Elephant in the room
NRC rollout in Assam has divided communities and parties across Assam and is likely to do the same in other states that implement it
In Assam, the much-hyped Assam NRC updating operation was confidently projected as an ironclad mechanism to identify and deport illegal Bangladeshi 'infiltrators' during a ceremonial launch some time ago. Provisions approved by the Supreme Court ensured that 'dubious' people who could not be instantly pushed back into Bangladesh, could instead be kept in indefinite quarantine in special jails. During the last few years, a deceptive calm concealing simmering tensions prevailed among the numerous major and minor linguistic/religious groups and communities. The people of Assam and the state Government deserve all the credit for maintaining communal peace and harmony during an unusually sensitive period.
Yet the final outcome of this critically important head counting exercise has been incontestably disastrous, in socio-political terms. The objective was to delineate accurately the latest composition of the highly complex population mix in Assam, consisting of Hindus, Muslims, tribes, non-tribals, Asssamiyas and Bengalis etc.
Instead, Assam has now been thrown into the vortex of a social churning process. There were always major divisions and a lingering mutual distrust in Assam among Hindus and Muslims, Assamiyas and Bengalis, tribals and outsiders. There were and are extremist fringes operating among Assamiyas, Bengali Muslims and tribals. Yet, in contrast with more violent states in India, people of Assam had maintained social/communal harmony remarkably well in recent years.
Now in the aftermath of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) updating, in addition to the existing social/ethnic divisions, Assam-based major communities have themselves suffered internal fissures. The phenomenon of social fragmentation, if not atomization, has reached new levels. Assamiyas who cannot be faulted for worrying about their political future, now stand deeply divided and more confused than ever before. The Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) is split into two factions, one of which rejects the NRC's findings.
The Assam BJP unit is disappointed that 12 lakh Hindus have gone unlisted in the NRC, leaving fewer Muslims in its dreaded final list. Therein, about 1.9 people out of an aggregate 320 million population, stand provisionally marked as dubious citizens. For the record, the weakened Assam Congress, the primogenitor of the NRC idea, also rejects the NRC's final report.
But the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 would ensure safety for the Hindus and cushion the BJP's vote bank. Yet, somewhat unexpectedly, the major group of Bengali Hindus is also divided. Many Bengalis in the three Barak valley districts demand a Union territory and reduce their umbilical links with Assam. But their fellow Bengalis in the Brahmaputra valley oppose this. Much to their credit, most Bengalis firmly rejected parochial overtures from the Bengal Trinamool Congress (TMC).
Bengali Congress leaders also worry that since Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has indicated that only a fixed number of people will become citizens, many genuine applicants would be kept in limbo about their status by officials. There is also the possibility that if many non Assamiyas become citizens, the implementation of clause 6 of the Assam accord of 1985 may create fresh problems for the beneficiaries. This clause ensures the permanent preponderance of Assamiyas in officials jobs in the public and private sector, in the purchase of land and property, etc. In effect, it would render all non-Assamiyas, second rate citizens, regardless of their length of stay or domicile.
There is confusion as to how many Bengali Hindus would acquire citizenship status thanks to the CAA. Chief Minister Sonowal asserts that the number would be around 500,000, which should not disrupt the status quo. As of now, the Assamiyas are listed as the biggest linguist group.
Not many agree with Sonowal's prognosis. They fear that the number of Bengali beneficiaries would be much more. Further, peasant leader Akhil Gogoi feel that Bangladeshi Hindus would come over in large numbers to swamp Assam. Mr Sonowal and central BJP leaders have therefore discussed the implementation of Clause 6 way out for the state government.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, prominent BJP Minister in Assam, while defending the CAA, is more accommodative of Hindu sentiments. He pointedly refers to the growth of the non-Assamiya Muslim population as the biggest threat to Assam's future identity. He has referred to the opening of new Arabic medium schools in some parts of Assam, wondering about their objectives.
Other sources confirm that during the nineties, there were only 4 Muslim majority districts in Assam. Now the number is 9. Some more will turn into Muslim majority territories in the near future at the present rate of population growth. "Unless you are more careful, you will soon be electing men like Badruddin Ajmal as your chief Minister sooner than you think", Sarma said at public rallies. The Urdu-speaking Mr Ajmal is a Lok Sabha MP and leader of the largely Muslim All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).
The Muslims, generally happy that not many of them have gone unlisted, are worried whether the NRC will be repeated, as feared by some quarters. Muslim leaders have accused NRC officials of excluding and harassing many poor people, especially from the interior areas. The majority of the 20-odd major tribes including the Bodos, the Karbis and Lalungs, etc., have also rejected the NRC's final figures.
With such fears being aired publicly, ethnic relations are naturally more strained, stressed and wary than ever before in Assam, thanks to the NRC. Surely this could never have been any part of the NRC's agenda but in sum, this is the new convoluted political tangle it has created in Assam. The centre, the state government, as well as the Supreme Court, must examine the present volatile situation and find ways in their collective wisdom as to what is the way forward.
Not surprisingly, most states in India, learning from the mess created in Assam, have declared they will never implement the NRC. The question arises, was this inevitable? Could this situation have been avoided?
It is too early to answer such questions categorically. However, there are strong grounds to conclude that the end result of the NRC could have been different if the concerned authorities had been more sensitive in handling the numerous complaints about excesses and harassment they received from common people. According to most field reports, many of the concerned officials, all too aware of their court-mandated powers, felt answerable to no one. They mostly refused to entertain public complaints. The state administration, the SPs and DMs did not intervene as people sought their help saying that the NRC operation, under Supreme Court (SC) orders, was an autonomous affair. So did the central Government officials and the Governors' office.
Views expressed are strictly personal