It’s time we listened to the plight of Assam’s ‘foreigners’

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Harsh Mander

India’s north-eastern Assam state was thrown into turmoil on July 30, after approximately four million people living there were not included in a draft list of citizens published by authorities.
The Registrar General of India (RGI), which published the draft list called the National Register of Citizens (NRC), said out of the 32.9 million people living in the border state, only 28.9 million managed to submit the necessary documents proving their citizenship.
Some human rights activists deemed the list the “biggest exercise for disenfranchisement in human history” while others said those not included into the list are in legal limbo and may eventually be left stateless.
Now the fate of millions – most of them among the most vulnerable in India – is uncertain.
But why did Indian authorities feel the need to compose such a list? Who is being targeted? And most importantly, what’s next?
A colonial legacy
The NRC is being composed as part of a decades old campaign to identify undocumented immigrants in the state. The roots of this issue, however, goes even further back to colonial times, when tracts of forest land in Assam were designated to be cleared in an attempt to expand food production and establish tea plantations.
These projects attracted a steady flow of land-hungry and industrious migrants from neighbouring East Bengal, which at that time was part of the same vast country. These migrants helped convert forest land into paddy fields and eventually settled in the state.
But the influx of Bengali migrants into Assam did not stop with the completion of these projects. In 1947, when British India was partitioned into two independent dominions amid a cataclysm of religious violence, Assam remained a part of India while large tracts of Bengal, that have a majority Muslim population, became East Pakistan. In 1971, the people of Bengal found themselves in an even more brutal liberation struggle, this time against Pakistan. At the end of this bloody liberation war, which claimed millions of lives, Bangladesh was born. Throughout these struggles immigration from East Bengal into Assam continued steadily.
Calls for ‘detention, disenfranchisement and deportation’ of all foreigners
Over the years, Bengali migrants made significant contributions to the economy and culture of Assam, with their toil and sweat as well as their lyrical music and poetry. However, their mounting numbers stirred anxieties among the indigenous Assamese people about the preservation of their distinct culture and ownership of land. As a result, between 1979 to 1985, an “anti-foreigner” agitation targeting the Bengali immigrants erupted in the state.
The agitation – known as the Assam Movement – was mostly led by student groups, who were demanding immediate “detention, disenfranchisement and deportation” of all foreigners. The agitation reached its bloody climax on February 18, 1983, when more than 2000 Bengali Muslim men, women and children were massacred in villages across Assam’s central Nellie district. This was one of the most gruesome atrocities committed in the history of modern India, known widely as the Nellie Massacre. To this day, not a single person has been tried, let alone punished, for these killings.
Two years later, in August 1985, representatives of the government of India and the Assam Movement signed the Assam Accord in New Delhi, bringing an end to this most violent chapter in the state’s history. The accord also paved the way for the leaders of the agitation to form a political party and form a government in the state of Assam soon after.
The Assam accord contained a commitment by the government to systematically identify, disfranchise and deport those persons who entered Assam from Bangladesh after 1971, the year of its tempestuous liberation. After the signing of the accord, successive governments continued the process of identifying “foreigners” but the numbers were always limited to thousands.
In 2005, the Supreme Court of India hastened the controversial process of identification of foreigners in the state by officially shifting the burden to prove the legality of a citizenship claim from the state to the individual. It also set strict timelines for the completion of the NRC.
This was the start of a problematic and painful era for the Bengali community in Assam.
The rise of majoritarian discourse and anti-Muslim sentiments
Last week’s NRC draft that excluded nearly four million Assam residents did not come as a shock to people who have been observing the political climate in India, and in Assam, closely for the last four years.
Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took control of the central government and the government of Assam, the anti-foreigner discourse in the state became more prominent and eventually evolved into an anti-Muslim one.
Even at the height of the agitation, the leaders of the Assam Movement had refrained from making a clear distinction between Hindu and Muslim Bengali immigrants. The BJP, however, has made it amply clear that it is opposed to only Muslim Bengali immigrants, and would welcome Hindu Bengalis into Assam. It even proposed a law that would fundamentally alter India’s citizenship laws and allow Hindus from any neighbouring country – including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – to acquire Indian citizenship. The draft law also proposed to extend this privilege to persons of other religions that were founded in India – Buddhist, Jain, Sikh – and even Christianity. It is unambiguous that the only unwelcome religious identity in BJP controlled India, and Assam, is of the Muslims.
Prior to becoming India’s prime minister in 2014, Narendra Modi used his campaign speeches to demonstrate his commitment to kicking Muslim Bengalis out of Assam. He even alleged that the threatened Assamese rhinoceros were being killed to make way for the Bangladeshis. Other BJP leaders, including party President Amit Shah, have long been using the emotive and pejorative term “infiltrator” to describe undocumented Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, dubbing them a threat to India’s security. In contrast, the very same leaders describe Hindu immigrants as legitimate refugees escaping persecution in countries where they are minorities.
In other words, the majoritarian and anti-Muslim discourse the BJP used to get elected and consolidate its power contributed to the decades-old “anti-foreigner” sentiments in Assam and paved the way for the creation of the NRC draft that devastated millions.