Suddenly Stateless IV : The making of a post-colonial tragedy

13 September 2018

In continuation of our series of interviews on the National Register of Citizens in the Indian State of Assam, Vasundhara Sirnate, Director of Research at The Polis Project, Inc. spoke to Dr. Kaustubh Deka, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Dibrugarh University in Assam.

On 30 July 2018, the Indian Government released an updated National Register of Citizens that catalogued the name of Indian citizens of the northeastern state of Assam. The politics of Assam is linked to the presence of those considered as outsiders. In Assam alone, the numbers given for illegal immigrants is anything between 1.6 million and 5 million. But this figure itself has been a matter of much debate, as has been the categorization of people as natives and outsiders, Assamese and Bangla.

To complicate the matter further, the migrants have been both Muslim Bengali and Hindu Bengali, but it is suspected by many that the current updating of the National Register of Citizens that began in 2014 under an Indian Supreme Court directive, has selectively left out Muslim-Bengali immigrants. The process of providing documentation for the NRC has turned out to be a huge burden for many of the Bengalis, both Hindu, and Muslim, and especially for women as typically in India, women have less documentary proof of their identity than men. But with the burden of proving citizenship on to the very poor, the NRC has been described as an unfair process, which leaves much room for human error and personal prejudice.

Refugees seeking shelter in 1971 | Courtesy: The official Mujibnagar website

Vasundhara Sirnate: Kaustubh Deka thank you very much for joining us today. Let us start with a very basic question, but one that I suspect will be the most difficult to answer, who is an Assamese?

Kaustubh Deka: Well this is one of the most difficult questions that has no easy answer, maybe no answer at all. The question that people are trying to ask today more than who is an Assamese is, who is not an Assamese? Maybe for people today, that’s an important question and this question has been literally driving politics and other kinds of activities in the state for quite long.

Remember that this is a question that is not at all new. This goes to a lot of fundamental questions and debates. So, this exercise has suddenly made everybody very aware of this whole debate about the identity issue in Assam, that is not only that question of who is an Assamese, but by the way, the identity of Bengalis in Assam, the identity of Nepalis in Assam, and different communities. Now, it has become a very sharply debated question about how identities matter in the scheme of citizenship or the scheme of your national identity.

That, I think, is a very important kind of investigation that one has to do and one has anticipated. Coming back to your question about who an Assamese is, it’s a long and big topic and one can go on and on about it, how there are different kinds of takes on this. But one point which has been a point of significant mobilization is this whole issue about who is an Assamese and how this should be linked to this whole idea of the formation of Assam as a political unit. It’s so complicated that one has to keep listing other aspects of it as well. In regional politics, though student politics have played a very crucial role.

And some forces are largely described as the “nationalist camp”. For at least a few decades or so, they have constantly been talking about 1951. That is where this was first done so they have talked about 1951 as a cutoff year to determine who is an Assamese Indian citizen. So, it’s very interesting, this whole language of citizenship.

Vasundhara Sirnate: So, throughout this debate, we have seen many cutoff dates. The first cutoff date is 1951 from where the census of 1951 in Assam is seen as the first National Register of Citizens? And then you have the second date of March 24th of 1971. I have two questions. The first is why is 1971 such a significant date? How and why did they arrive at that date? The second question goes back to the question of who is an Assamese? Because from what I understand in my reading of Assamese history is that even those that are now considered indigenous Assamese, for instance, do trace their roots from China – the Tai Ahom are people who migrated to Assam, right?

So, there are two tensions. And the first tension is that of people who have lived in this area for a very long time, so how do we decide? How long should a person live in a place so that they can be considered either immigrants or citizens? What does this really say about nation states and the imposition of these boundaries? Because a lot of these problems have been created because of these paper partitions, and because of redistricting and redistribution of population through these bureaucratic mechanisms of deciding territory.

Kaustubh Deka: Yes. Very much, you are right. This whole thing is like something out of a tragedy you can say, a post-colonial tragedy. Where if you check it historically this immigration is happening but this is potentially a very gradual kind of situation. I mean, everybody’s a victim here, that we can be very sure about and there’s no question of celebrating something like this.

