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What’s Next in Assam?

Raul Irani
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The overwhelming demand for updating the National Register of Citizens represents an almost Darwinian struggle of a people to preserve their identity. A journey through the fault lines of Assam

MAYONG IN ASSAM was once considered the capital of black magic in India. Located on the banks of the Brahmaputra, the area offers an unparalleled view of the mighty river in its middle course. These days, however, a very different kind of magic is afoot in the region. “Sometime in 2009, we woke up one morning to discover that some 300 homes had been constructed overnight on the banks of the river in our village,” says Jyoti Prasad Hazarika, a villager from Hatimuria in Mayong, a site of massive squatting on land. “We don’t know who these people were or where they came from. Later we found out they had come by boats from downriver with pre-fabricated materials like tin roofs and wood to build houses.” On paper, the land belongs to the Assam government, which began constructing a resort in Hatimuria after the squatters— by all accounts illegal migrants from Bangladesh—were evicted in 2016. That did not happen peacefully. Local accounts suggest that violence broke out and the women of the village took the lead in ‘evicting’ the squatters after the police refused to help. Scores were injured, but the story did not make news as it is routine stuff in most parts of India: a local dispute over local issues.

So where did the illegal occupiers of land—something no one, locals or the government, denies—disappear to? As one climbs a steep hill that locals describe as the Hill of Lord Shiva, one gets a magnificent view of the Brahmaputra. It marks the edge of Hatimuria, which is located at the base of three contiguous hills, each dedicated to a Hindu deity. In the bay below, where the river bends and curves around the land, one can see the endangered river dolphin jump around playfully. One can also see a large island, roughly one mile by half, just off the village coast. It is now fully occupied by the squatters who were pushed away.

“We don’t dare venture into their land and we won’t let them set foot here. When they were here, there was constant friction. It was not just a matter of the women of our village feeling unsafe, but of those people not belonging here,” says Bhaskar Bikoya, a local schoolteacher, with a tinge of anger.

Assam abounds with stories like this. From the southward bend where the Brahmaputra enters Bangladesh in Dhubri district all the way up to Sadiya in Tinsukia district, virtually all riverine islands like the one off Hatimuria are in some degree of adverse possession. The nationality of most residents of these ‘char chapori’ areas (the local expression for riverine islands) is doubtful. These islands constitute some 360,000 hectares of land in Assam. If you ask residents of these areas—or those on the banks of Brahmaputra in lower Assam—who they are, the answer is quick to the point of instantaneity: “We are Assamese.”

Somehow that answer does not cut ice with people in places like Hatimuria. On a clear-skied day, the Hill of Lord Shiva affords one a view of Hetochapori Island towards the northern bank of the Brahmaputra. “That is in Darrang district and not far from an area in Sipajhar that is now out of bounds for people like me,” says a local land activist. “The mere mention of the word ‘Bangladeshi’ arouses ire among people who have occupied these islands. If you ask them to give any proof of their being indigenous people of Assam, they have none.”

All this seems a far cry from the slugfest over updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC). In Delhi, the NRC is all about ‘secularism’, ‘communalism’ and the ‘othering’ of Muslims in Assam. But on the ground, the story is different. In this north- eastern state, the most precious asset that one can own today is a patch of land. Fed with abundant rain and natural irrigation, even a small yard is valuable. Unlike Punjab, Haryana or other parts of the country where land records are maintained to an acceptable degree, Assam is a laggard. The continuous influx of illegal migrants—that has never halted until now—muddles things greatly. That is one reason why citizenship defined by documentary evidence, such as inclusion in the NRC, makes a huge difference. If you are a citizen, you have the right to own property; if you’re not, you don’t belong here.

