Assam Disenfranchisement Exercise Must be Resisted by the People
The BJP-led Assam Government has published the final draft of the National Register of Citizens after surveying the citizenship records and family trees of 32.9 million people residing in Assam to trace out the “illegal Bangladeshi” immigrants from the state. This final draft has excluded the names of four million Bengali people, the majority of whom are Bengali Muslims, who now face the risk of either losing citizenship and become stateless or being deported to Bangladesh after detaining them in a detention centre and concluding a deal with the Bangladesh Government. Though the Bengalis, Hindus and Muslims, whose name didn’t feature in the final draft are allowed to appeal within a window of one month, their fate seems sealed by the BJP-led Assam Government to fulfil its nefarious communal agenda.
If these four million people, the majority of whom are Bengali-speaking Muslims, fail to make to the final NRC list between 30 August to 28 September 2018, then they may be rendered stateless and can be detained without trial for an indefinite period. Schools, government offices and other premises, including jails are being turned into makeshift detention centres and the RSS men are pressed into service to keep an eye on each Muslim family and hound them if they try to move out of their villages. Most of the Bengali-speaking Muslims live in the districts of South Assam, where the British colonial rulers settled them to cultivate the land by bringing them from northern parts of present Bangladesh. Despite living in the state for centuries, they often face the wrath of the jingoistic majoritarian Axomiya mob and are called the major cause of poverty in Assam.
For the BJP, the issue of illegal “Bangladeshi immigrants” has been a crucial vote garnering issue since the party started growing independently in the state since the 1980s. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal played a crucial role in taking up the issue of illegal immigrants to the courts and he won a victory when the Supreme Court, in a verdict on the case of illegal immigrants, asked the state government to prepare an NRC according to the Assam accord of 1985, an accord whose foundation was a communal genocide fuelled by the BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Though Tarun Gogoi, the former Congress Chief Minister, started the process, Sonowal managed to sweep the 2016 assembly election riding on the Supreme Court verdict and his anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Though the BJP managed to sweep the state assembly election in 2016 riding on the anti-immigration row, it soon tweaked its poll promise of purging Assam off the “illegal” immigrants by synchronising it with the communal agenda of the RSS. The BJP never used the same verbiage as the Axomiya chauvinist organisations, who called for the ouster of the non-Axomiya people, including the Bengali migrants. Unlike the majoritarian Axomiya chauvinism that considers all Bengali-speaking people of Assam as immigrants irrespective of their religious faith, the BJP and the RSS have been engaged in the attempt to add a communal tinge to the issue. The BJP always called the immigrants – illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, to identify them as Muslims. Sarbananda Sonowal and his lieutenant, Himanta Biswa Sarma took the route of a witch hunt against Muslims, both Bengali-speaking and Axomiya-speaking, in its exercise to weed out “illegal” immigrants, while at the same time sparing the Bengali Hindus with a promise of citizenship to safeguard a large vote bank in the state.
The new firman by the Sonowal government irked the Axomiya chauvinism and sparked a statewide agitation against the BJP, which led to rounds of clarification by the BJP government that it will not discriminate the immigrants on the basis of religion, however, the writing was on the wall; only the Muslims would be discriminated against and it happened so. The NRC process has only tormented the Muslim families and caused immense trouble for them, including the Axomiya Muslims, to prove their family roots in the state.
The final draft is said to be prepared after checking the documents of the people living in Assam, especially the Bengali-speaking Muslims, to check whether they or their ancestors came to the state prior to the midnight of 24 March 1971; an arduous task for the poor and hapless Bengali Muslims to do. Though most of the Bengali Muslims have their government allocated identity and citizenship proofs, the Herculean task of proving that their roots in the state are more than five decades old took a toll on them and many of them, the daily wage earners, couldn’t manage to follow up on a day-to-day basis on their cases because of the fear of losing their earning, which actually created more hurdles for them. The BJP government also ensured that if the parents are considered as illegal immigrants then their children, born in Assam, will also be called illegal immigrants, which goes against the Constitutional norms and the Citizenship Act (amended in 2003).
Ever since coming to power, the Narendra Modi-led government in New Delhi has started working on a nefarious scheme that will allow everyone except the Muslims from getting Indian citizenship. Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, presented by the Modi regime, has a provision to grant citizenship to refugees from the countries of the subcontinent who are Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis or Sikhs if they cite religious persecution in their home countries as a reason of migration. Under this act, anyone except a Muslim can get citizenship of India, which again violates the fundamental secular character of Indian Constitution. By targeting only Muslims in the NRC and even not sparing the Axomiya Muslims, the fact that irked mass protest in Assam.