People are being victimized or being made to feel like refugees. So these are basically tough situations for everybody concerned, but the point here is that when you talk about different years and why 1971 is so crucial, that is something our regional groups here have been often talking about. Assam actually already has in a way taken whole different cuts here than in the rest of India. As you know, the Citizenship Act has a different year for Assam and has a different year for the rest of India. So, there’s a 20-year exceptional rule, a 20-year period has already been set aside for Assam.

Refugees seeking shelter in 1971 | Courtesy: The official Mujibnagar website

And primarily the reason is the Bangladeshi Liberation war. There were populations on both sides of the border and a lot of people had already come in. So ’71 is the year they actually realized that there is a separate land for people and there is no more need for people to come across. It’s a complex mix of geopolitics and some kind of other political strategy.

There are factions in Assam that even think that 1826 [Treaty of Yandaboo] should be the cutoff year to determine who are the Assamese people – what we can take on a quote-unquote, “hardcore”, “nativist” kind of a position. When we look into the literature of different insurgent groups and different rebel groups, they draw from those sources. So regional groups here actually point out the three cutoff years [1826, 1951, 1971] and have three arguments. They have gone for the most, we can say, the most constitutional one – 1971. And that is how they try to justify or validate the NRC from that point of view.

Vasundhara Sirnate: I’m just going to go back to something that you mentioned, the 1826 Treaty of Yandaboo. So, from what I understand, there are lots of people who are actually settled in Assam over time for the purpose of working in the tea plantations. Now, for the groups that you are saying that are nativist and say that you have to go back even so far back as 1826 as a cutoff year, how logical is that? Who are these groups?

Kaustubh Deka: I’m referring to the groups that at one point, they used to talk about independence and now they’re in peace talks and negotiation. I’m mostly referring to groups like the United Liberation Front of Assam, and also, at some point, some of the student groups. They are talking about immigration to Assam, not at all saying that one has to go back to 1826 but trying to argue that how Assam has taken so many waves of immigration and has compromised with its identity.

But it is to basically drive some demands. It’s a point of reference, although nobody’s really actually saying that’s possible anymore. And people at large realize that Assam of 1826 and Assam of even say late 20th Century are something different. But that point is always there as a nomadic kind of reference point.

Vasundhara Sirnate: Just locating my next question in this framework, one of the things that you have to prove to be included in the NRC is legacy – if your grandfather, grandmother, came before 1971, and if you could prove this either through the electoral rolls or through the 1951 census, then you have a claim to being a citizen. This is included in the current list of legitimate documents that they will accept. But people have raised the issue of the ‘weaponization of paperwork’, which is that this burden of proof is so immense and that India, in its bureaucratic functioning, has not always been the best at providing documentation for its billions. And in this case, millions over here. 

So, there is a way in which the burden of paperwork has been shifted onto the very poor, who have very limited access to the state. So how can anyone make the claim, that NRC is a fair process when at its very foundation there is this burden of paperwork which itself is questionable in a bureaucracy that doesn’t function efficiently? And it goes back to the question how do you prove a legacy? How far back do you have to have lived in Assam to be taken seriously as a resident of Assam and as a citizen of India?

Kaustubh Deka: True, true, I get your point. So, this whole issue of paperwork and this whole issue of burden of legacies – this is a very, very crucial critique. This has to be talked about more. In this whole rhetoric about the NRC this is one aspect that people haven’t talked about as such.

If you see this whole idea of paperwork. Slowly it has been emerging that one of the communities, which has been the worst victim of this whole issue of having enough documents is neither Hindu Bengali nor the Muslim Bengali, but the Nepali Gorkhas, who have been staying in Assam for a long, long time. If you see historically they have been one of the most backward classes within Assam and have lived in this land because traditionally, they were cattle herders and grazers. They were living in areas where they were hardly educated compared to some other groups. So even now, in an educational kind of a metric, they will fare pretty low in that.

So, when it comes to sensitivities and consciousness about records and documents or papers, these [Gorkhas] compared to other groups, did not have mobilization. The other groups had some political mobilization. So, that sensitivity was severely lacking in this particular group. As a result, if you see now, slowly, there are reports emerging that a hefty number of those whose names have not appeared on the list, are Nepali Gorkhas. Compared to that, if you talk about places bordering Bangladesh, overwhelming majority of people have found their names on lists because they have been very particular about their papers and they have kept their records.