This is the reason why criticism of the NRC process along Hindu-versus-Muslim lines finds such few takers in Assam. In the days after the publication of the final draft of the NRC on July 30th, there was a raft of furious reporting and commentary about those who had been ‘excluded’ from the draft list of citizens. In mid-August, the Supreme Court heard the matter once more. It has issued notices to stakeholders in the process about designing a ‘standard operating procedure’ on how to carry forward the process of filing and disposing of claims and objections. More importantly, it has asked the NRC Coordinator in Guwahati why those filing claims should be allowed to re-submit documents, something that could change the family tree they had put forward earlier—an essential part of proving genealogy and in turn, citizenship. Just a week before that hearing, the court had rapped NRC authorities in Guwahati, clamming them up after a period of relative openness. Since the NRC draft list was issued on July 30th, no breakdown has been made available of those excluded from it in terms of geography, religion or ethnicity. It is unlikely that such sensitive data will be put out anytime soon. In its mid- August hearing, the apex court had asked for this data in a sealed cover. But that has not prevented groups and organisations from claiming that 2.7 million of the approximately 4 million who have been excluded are Muslims. Even if the claim is taken at face value, it raises a further question: what about the other 1.3 million people? Speaking to Open on condition of anonymity, an NRC official says it is wrong to picture this as a Hindu-Muslim issue. “There are many people in different parts of Assam, including tribal areas where people don’t have certificates. They, too, have had a difficult time collecting the necessary documents. They are not Muslims.”

If anything, Assam has multiple identity conflicts in various parts of the state. In Lower Assam, the fight is clearly between Assamese and illegal Bangladeshi migrants—largely Muslim— who are now in a majority in districts like Barpeta, Dhubri and the newly carved-out South Salmara-Mankachar. In contrast, at the other end of the state, in Barak Valley, it is Bengali Hindus who are pitted against Assamese. Then there are other, tribal-versus-the- rest conflicts in Bodo-dominated districts. But even this may be a simplification, as one learns far away from areas administered by locally empowered Bodo councils.

Support for the NRC process is broad and uniform across Assam. This is not surprising as the fight is over finite resources like land and identity conflicts kick in only to further claims over resources. Even political parties that oppose the idea—or have worked against it in one way or another—openly espouse it. But what is interesting to note is that this support is couched differently in different places. If the middle parts of the state—like Mayong—are vociferous in their demand for a complete exclusion of foreigners, in Lower Assam, the voice of those seeking a robust NRC is firm even if its public display is attenuated.

The district offices in Barpeta, a town known for one of the holiest Hindu shrines in Assam, bear the same ramshackle look that such offices display across India. Paint peeling off walls, poor construction and crowds milling around for hard-to-find sarkari services. In the cluster of buildings that houses the district education bureaucracy, an animated discussion is on about the ‘weaknesses’ of the NRC. One enumerator is agitated about how imperfectly the names in the 1951 NRC—the predecessor to the current one—have been mapped onto the new draft. “I can safely say that the number of those who have been excluded is a drastic undercount,” he says. Is something amiss in the process? “The NRC system has multiple checks and balances, but it depends on documents generated outside the system. We are local people. We were born here and have lived here for ages. Yet these people—illegal migrants—have access to all the documents, some of which even we find hard to get hold of,” he says.

Barpeta is a Muslim-majority district that has seen sudden spurts in its population over the decades. As in Middle Assam, areas in Barpeta adjoining the Brahmaputra—the Baghbor and Chenga revenue circles—have witnessed a huge influx of what are colloquially known as ‘minority people’. Baghbor, for example, once had lush green fields along the banks of the river, but today there is virtually no space left: houses have crept up almost to the edge of the river. A similar story obtains in Chenga, where land pressure has led to the eating up of forests right until the edge of the highway that connects the district to Guwahati via Hajo.

“I have seen this happen right in front of my eyes over time. There was no effort to check these people. Instead, they were given all help to acquire identity papers and I won’t be surprised if a majority of them find their way into the final NRC list of citizens,” the local enumerator says.

IF THERE IS ONE THING that is constant in Assam’s history after 1947, it is the claim that ‘Delhi’ never paid attention to the illegal-migrant problem. From intellectuals to chroniclers of Assam’s past to even revolutionaries seeking independence from India, it is a constant theme. To an extent, one can understand the anger and the angst. Sometime by the late 1970s, the number of illegal migrants had reached a tipping point when their presence could no longer be denied. By the time the Assam agitation started—after a by-election had to be called in a parliamentary constituency—it was obvious that illegal migrants were an ‘easy’ vote bank who could not be ignored. This dating, however, is a matter of dispute.

“All this [use of illegal migrants as a vote bank] happened sometime after 1955, well during Jawaharlal Nehru’s time,” Sashadhar Chowdhury, ‘foreign secretary’ of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), tells Open in Guwahati. “Nehru’s great fear was that as the Praja Socialist Party and the Communists gained strength in West Bengal, there was every possibility they could one day be a political force to reckon with in Assam.” The result was a wilful overlooking of the issue.

