10, Aug 2018 | Abheek Barman
On Tuesday, August 7, the entire BJP opposition in the Delhi assembly — all of three MLAs in a house of 70 — rose to a man and demanded that the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government implement a controversial measure — the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that the BJP-ruled government of Assam is implementing vigorously in that state.
The NRC wears many disguises. But it seems that in the mind and hand of BJP, it’s a blunt instrument to clobber India’s poorest, least-educated, landless, backward people — and Muslims. BJP president Amit Shah calls them ‘ghuspetiya’ (encroachers). His party reportedly wants NRC to be extended to all Indian states. Well, at least to West Bengal and Delhi, where BJP’s prospects are dim.
Superficially, the NRC is an administrative exercise mandated by the Supreme Court to update the list of those people who qualify as citizens and those who don’t. Well, under India’s citizenship law, 1955, this is clear. Only those who are in India without proper papers and travel documents, or those who have overstayed their permits, are illegals.
So, why do we need an NRC? And if under this headcount, you’re found to be illegal, what can the administration do about it? Imprison you? Deport you? Take away access to State-funded resources? Nothing is clear. But according to the final ‘draft’ headcount in Assam, four million people are reportedly assumed to be non-citizens.
The sword of being held in ‘detention camps’, in jails, or being kicked out altogether — or at the very least the terror of endless harassment and state persecution — hangs over these folks. The history of this pernicious weapon of the state begins — and should, hopefully, end — in Assam. There, apologists for NRC say it is necessary because: (a) ‘Bengalis’ — Hindu? What caste? Muslim? — have swamped Assam, its language, culture, jobs and whatnot since 1947; (b) Assam has been swamped with ‘illegal’ immigrants and refugees; (c) the Assamese language is in danger; (d) Islam will soon become the majority religion.
Most people date the beginning of ‘anti-Muslim’, or ‘anti-Bengali’, or ‘get packing, outsider’ violence to 1979. That year, xenophobia, fed by decades of propaganda led by the Assam Sahitya Sabha (ASS) and other units, culminated in a violent surge led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU)-Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) combine.
This is untrue. On May 23, 1930, a Times of India headline read, ‘Communal Riot in Assam: Traces of Tension Still Exist’. It narrated how the purchase of a cow before Id in India’s first oil town, Digboi, led to full-blown riots across several districts. Amalendu Guha, the foremost historian of the region, writes that riots targeting ‘non-Asamiyas’ took place in 1948, 1950, 1960, 1968 and 1972. In July 1960, ToI headlined, ‘800 People Flee Assam, Exodus to W Bengal’.
Communal infighting and xenophobia have deep roots here. The violence of 1979-85 is special only because it generously defined itself as anti-‘Ali, Coolie, Bongali/Nak sepeta [flat-nosed] Nepali’. Muslims, tea-garden workers (whose ancestors are from modern Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal’s Santhal Parganas), Bengalis, as well as Nepalis — everyone was fair game.
Is Assam under exceptional threat from refugees and immigrants? Data is scant, but here is a rare example of genuine numbers, cited by P N Luthra in the Economic and Political Weekly, December 1971. In the seven months from March to October 1971, a total of 9.5 million people flooded into India. Of these, 1.4 million (15%) went to Tripura and 0.7 million (6%) to Meghalaya. A staggering 7.1 million (76%) streamed into Bengal.
These months are crucial, because the cut-off date to be a legal resident of Assam is March 1971, when the Bangladesh Liberation War began. Luthra’s numbers show Assam hosted only 0.3 million (3%), the least among four affected states. Yet, it whines the loudest.
Is Assamese language and culture under threat from Bengal? Well, comparing Assamese vs Bengali speakers between 2001and 2011censuses, we see Assamese speakers decline marginally from 48.8% of the population to 48%. Bengali speakers have gone up marginally from 27.5% to 29%.
If that is an imminent threat, it is useful to remember that the colonial 1931census showed Assamese speakers as a meagre 23%, Bengali speakers outnumbering them at 30%. Today, it’s welcome that Assamese speakers are a majority in Assam. It’s also true that the language is under no threat from Bengali or Hindi, or anything else.
Finally, will Assam become a Muslim state? In 2011, 34% of its population was Muslim, up from 30% in 2001. From 20% in 1931 to today’s number seems a steady increase of Muslims. But even that assumption is false. Between 1951 and 1971(remember, the Bangladesh year), the proportion of Muslims actually fell marginally, from 25% to 24.6%.
The ‘Ali-Coolie-Bongali-Nepali’ combination is a bogeyman, fed and nurtured to be unleashed when xenophobia is the political flavour of the day. It was thus in 1979. It seems that the current BJP establishment hopes to resurrect it.
*Abheek Barman is Consulting Editor, ET Now. Views expressed above are the author’s own.
This blog first appeared on August 10 in Economic Times (ET) as a part of the Folk Theorem blog by the author.
Feature Image: People stand in line to check their names on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at Gumi village of Kamrup district in the Indian state of Assam on January 1, 2018. /VCG Photo