I have talked to people from communities, they have really illustrated that. So different communities have their own different levels of political mobilization or consciousness. But of course, that critique is very valid. This bureaucracy itself, is very inept, and they’re asking so much from their citizens. And I think that is a very serious critique. But it shows how different people are prepared differently to deal with Assam.

Vasundhara Sirnate: Currently, there are two perspectives that are in the public sphere. The first is seeing this as a benevolent and benign bureaucratic process, which has been demanded – and is legitimate because it has been demanded by the people of Assam. And therefore, this bureaucracy is an expression of this popular will and popular mobilization in Assam over many decades. So, it is actually helping people because it is giving even Bengali migrants finally the paperwork and the chance to be included in the National Register of Citizens.

But the second perspective on this is the one that is creating a lot of confusion and insecurity amongst many people and many observers. This is is the idea that this process is being used to specifically target people who are Muslim, whether they are Assamese or Bangla, and in particular, suspected Bangladeshi migrants that are also Muslim.

Also, a piece in Caravan Magazine by Praveen Donthi mentions that the bureaucracy of this enterprise is staffed by people, who supported the anti-outsider agitation. Therefore, to what extent can we expect that personal prejudice will not inform how the documents are being processed through the system? So how would you respond to these two perceptions and what would you say about the perception of the NRC?

Kaustubh Deka: See, I would say, as far as the critique goes that this whole exercise cannot be handled in a very efficient manner, there are a lot of holes in the sense that people have been left out. There are a lot of mistakes even in the names – entire list is almost filled with wrong spellings and all that. So as far as this issue of bureaucratic inefficiency goes, I would agree. But I would stop short of calling it an exercise that is already tinged with prejudice or selective targeting of certain communities. First of all, what is the objective basis of the criticism? Nobody knows the details of the 4 million- 4.7 lakhs.

This is a huge number and I don’t think anybody has the data as yet to process that figure. So, it is a lot of fear mongering kind of exercise that has been going on because we don’t exactly know objectively who these 4 million people are. There are a lot of speculations in the quote-unquote “national media”.

There are people, who need not be Bengali, need not be Muslim, or need not be other non-Assamese or non-indigenous people, but they have also missed out their names. I’m not at all ruling out this tendency that maybe NRC was used by certain quarters in the hope that it will isolate the figure of the immigrant, which people are thinking to be the figure of the Muslim from Bangladesh.

But what has happened is that in the process now we see that this bureaucracy, which is inefficient, and it is inefficient in total. I don’t know how far or on what basis it has been targeting people selectively because if I look at the examples around me, then I do see examples from almost every caste, class, individual being left out – it’s a very diverse mix of people. But again, we have to wait for some more time because first of all, we don’t know the details of the 4 million. And second, of course, this is not the final list.

In fact, now is the right time for making some kind of positive intervention. They are talking about opening legal aid camps. So, if somebody thinks that his or her name is missing from the list, then people can actually look into the matter. So, this is a very good opportunity for the ones inside the 4 million figure that are wrongly victimized. I’m not at all ruling out that maybe people are being victimized. But I’m saying that this is a good an entry point for different people to negotiate the status.

Vasundhara Sirnate: So you’re saying that it is possible that it is being used for exclusion of certain groups of people, but you’re not entirely sure because we don’t know for sure as yet?

Kaustubh Deka: Yeah, we don’t know for sure as yet. And then another interesting side is we also have to remember that there are so many components and there are so many players in it and everybody’s kind of trying to find their way through it. The thing to remember is that after a long, long time, NRC was one kind of occasion, one kind of a platform where different groups from different backgrounds, which otherwise were mostly in opposing camps, had come together in Assam.

It is especially worth mentioning that the student groups representing minorities and different other tribal groups had come under some joint kind of agreement or some joint understanding that one has to ensure that this exercise is done in a fair manner because people saw it as an opportunity to get rid of some stigma or bad view or some kind of harassment perhaps that they were going through because of the tag of being a Bangladeshi. So, for many, it was actually a way out.

Many people, especially from the minority, they are in a way not very disappointed in the outcome of the NRC. But again, as I told you, we have to have a proper demographic profile of these 4 million people. And without this, I think the discussion that has been going on everywhere has been kind of preemptive, you could say, presumptuous.