This is a fascinating perspective, and even if one discounts it—given that its source was part of a movement seeking secession from India—it contains a kernel of truth. Ultimately matters became so contested that violence broke out in the Nellie area of Morigaon district where more than 2,000 Muslims were hacked to death in 1983 by a group of indigenous Tiwa people. Since then, the myth of Assamese seeking the ouster of foreigners being nothing more than Assamese chauvinism or Hindu communalism has taken root. As with all history, this is a partial and even distorted retelling of past events.

Just about the time the Nellie massacre took place, another similar—if less violent—act of exclusion was afoot barely 30 km from Nellie. At that time, Pabokhaiti, a rare Bodo-dominated village in Morigoan, was home to some 200-odd families. As with the nearby Hatimuria, a huge group of Bangladeshi migrants descended on their village one day, driving out the last Bodo in the area. Dharmendra Bodo, the present gaonburra—hereditary headman—was a child then. He continues to ‘head’ his ‘village’, but these are meaningless terms today. His people have been scattered across the Mayong region. Fifty-two to 55 families live a hardscrabble existence in places like Madnaguri, a small patch of land deep in the low-tide area of the Brahmaputra that is connected to the mainland by a narrow two-km strip of land. Virtually every year during the monsoon, the link vanishes under water and the area’s Bodos disperse, waiting for the water to recede.

“I don’t recall the exact date but the year was 1983. One day, suddenly, these people [Bangladeshi migrants] came out of nowhere. Their number was huge. I could not even count how many. But we were ousted from our village,” 80-year-old Dayaram Bodo says when asked why he came to Madnaguri. After a Moses-like journey—which involved trying to return to Pabokhaiti twice—this group of Bodos finally gave up its efforts to go back to their home: The pressure and the threat of violence from Bangladeshis was too strong.

“The Lalungs of Madnaguri heard of our plight and they helped us and gave a part of their land so that we could rebuild our lives,” he adds.

It is strange that this event, where the role of victims was a reversal of that in Nellie, has never found its way into mainstream history. Two events, occurring almost at the same time—one admittedly more violent than the other but both featuring exceptional cruelty—have fared very differently in Indian writing of history. One almost forgotten and the other held up as an example of the violence that lurks behind everyday reality of Assam.

It is this combination of forgetting, cynical political calculations, despair and distance from India’s centre of power that makes any exercise on ascertaining citizenship in Assam a volatile process. But it is equally true that what should have been done decades ago as a political measure needs to be carried out now if the state is to be at peace with itself.

These anxieties are no longer confined to land and resources. They now raise doubts about the very identity of the people of Assam. At some point all societies undergo anxieties about identity. But it is evident that for many societies in India, this is really not the case: as long as you have a territorially defined state plus a language, that sets the course for a durable identity. This process— which had set roots during colonial times—accelerated after Independence and most groups of people did get what they sought, including in difficult places like Punjab. However, in Assam this identity has been eroded continually to the point that doubts have crept in.

There’s no better place to look at this creeping dilution of identity than the new Assamese literature. “There is such a thing as char chapori writing,” says Bibhash Choudhury, a professor of English literature at Guwahati University. “This literature is a celebration of the nomadic existence of the char people, about their lack of roots and how in spite of having to shift from place to place, they are an accommodating people.”

At one level, the char chapori canon is a celebration of literary inventiveness and many have hailed it as proof of creativity and the effervescence of a language that otherwise showed signs of torpor. But there’s another reality to it, one that cannot be divorced from the changes the state has undergone. “It is a sob story fascinatingly packaged,” says Professor Choudhury, “Mainstream India can’t see this for what it is. [In Delhi and elsewhere], marginalia is celebrated as an example of Assamese inclusiveness. It is very difficult to counter this. The moment you try to do so, people begin asking, ‘Why are you questioning the new literary inventions?’”

The result is that people—in the literary establishment, politics and other walks of life—are unable to comprehend the political undertone of such literature. What makes it especially hard to claim that something Bangladeshi lurks behind this Assamese writing is that the writers of this prose are often second and third-generation incomers, making it hard to prove that they are outsiders. “This writing is a novelty in this setting, but it is deeply subversive to Assamese identity,” adds Professor Choudhury.

