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The Great NRC Mess

What happened in Assam is not ‘India for Indians’

Assamese BJP MLA, Ramakanta Deori, did not find his name in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) draft. Another BJP MLA, Dilip Paul, found his wife’s name missing. A retired soldier of the Indian Army, Azmal Hoque, is not in the list. This is to say nothing of the lakhs of people, Hindus and Muslims, Bengali but also from other communities such as Bihari and Nepali, who have been left out of the list. The reason Assamese news anchor of Republic TV Arnab Goswami discovered his secular side was probably because not less than 10 lakh of the 40 lakh excluded are likely to be Hindus.

The NRC required documentation from before March 25, 1971, the cut-off date agreed upon in the Assam Accord of 1985.

For poor, often illiterate people across communities, producing documentation from 47 years ago is anyway a difficult task. On top of that, the complexities of the paperwork may well be beyond them. The desire to throw out illegal migrants has unfortunately led to many innocents being victimised already over the years – and the victimisation is being fanned further by certain political outfits and their cheerleading news channels for electoral gain, at great cost to these people and the nation.

It is true that India and Bangladesh share a long, porous boundary of almost 4,100 km. People and cows have long moved back and forth across this boundary. The solidity of lines on the map is not reflected in the fluid realities on the ground. It is often hard to tell where one country ends, and the next begins. Nor is it easy to say where one ethnicity ends and the next begins — the people are often the same on both sides of the border. Even in places such as Meghalaya, where quite distinct ethnic groups live on either side of the boundary, it is common for villagers from border areas on either side to speak a shared local dialect.

For instance, I have met Khasi villagers from Bangladesh in the area around Pyrdwah who spoke to me in fluent Sylheti. Khasi, Garo, Jaintia, Manipuri, and Assamese populations too exist in Bangladesh; they are Bangladeshis too. There are, of course, Hindu Bengali and Buddhist Chakma populations as well.

The stereotype of the Bangladeshi as a Bengali Muslim man with a beard and clad in lungi is really a caricature. Someone who has never seen a boundary except for on a piece of paper may imagine there is a neat line on the ground where one community ends and the next begins. That is the greatest error in thinking that maps produce. The reality on the ground is that there is not, and there never was, any place where such a line could be drawn, anywhere in the landmass of the subcontinent of India. That was why Partition affected so many lives and was such a tragedy: it was an attempt to draw a line separating Hindu and Muslim in a land where Hindu and Muslim were both there in villages all the way from Afghanistan to Burma.

The attempts at ethnic cleansing that have followed the drawing of lines on maps by an Englishman in 1947 continued through the decades in Northeast India, where a stream of refugees produced by the impossible attempt to physically separate the Hindu Bengali from the Muslim Bengali poured in with riot after riot in East Bengal, which had become East Pakistan.

Most of the fleeing refugees moved to West Bengal, but a sizable number, particularly from Sylhet – a province of Assam that went, in a controversial referendum, to Pakistan — also moved to Northeast India. They found themselves unwelcome on either side of the border. Moves to evict them from Northeast India began in short order, and from at least 1960, when the “Bongal Kheda” or “drive out Bengali” movement picked up in Assam, it has been a central feature of the politics of the state and region. The “Bongal Kheda” riots of the 1960s eventually morphed in the 1970s into the Assam Agitation during which many lives were lost. 855 Assamese became martyrs to the cause of driving out foreigners.

On the other hand, in Nellie, in just one night, more than 2,100 Bengali Muslims were massacred in 1983 in a riot for which not a single person was ever convicted of any crime. The rioting then too was “secular” in character, with Hindu Bengalis also being targeted. From 1979 on, many houses were burnt and many were driven out in bouts of ethnic cleansing that spread throughout Northeast India. The attacking mobs did not bother about fine points of citizenship. They simply labelled Bengalis as Bangladeshis.

Now, the state itself seems set to complete the incomplete task of those xenophobic agitations.

There is a category for inclusion of “original inhabitants” in the NRC by which members of certain communities have found easy inclusion. Although lines on maps were redrawn multiple times, the popular idea of “original inhabitant” in practice takes no account of this.

It is assumed that only the Assamese linguistic group and certain tribal groups are original inhabitants of Assam. However, until 1874 Cachar and Goalpara were parts of Bengal. They only became parts of Assam that year because of some map-drawing by the colonial British administration. Other territories appended to Assam in that bout of map-making included the Khasi, Garo, Jaintia, Lushai and Naga Hills, all of which have since separated from Assam to become the states of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. However, members of the ethnic Bengali minority who remained in Assam have never been seen as original inhabitants of even those areas that were historically parts of Bengal. The term itself was, despite many appeals, never officially defined.