Vasundhara Sirnate: Many people think that something that the Assamese have been demanding for many decades [the NRC] is now something on which there is hand-holding with the central government, which is right-wing. What would you say about that? So there is a way in which forces are now aligning and that is what is creating, I think, the anxiety. 

But the D-Voter List has created some consternation even in my mind. So, if your name is not on the list then you have to appeal the exclusion of your name in front of the Foreigners’ Tribunal, which also has the power to detain you. So, there is a way in which this process is kind of passing the buck. So on the one hand, your name is left out and then you’re not going back to the same NRC to appeal, you’re going in front of the Foreigners’ Tribunal. So there’s a way in which you’ve already become a foreigner in the eyes of the state because your name is left out.

And what the Foreigners’ Tribunal does with you is anyone’s guess. So, the latest figure someone was reporting to me was that there are about 1,000-2,000 people that have already been detained. So would you comment on this process.

Kaustubh Deka: That is precisely was my apprehension. Some of the critics of this process have ignored how this process has resolved in a way a lot for minority groups, and also, this process was actually carefully crafted by many people here in Assam who wanted to very consciously avoid any kind of polarization or communal type flare-up post-NRC.

So they are precisely undoing the work of these groups who have been working on the ground for last couple of months or years trying to see that this process, as much as possible, remains on the side of a judicial process being directed by the Supreme Court so that discourses cannot be medicated by the forces that maybe want to make it a process of, let’s say, an issue of religion or issue of a particular identity.

So, there are groups that have been very carefully trying to keep peace within this larger domain in a way, as a constitutional mechanism or as a constitutional right, which I think has been damaged by trying to look like BJP on this whole issue. This was a process or a demand that has actually come before the BJP became a player or a forced to be reckoned with in this region.

Paramilitary forces were rushed and they were put on alert. And there were a lot of stray incidents that were reported; there were a lot of indications that there were forces that tried to riot here and there. But one has to give this credit to people, that at large, people basically in a mature way let it be dismissed.

Also, because it was largely made very clear by different groups that this was not the final list and all of the answers can be taken forward. So, this whole situation of calm or the situation of understanding is something that runs completely contrary to any norms of rightwing politics, right? But then again, by creating a hysteria, if you’re talking about now – I’m referring to the reaction in Bengal, especially by refugees out of West Bengal.

The atmosphere of anxiety and hysteria is created where there was none. So that is what I think was not called for or could have been dealt with in a different way. And of course, I do not rule out your point on the whole idea of Foreigner’s Tribunals and how they have actually accepted it in a completely anti-democratic manner. Forget about the locals, but completely, anti-democratic or anti-human. So again, this is a very complicated debate.

And therein lies this whole idea about finally end of the day the way a nation should function, especially in a region like the Indian subcontinent where our geopolitical, all other realities are so interlinked. If you see our history, it has been a broader region so. So that is where these kinds of problems crop up.

And then again, commanding power and different parties, keep their different interests in mind with elections coming up next year. And someone raised a really valid point today that if we look at the alternative, suppose the NRC is rolled back, what would be the alternative from the point of view of the communities who have been on the receiving end of being tagged as Bangladeshi? I mean, they would lose their opportunity of coming into the constitutional fold, which is a loss for them.

So, these questions have no easy answers yet, but I think that is one very important side that one has to understand, that there are different communities no matter how far, no matter how much the structure is flawed bureaucratically – then that is the tragedy of our country that we pushed aside some kind of opportunity or some kind of ray of hope. That speaks volumes about our realities, about the state of our nation.

Vasundhara Sirnate: I understand that you and many others see the NRC as something that is giving the constitutional rights of citizenship to people, that is, those that have been under suspicion have the chance to become legitimate. But at the same time, it is also denying the same right for many. We could argue if this is right for those people at all. This is a bureaucratic enterprise and it is a reality, so one would really have to raise the question how do we keep these people safe?

Kaustubh Deka: The issue in Assam to put it very simply and crudely, it’s like everybody has been killing everyone else, right? I mean, it’s not only the Bengalis or NDFB or other groups. Insurgents are targeted at times, the activists, the Nepali people, the Assamese people – in the same way some groups have targeted other groups.