But isn’t this proof of how peacefully Bangladeshi ‘outsiders’ are assimilating into Assamese society? One intellectual in Guwahati who does not want to be named has an interesting story to share. In many parts of Lower Assam, Bangladeshi Muslims now routinely celebrate Bihu—a festival marking the Assamese New Year and spring. “But do you know that the first hymn in Bihu celebrations is an invocation to the fire god? Do you also know that cow worship is an integral part of this festival? It is fine to say that Bangladeshis are celebrating Bihu, but will these migrants accept the Namghar over other beliefs?” he asks. The Namghar is the locus of community life in Assam and is an institution peculiar to the Hinduism practiced in Assam.

As a result of all these changes, there is strong and broad-based political and intellectual support for the NRC in the state. If anything, most people think the number of those excluded from the draft list issued on July 30th is an undercount.

“I am not satisfied until now. But it is a good step taken under the direction of the Supreme Court and implemented by the Union Government. There are allegations that names of indigenous people have been deleted from the NRC draft and those of many foreigners have been included… Let the Supreme Court decide on the modalities and other details,” former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta tells Open in Guwahati. Mahanta, an AGP leader, adds that “every state should come forward for an NRC. The Government of India should come forward in this respect.”

This is a moment that comes closest to congruence between Indian nationalism and the aspirations of the people of Assam. The updated NRC that weeds out a significant number of foreigners is the lynchpin in this.

“There really is no contradiction between the two nationalisms. When I talk of Assamese nationalism, it is a part of Indian nationalism,” says Udayon Misra, a long-time observer of Assam’s politics and a former professor at Dibrugarh University. “Even if 10 lakh people are declared as foreigners, that would be a vindication for Assam, something that we have wanted to tell the country for so long,” he adds.

But this is also a moment fraught with tension and there are a number of complications ahead. For one, the draft NRC list itself is subject to furious controversy. In Delhi, there are many who think that the number of exclusions is too large. In contrast, in Assam, the number is thought to be too low. “In 1971, the political scientist Myron Weiner used Census data and calculated the number of foreigners in Assam to be four million. Even if one admits errors in his calculation, how is it possible that in 2018—47 years later—the number of foreigners still stands at four million?” asks another observer who did not wish to be named.

The influx of migrants has muddled Assam’s politics in another way. The number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh in Lower Assam is so large that they are a major political force now, one that cannot be ignored. Lower Assam accounts for 50 seats in the state Assembly. That makes it impossible for most parties in the state to ignore this constituency if they want to gain power in Guwahati. When asked what the AGP would do with non-citizens, a person closely associated with the party says, “We have told them [people of Bangladeshi origin] that those who came before 1971 have no reason to fear for their rights in Assam. We will take care of them. We are only opposed to those who came after 1971.” This is a far cry from the heady days of the Assam movement of the 1980s and is a stance that won’t endear many, unless it is finessed politically to keep all shades of political opinion in Assam happy.

ANOTHER CONTENTIOUS MATTER is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016, which proposes to give Indian citizenship to migrants from other countries of the Subcontinent on the basis of their religious affiliation. If the NRC has unanimous support, this Bill—now under the consideration of a parliamentary committee in Delhi—has widespread disapproval in Assam. “If the Bill is put to vote in Parliament, our party may be forced to withdraw support to the BJP government,” says Mahanta when asked about his party’s stand on the Bill.

Finally, there is the huge internal security challenge that looms large. But in the heated debates and political calculations over the NRC, no one has bothered to ask the more difficult question that Assam poses: If those excluded from the list have been undercounted—as many suspect—can the political loyalty of those who have slipped through the NRC net be taken for granted? Then there is the incongruity associated with letting foreigners vote and elect legislators in the Assembly and Parliament, something that would not be permitted in any properly governed nation-state. What is far more alarming is the equanimity with which this position has been accepted in ‘liberal’ circles in New Delhi. In India’s capital it is abstract ideas like human rights that have greater priority over even very weak notions of what a nation-state can do. Even a rigorous count of citizens is a taboo process.

Places like Chenga, Baghbor, Madnaguri, Kurua, Hatimuria, Sipajhar and a host of others can be spotted on Google Maps. But that does not tell one their complex and conflicted history. In each of these and other places in the state, there is a fight for existence that is acquiring almost Darwinian proportions and defies the usual Indian intellectual categories that are used to mark what is acceptable and what is not. Just like the meandering course of the Brahmaputra that defies efforts to tame it, something else is needed to cool down tempers in Assam. The NRC may not be an answer to all these problems, but it is certainly one large step in that direction. At least the people of Assam think that way.