruling BJP tries to justify this unnecessary exercise that threatens to strip even genuine Indians of their citizenship, it is proving to be a veritable torture and bureaucratic nightmare for Muslim population of the province of Assam. It is a Herculean task for simple folks to prove that their ancestors resided in Assam before March 24, 1971. It is imperative to mention here that in India there was hardly any easy or accessible birth or death registry mechanism or certification till as late as 1990 or even now at some places.
One really wonders as to what really necessitated Assam’s new head-count? Surprisingly even those Indian citizens who own the most important of all identification card – the Aadhaar Card – are now feeling insecure and vulnerable. Even more importantly one wonders - How did the Supreme Court of India, the very custodian of justice and citizens’ rights - allow this? One can easily guess about the fate of those who are unable to prove their ancestry as officially required. Families will be torn apart and there will be large scale mass deportations. It is brutal and inhuman treatment to poor people who find it so difficult to eke out a living with two simple meals a day even in normal circumstances.
Supreme Court deadline
The Supreme Court of India extended by a month its earlier 30th June deadline for the publication of the final draft of Assam's National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC, first prepared after 1951 census contains names of Indian citizens from the state of Assam.
The SC bench recently gave the extension after the Centre and the state NRC coordinator requested for more time and agreed to publish it within the new 30the July deadline. Notably, the first part of the draft NRC, containing 19.1 million names, was published on December 31. That time 32.9 million Assam residents had applied for inclusion of their names in the registry, of which, surprisingly, about 13.8 million applicants are not yet on the first list. There are speculations that nearly half of these 13.8 million people will be included in the final list that means nearly 6-7 million residents will be declared stateless or maybe deported after losing their citizenship.
NRC genie pulled out of bag
It is worth mentioning here that although the Hindu ultra rightist and nationalist BJP of present Prime Minister Narendra Modi is responsible for carrying out this unjust exercise, the dreadful genie was pulled out of bag as usually by none other than so-called secular centrist Congress party. As it happened in the case of the infamous Babri Masjid imbroglio when the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of the Congress Party had ordered for the opening the door of the controversial structure. And then all hell broke loose and what happened next in years and decades is part of gory history of India. It also offered a readymade electoral plank to the BJP to rise from just 3 seats till 1989 to now sweeping majority of over 270 seats in the Parliament. The same way, this controversial National Register was started by the congress party when in 2005 the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of Congress party had agreed the agitating All-Assam Students' Union (AASU) demands for implementation of the accord within a timeframe; effective measures to seal the Indo-Bangladesh border in a year's time; updating the National Register of Citizens with March 2, 1971 as the cut-off date within two years time and issuance of photo identity cards after updating the NRC.
Once the genie was out of bag, there was no looking back to control it. The original Assam NRC, prepared in 1951, is now being updated under the supervision of the Supreme Court to detect “illegal immigrants”. This registry update process puts the burden of proving the identity on almost all Muslims and Hindus of Bengali origin, who make up nearly 45 per cent of Assam’s population, more than ethnic Assamese. It is worth noting that most tribal people in the province of Assam register themselves by tribal identity and not as Assamese speakers. Over the past several decades, the number of Bengali speakers, particularly Muslims, has climbed steadily, making nativism an explosive issue in Assam and has become an important electoral plank not only in the state politics but also countrywide to invoke rightist sentiments to strengthen Hindu vote bank.
Asaam in throes of violence and agitation
Earlier, for many years, the state of Assam has been in the throes of a violent political movement against “outsiders” domiciled in the state. Though initially it was targeted at all people of non-Assamese origin, but now the “outsiders” has come to mean mainly Bengali Muslim. The BJP took advantage of this widespread anger of ethnic Assamese population there and rode to power in Assam in 2016, by promising to “update the NRC and protect Assam’s identity from dilution through illegal immigration”. More than 2000 Muslims were massacred in Assam’s Nellie in 1983 by ethnic Assamese Hindus. In recent years, there have been mass murders of Muslims in 2012 and 2104 and destruction of mosques as well.
During the Congress regime only after Manmohan Singh’s agreement with AASU, an earlier law – the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal), or IMDT Act – enacted to protect illegal immigrants from expulsion unless proved illegal, was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2005, setting in motion the controversial registry update which is threatening to uproot millions of poor Muslims now. On the other hand, the BJP government in Delhi has been trying to pass the citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 in India Parliament, the bill is aimed at protecting Hindu migrants from the ambit of the NRC.
Undoubtedly, the IMDT Act was the protection against arbitrary denial of citizenship by Assamese politicians and a very biased bureaucracy. The unfortunate change in the law has put the Bengali population of Assam in a similar situation as the Rohingya in Myanmar.
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Rachael M. Rudolph joins Bryant Zhuhai as an Assistant Professor of Social Science in the fall term. Her research focuses on Sino-American relations, US-North Korean relations, strategic security in the Asia Pacific region, and transnational crime. She can be reached at: [email protected] M. Rudolph
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