So, they were in kind of an endless spiral of violence, of argument after argument. So of course, the main issue is why something like that happens; of course, we have to go back to that. It’s this huge, long debate, and as we know, it’s immigration and limited resources, cartels and syndicates, right? So that was my issue with some of the criticisms and some of the simplified kind of critiques, which is trying to kind of make the NRC into the issue about Hindu versus Muslim, or Bengali versus others.

I’m very sure, not only sure, but very pessimistic that NRC will lead to human rights abuse. Of course, yes, this will be institutionalization of some kind of abuse because the whole backdrop is one of human rights abuse.

Most of them will be people, who either did not have the resources or the knowledge to accept this bureaucratic decision. So basically, there are already people who are vulnerable. So of course, their vulnerability will be further increased. So, this will be where their human rights are put at stake. So, my only issue was that, I mean, what do we do about it then? That’s a different debate, that is a very valid debate. How do we deal with these people now?

Vasundhara Sirnate: Yes, how do we protect them? Because recently, someone in Assam has made the case that they should not have any rights except the right to life. And to me, that’s a very dangerous statement – they are human beings before they are Bengalis or Muslims or Hindus or Assamese or whoever else. Then you have a BJP MLA, who was saying that you have to selectively weed out the Rohingya and the Bengalis and they should be shot and so on. So, this is an open call towards ethnic cleansing in my mind. And this is what is worrying.

Kaustubh Deka: That is why one has to be on guard. That is why I am precisely saying that if we acknowledge that this process has a different side; it’s a complicated process and there are some supporters from not only the quote-unquote “nativist groups” but also from groups who are different. Once they acknowledge this, then maybe it gives some kind of a leverage. How to bring this process within the constitutional fold and not to kind of let it completely collapse into the hands of those people who now want to make it kind of a platform for very non-agreeable kind of solutions.

So, that’s why there are different arguments and different demands being made. And thankfully, I can tell you from here the local population, so far, people are waiting to hear from the government about the final number, but second what is the official proposal. Because officially, the government has not spoken yet. So maybe people are waiting to hear from the state. Now, people are waiting to hear different proposals.

And as you know, there have been proposals made from time to time by different scholars from 2-3 decades, all proposals that have worked. There are different ways to deal with it, but first of all, my hunch will be as people are pointing out, that it would be a massive kind of a challenge for India as a nation state also because it’s an unprecedented example. Even in history if you see, as a global example also. I think very few countries have landed themselves in a situation like this. So, I think that there are very few precedents to proceed.

Vasundhara Sirnate: So, if I understand correctly, the work permit argument idea was floated amongst other scholars by Sonjoy Hazarika a long time ago. But Sanjib Baruah has pointed out this idea may not work. He’s talking about the liminality of identities of people living at the border region. And that the work permit only works if these people are actually documented as citizens of another country, but these people are not documented anywhere. So, “what are the rights of state-less people?” is the question that our democracy is slowly starting to ask now because like you said, this is a situation that has been there but no one has been very aware of it or interested in it until this number of 4 million has come out 2-3 days ago.

And the second thing is that the utmost attention has to be paid on maintaining the personal security of these people. And I think that if the demand for this has come from the Assamese people themselves, there’s a way that they must in fact share in the responsibility of the protection of these people and I wondered if you would agree with me if I said that.

Kaustubh Deka: Absolutely. But about this responsibility part again, there’s another argument that comes from there – people point out this whole effect in figures, that how there has been a constant decline in the number of Assamese over the years, a sharp rise in the number of Bengali speakers.

If it is decided that 4 million people have to be considered as non-citizens then one has to find a way forward in which the government comes forward and gives them some kind of package or some kind of assurance. Because it’s not only a matter of political rights. It’s a matter of other issues, like sociological reality.

Because if you see here, in terms of settlements, it is actually taking a toll on the ecological profile of the state. And these things are very much interlinked because if you see how people are migrating from one place to another in Assam, there is a constantly growing pressure on the land. There is deforestation, there are people settling on the riverside.

The problem is that this is turning into a crucial issue and there is an ecological and ecological balance issue here; there is a point of saturation. That means one has to consider from both points of view, because you have to talk about rights, but we have to contextualize these rights also. I mean, we cannot talk abstractly because at the end of the day, this will impact the state as a whole- this identity of Muslim, Hindu, this or that caste and all does not matter because this kind of ecological disaster will touch everyone.




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