The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a list of Indian citizens of Assam, the Complete Draft of which was published on 30th July, 2018. Broadly, as per the Assam Accord, any Non-Indian individual or his/her descendant who has entered Assam after midnight, 24th March, 1971 is not supposed to be in the list. Out of 3.3 crore applicants, 2.9 crore were found to be eligible for the list. With funding from the Government of India and implementation by Government of Assam, the modalities of the process have been designed jointly by both as per orders from the Supreme Court of India. The 40 lakh vulnerable people, whose name is not present in the list, stand the chance of being stateless, devoid of voting rights and uncovered under any social security. This would not only put these people under severe distress but also expose them to intense exploitation under the ruling classes.
In the mid 19th century, large scale demographic change was witnessed in Assam when the British started building tea gardens in Assam. Lakhs of workers from Jharkhand region was brought into this region to work for a pittance under horrendous living conditions. However, the British found it difficult to provide supply for food grains for this huge population as the Assamese peasantry were not aware of the methodology of rice cultivation in inundated areas (Large parts of Assam are flooded every year by the Brahmaputra; houses, agricultural field, etc. get washed away regularly). Peasants in adjoining districts of East Bengal knew this technology. To attract the peasants in Mymensingh and around, drum beating informers of the British campaigned in the villages, promising any peasant who would shift to Assan to be given land, bullocks and money. Encouraged by this large number of Bengali peasants form East Bengal, mostly Muslims, settled in Assam; subsequently, their knowledge and hard work turned those fallow lands into cultivable lands. The Muslim population percentage in the Brahmaputra Valley rose from 5.9% in 1874 to 23% in 1941 according to British records.
The conflict between indigenous Assamese population and the people who have migrated at different times in history is not new. Its essence can be captured very aptly in the famous slogans that used to ring the lanes during the Assam Agitation to drive out the ‘bohiragato’, (meaning outsiders) – Ali, coolie, Bongali/ Naak sepeta Nepali (Ali for Muslims, coolie for Bihari tea plantation laborers, Bongali for Bengalis, naak sepeta Nepalis for blunt nosed Nepali dairy farmers). However, with time, the main enemy was identified as the Bengali speaking Muslims, most of who had been brought to Assam to enhance the imperialist plunder as described previously. The classic example is of the Nellie massacre in Nagaon, Assam in 1983 when 2191 Bengali Muslims (unofficial estimates are above 10,000), most of who were descendants of settlers in British India, were massacred by a mob of indigenous Assamese people involved in the sub-national movement. This otherness of Bengali Muslims was an easy target for the ruling classes to be in power in Assam for all these years post 1947. Many of these people, who are descendants of the peasants who had migrated from one province to another in British India experience floods on a regular basis due to the geographic regions where they had settled for agriculture. How are they expected to maintain their documents in place after years of facing such conditions?
The eagerness of the BJP in preparing the NRC must be viewed in conjunction with their aggressiveness on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 and Centre’s sanction of Rs 46 crore for the dedicated detention centre for ‘foreigners’ in Goalpara, Assam. The mentioned bill snatches away the right of only Muslim immigrants to make India their home, while it welcomes immigrants from other prominent religions in India from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In effect this would enable the state to delegitimize only Muslims who fail to produce the necessary documents. On the other hand, the detention centre being built in Goalpara, in addition to the existing 6 detention centers in Assam for ‘foreigners’, forces one to make comparisons with detention centers that were constructed all over areas under Nazi control to segregate Jews and subject them under intense torture.
There have been public suggestions from elected representatives from BJP to shoot ‘illegal Bangladeshis’, indicating the public message it wants to send. The government has so far not announced publicly as to what it would do with the people whose name would not be found in the NRC. With Bangladesh refusing to allow any of the alleged Bangladeshis into their territory, the only purpose that this mass frenzy generated over the NRC issue is going to serve the BJP is polarization. If it can exploit the bogey of the ‘other’, its job for 2019 is done; the road to a Hindu Rashtra is smoother. When one combines to this the cheap labor that would be available to the ruling classes as a result of total withdrawal of any social and political rights, it would be a recipe that every exploiter would love.