The fate of four million Bengali speaking people in India’s large north-eastern state of Assam today hangs in perilous balance.
Their names have been left out of the penultimate draft of the National Citizens Register. This means that if they are unable to prove their Indian citizenship in the last chance they will get for this – with only one month to file their claims – they will be judged to be excluded from India’s register of citizens.
During the first half of the 1980s, Assam had become the epicentre of some of the most violent clashes India has witnessed since its independence from the British in 1947. A student-led agitation was mounted against people described by indigenous Assamese as “foreigners”. India shares a porous 4,000km border with Bangladesh.
For two centuries, impoverished Bengali peoples have moved to Assam in search of land and work, as Assam offered the prospects of a new life by converting forest and riverine islands into farms. This migration was also encouraged by the colonial policies for both creation of massive tea plantations and to grow more food. This continued unchecked for as long as both these regions were part of one country. Even after India’s independence, people fled first what was East Pakistan during the bloodshed of India’s partition, and then during the liberation struggle of the Bangladeshi people from Pakistan in 1971.
These refugees from violence and poverty became the subjects of two successive chauvinist political movements in Assam, built on apprehensions of indigenous Assamese of being “swamped” by Bengali immigrants.
The first movement constructed the Bengali speaking residents of Assam to be “foreigners” even though the very large majority of these immigrants had entered India over many decades without violating any law. The “anti-foreigners movement” that rocked Assam in the 1980s was fuelled by such Assamese sub-nationalism, and it opposed the growing numbers of both Muslim and Hindu Bengali immigrants.
The second wave, after the Assamese student-led politics lost credibility and charisma, was the belligerent Hindu nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which specifically targeted only Muslim immigrants from East Bengal, currently Bangladesh. They conflated Islam with terrorism, and dubbed the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as infiltrators, a threat to India’s security. This action against allegedly illegal immigrants from Bangladesh is today being foregrounded by the party, now ruling India, as its badge of honour as it prepares to go to the national elections next summer with evidence of its muscular Hindu nationalism under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The long-colonised country in its early decades of freedom had a poorly developed system of documentation, especially in its countryside, in which poor literacy and education as well as grinding poverty excluded such people from any kind of official paperwork. This was aggravated by the unstable riverine ecology, in which farm lands get eroded each year in massive floods.
Even after four million people find that their names are not on India’s citizenship list, India’s senior leaders have refused to clarify the policy towards those people who will be finally excluded from the National Citizen Register, after they are declared to be foreigners. There is widespread fear, panic and speculation. More than a dozen people are reported to have committed suicide since the announcement. The country’s leaders have no words of reassurance or solace to offer them, or even a clue about what lies ahead for them.
India has not negotiated any settlement with Bangladesh for the legal deportation of persons India deems to be citizens of that country, and the Bangladesh government has maintained that this remains an internal matter of India. In past years, for the few thousand people who were judged to be foreigners, two tracks were followed. One of these was to push them into Bangladesh territory. There they were pushed back by armed Bangladeshi security forces, sometimes violently, sometimes with firearms. These “pushbacks” were often undertaken under the cover of darkness. In the melee and confusion, some would cross over to Bangladesh, some would return to India, but none of these exchanges of populations would be officially conducted or recorded.
The alternative has been more fearsome. It has been to lock them indefinitely in detention camps, all located within prisons, separating wife from husband and child from parent.
The dread in four million hearts in Assam today is whether they will be locked up indefinitely in massive prison-like concentration camps? Will they be pushed into an unwelcoming Bangladesh? Or, will they be retained as residents, officially second-class, without any rights? If so, will they ever feel safe? Is there indeed now any place in the world to which they will ever belong? ■
Harsh Mander is the author of ‘Fear and Forgiveness: The Aftermath of Massacre’