The separation of the Bengali and Assamese ethnic identities itself is a matter of some interest. The languages, scripts and cultures are similar in a great many ways, though stressing on the differences has been the fashion, at least in Assam. The people themselves are quite similar, and in Delhi or even Kolkata or Guwahati, it is often hard for anyone not Bengali or Assamese to tell one from the other. For instance, a lot of people used to be confused about whether Arnab Goswami was Bengali or Assamese. Many of the stalwarts of Assamese chauvinism bear surnames such as Goswami and Bhattacharya. It is likely that their ancestors were Bengalis who settled in Assam in the not too distant past. There is historical evidence to suggest that at least some prominent Bhattacharyas migrated from Nadia in Bengal to become priests at the Kamakhya Temple in Assam in the 18th Century. Over time they shed the Bengali identity, and acquired the Assamese identity.

The scholar Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities has delineated the processes by which capitalism and the printing press created ethno-linguistic identities. Multi-ethnic pre-existing dynastic realms were reshaped into ethno-linguistic territories by print-capitalism. This process occurred around the world, including in Bengal and Assam. The Bengali and Assamese ethno-linguistic identities both emerged clearly only in the 19th Century, with the publication of the first grammars and dictionaries in these languages. The mass-produced printed map as a marker of territory, which could be imagined by vast masses of people, made its near-simultaneous appearance.

In addition, the Census, first conducted only in the late 19th century in these areas, force-fitted people into what were until then geographical rather than ethnic categories. Mass literacy, unheard of until the same period, and competition for jobs in the new bureaucracy, followed. The combination of all these — East India Company capitalism, missionary printing presses, British colonial maps and censuses, mass literacy – produced the Assamese and Bengali as sharply differentiated ethno-linguistic identities during the 19th Century. The details of this process are beyond the scope of this article.

The separation and politicisation of these identities has still not ended. While chauvinist ethnic politics in Assam is well established, and has produced several chief ministers, it was entirely absent from West Bengal all this while. In East Bengal, though, the politics of religion that split Bengal and Bengalis in 1947 did eventually give way to the politics of language in 1971, when Bangladesh emerged after a civil war between East and West Pakistan. The political repercussions of the aggressive entry of the BJP into West Bengal and the exclusion of lakhs of Bengalis from the NRC may be felt for years to come.

The BJP is trying to characterise the whole thing as a case of illegal Bangladeshis being evicted, and this is the line being peddled by propaganda channels whose “paid media” reality show hosts work for their owners and their political masters to boost TRPs and ad revenues while helping particular parties. However, just like all the propaganda on demonetisation and GST eventually did not work, it is possible that all the propaganda on NRC too many not work, at least anywhere near Assam. The problem is not the NRC per se, because the borders of India were drawn through Partition at great human cost, and should be respected – illegal migration is not okay. The problem is the errors and inequities in the NRC process, which render the entire exercise less than credible. How many of the 40 lakh excluded are actually Bangladeshis, and how many, like the BJP MLA, are presumably Indians, is a question that nobody can answer. The 40 lakh people who are affected, and their friends and relatives, will not need news channels from Delhi and Mumbai to tell them what they suffered and how they were denied. Claims and objections may see the numbers reduced, but 30 or 35 lakhs are also momentous numbers, and it is likely that many genuine Indians may be left out even after September, when the deadline for appeals ends. Reports so far indicate that the vast majority of these people would be Bengalis, both Hindu and Muslim.

For a community that contributed massively to India’s freedom struggle, Independence has brought little but misery for Bengalis. India was not Partitioned. Bengal, Punjab and Assam — from which the Bengali-speaking area of Sylhet was broken off — were. The price of India’s freedom was paid by the million-odd people, mainly Bengalis and Punjabis, who died, and by the millions more who became refugees. The Bengalis again suffered genocide in 1971 when an estimated 2-3 million unarmed civilians, men, women and children, were massacred by the Pakistan Army in what is now Bangladesh.

On this side of the border, the Bengali minority in Northeast India has never stopped suffering discrimination after 1947. This is now set to continue, as racial profiling of Bengalis as Bangladeshis is already spreading with the active support of the party founded by Syama Prasad Mookerjee. The flawed NRC, which disproportionately affects only one community, is being celebrated as creating an “India for Indians”. Partition, after all its horrors, has failed the Bengalis.

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