Though a section of the jingoistic and xenophobic Axomiya are happy that four million Bengali-Muslims will be purged from the state by force, which the governments at state and centre level are denying so far, a large section of the Axomiya people are irked by the communal segregation of immigrants and targeting of Muslims, which gave rise to large-scale agitations against the Assam Government and the BJP. Though the BJP may keep uttering its “secular” approach in drafting the final NRC list, it’s now a well-known fact that the entire operation was communal in nature and even the appeal will not help those four million people who are dropped from the list.
How bad can this purging of citizenship be for the people of Assam?
Majority of the disfranchisement of Muslims happened in lower Assam, where the majority of Bengali-speaking Muslims live and who can’t produce the records to prove that they or their ancestors have been residents of Assam for more than 47 years. The NRC filing has been so faulty that in many cases some members of the same family are accorded citizenship while the rest are denied. Even Axomiya-speaking Muslims aren’t spared and are denied citizenship. Once the window of appeal will be closed, the disenfranchised Bengalis will become stateless people without basic human rights like the Rohingya Muslims and they will be vulnerable to state violence and genocide. Once their Constitutional rights as Indian citizen are dissolved, they can’t even appeal in any Indian institution of justice for help and it’s less likely that Bangladesh will accept them.
With the loss of citizenship, these people will be separated from their families and pushed into detention centres, which would be like confining them in concentration camps by the Indian state. With a Hindutva fascist government in the centre as well as in the state, these concentration camps will turn into hell trap for the hapless Muslims, who will be further dehumanised here during their endless wait for a place call home. As India happens to be a large market and raw material source for big global corporations, with a market-friendly government, no international body will take a heed of the situation or come to help the men, women and children who will be rendered stateless and homeless. Even a change of government will not restore the lost citizenship due to the fear of losing the Axomiya vote bank and these people won’t be allowed to move to other states of India as well.
While West Bengal has opened its doors to accept these people, the quasi-federal structure of the Indian state will not allow it to accord citizenship to the stateless people. Even if those who have lost their citizenship, move to West Bengal, the BJP, which is trying to prepare a strong foundation for itself in the state by fanning communal hatred and instigating riots against the minority Muslims, will capitalise the issue and spread vitriol and xenophobia through its various communication channels to polarise the majority Bengali Hindus. The communal propaganda of the RSS-led Sangh Parivar has gained immensely epidemic proportion in West Bengal and had successfully fuelled communal carnages in the state. With the coming of four million Muslims, the vitriol will get stronger and with the support of a large pool of hoodlums in its payroll, it will not be a hard thing for the RSS or the BJP to ignite the flames of a large scale communal pogrom in the state.
The only solution in Assam- people’s resistance
For these four million people, most of whom are assumed to be the hapless poor daily wage earners, landless peasants, workers and toiled people as per the demographics that were targeted for witch hunt by the BJP government, there is no other way to save themselves from being tortured and dehumanised than to resist the reactionary programme of the RSS and the Hindutva camp by building up a strong democratic movement for their right to live in Assam.
The overwhelming common people of Assam, the Ahom tribe, the Axomiyas, the Bodos, the people of different other tribes, who are not communal but are susceptible to communal propaganda and xenophobia, must be politically aroused by the representatives of the working class and peasantry so that they can understand that the socio-economic problems of Assam are not rooted in the existence of the Bengali immigrants, Hindus or Muslims, but in the fact that the wealth of the society is not distributed equally and Assam’s natural resources and labour are exploited by the big comprador capital and their lackey feudal landlords, who enrich themselves at the cost of the destitution of many. Assam lags economically not because the Bengalis have a share on the resource, but because the wealth of Assam is plundered by those who have no geographical connection with Assam at all. The Axomiya people are suffering economically not due to the Bengali immigrants but because few Axomiyas and non-Axomiyas are usurping the social wealth produced by the majority of people. They must be made aware that the emancipation from socio-economic woes won’t come through jingoism and communal hatred, but by persevering in a struggle to free themselves from the yoke of exploitation by feudalism, comprador capitalism and foreign capital, they can actually achieve the realm of freedom where socio-economic equality and justice will be ensured.
If the majority of the Axomiya people are brought into the fold of the massive struggle against Hindutva fascism and its fundraisers – the comprador capitalists, feudal landlords and foreign corporations, then their collective and united struggle will certainly bring colloquial damage to the institutions of loot and plunder. The time is ripe for the anti-fascist, anti-communal forces to unite the Assamese and Bengali people against a common enemy of Assam – Hindutva fascism and its financial backers so that the heinous conspiracies hatched by these reactionary forces regarding the Bengali Muslims can be thwarted and the people’s unity can be established. Without a strong struggle, the four million people have no chance to survive or live a life of dignity.
Neeladri Mukherjee is a former high school teacher and a Rabindra Sangeet lover. An M.A. in Political Science (not entire), Neeladri is a close observer of West Bengal politics, South Asian affairs and the trade union movement.