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Who is native to Assam?

NRC was a respite for some. But for 40,07,708 people, it was their worst nightmare, elaborates Siddhabrata Das.

Who is native to Assam?

The long wait for July 30, 2018 has finally came to an end, but with that began one of the most controversial political debate of Independent India - who is indigenous to Assam? A question that dangled over millions of residents in Assam ever since the process of updating NRC started. A question that gave them many sleepless nights, was finally out. For some, it was a respite but for the 40,07,708 their worst nightmare stood right outside their doorstep. In the land of their ancestors, today they stand as outsiders.

The law says that "The names of persons who are original inhabitants of the state of Assam and their children and descendants, who are Citizens of India, shall be included in the consolidated list if the citizenship of such persons is ascertained beyond a reasonable doubt and to the satisfaction of the registering authority". Furthermore, the Supreme Court on July 21, 2015, stated that original inhabitant of Assam would include "Tea Tribes". Now the question that arises, in a diverse state such as Assam where the geography and demography went through myriad changes, is to what extent is it possible to ascertain who is an original inhabitant of Assam? What are the yardsticks to measure the originality of a person's lineage? The law does not define it, but rather leaves the answer to the "able judgement" of the registering authority.

On August 24, 2017, Supreme Court directed Prateek Hajela, state coordinator of National Register of Citizens (NRC), to publish a partial draft NRC by December 31. On October 12, he told the Apex Court of the 47.09 lakh applicant whose residency certificates issued by Gram Panchayats had been invalidated by the Gauhati High Court, 17.4 lakh has been identified as Original Inhabitant. The most striking thing, out of that 17.4 lakh is that not one name belonged to a Bengali (both Hindu and Muslim). Now the question is: are Bengalis not an original inhabitant of Assam?

Padmanath Bhattacharya VidyaVinod, ex-principal of Cotton College of Guwahati, a noted sanskritist, erudite scholar, and historian through his major works established continuity between Pragjyotishpur and Kamrup Kamata (the region which was later known as East Bengal comprising regions of Sylhet, Komilla, and plains of Tripura) by citing copper plates and ancient land grants given to Brahmins by local kings. Through his works, he has shown that Brahmins had settled in this region at least two thousand years ago. With caste differentiation, castes such as Koiborto, Kayastha, Namasudra, and other labouring castes also emerged by a long process of Sanskritisation. In the later centuries, a large section of these societies evolved into a unique cultural and linguistic identity which today, we refer to as Bengali. So Bengalis were part and parcel of the process of peopling of Kamrup Kamata region. They preceded many mongoloid groups, even Ahoms came much later.

Moreover, on February 6, 1874 the first Chief Commissioner of Assam Province, Richard Henry Ketings, merged four Bengali speaking districts of Sylhet, Cachar, Goalpara, and Garo Hills along with Khasi and Jaintia Hills (presently Meghalaya) with the five original districts of Assam namely Sivsagar, Lakhimpur, Darrang, Nowgong, and Kamrup. And thus, a large portion of Bengal became part of Assam (known as North East Province in those days). Pearul Islam Ahmed, a resident of Putlatari village and district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) says that "I have seen land documents from the 1890s in my family. We came here to farm. You got very good yields with very little capital in these lands. There are rich crops of Jute and Paddy, there was also fish farming. We gave the 1951 NRC for our legacy data. But they claimed that we had given no proof of age, no documents, and form did not mention my father's name. And what about those who have no documents to show." Today people like Pearul Islam Ahmed are not considered original inhabitants of Assam rather outsiders, even when their family resided in that region for more than 100 years.

BJP MLA from Assam, Shiladitya Dev, in a recent interview stated that " 22-25 lakh Bengali Hindus got excluded from the NRC draft that was published". And according to reports coming from Assam based NGO United Bengali Forum, around 25 lakh Bengali Hindus, 13 lakh Bengali Muslims did not feature in the latest draft. To ascertain who is a genuine citizen of India residing in Assam, the authorities have set the cut off date as March 24, 1971. Anyone who comes after that is not a citizen of India. But the Citizenship Act, 1955 clearly states any person born in India before 1st July 1987 will be a citizen of India by Birth. So what will happen to a child of an illegal immigrant born before 1st July 1987? Moreover, to form the NRC list, the government has come out with certain guidelines such as person's name should be there in the electoral roll prior to March 1971 or in NRC of 1951. But the Constitutional Bench of Supreme Court in the case of Indrajit Barua vs the State of Assam, 1983 clearly mentioned the electoral roll of 1979 cannot be condemned as invalid.

It is a well-known fact that many genuine names were left out of the census of 1951 and 1961. The NRC of 1951 can at best be called a crude exercise where government officials did not venture into the remotest parts. In many instances, the name of the family head only featured in the list. If one goes through that list they will find strange names, for instance, if someone worked as a postman then his name would go down as 'Postman Kalita'. Similarly, there are a lot of Havildars, Patwaris, and Dewans. Obviously, these are not their real names. Then there are spelling mistakes. Assam government in 1955-56 did a survey of displaced people from East Pakistan where they observed 55.3 per cent could not furnish any proof as such and only 1.1 per cent could show their citizenship certificate as refugee status.

A few days back Home Minister of India, Rajnath Singh, had assured no Hindi speaking people would be left out of the NRC list even if they failed to provide any valid document. Now, on one hand, the law assures a section of residents to be in the NRC through OI route where they do not require to furnish any proof, just their surnames will do and through honourable minister's statement, their language assures (Hindi) people a spot in the NRC. And on the other hand, the remaining section of residents are compelled to go through extreme checks and verifications and in the end termed as outsiders in their ancestral land. In flood-ravaged terrains of Assam where people get displaced almost every year and where even government fails to keep their documents intact, expecting people to have 60-70-year-old documents is inhuman, to say the least. But what lies at the end of it all? Even if they managed to do so for mysterious reasons their names get cancelled, do not feature in the final list, dragged to the detention camps, families separated, and lives destroyed just because the authorities are not convinced "beyond reasonable doubt" that they are original inhabitants of Assam.

Four United Nation special rapporteur who work under the office of United Nations Commissioner of Human Rights have jointly written a letter to the Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj dated June 11, expressing their concerns over the NRC process. They went on to say that "concerns have been raised that local authorities in Assam, which are deemed to be particularly hostile towards Muslims and people of Bengali descent, may manipulate the verification system in an attempt to exclude many genuine Indian citizens from the updated NRC". The entire process of updating NRC for Assam is a one of kind exercise unheard off in recent human history marred by claims of mass human rights violation. The question we should be asking ourselves today is not who among the people residing in Brahmaputra valley and Barak Valley are illegal immigrants, but what will we gain from all these? We want to uproot millions of lives from their ancestral land, but at what cost? Will this make India, a developed country or a welfare state? Will this hold our head high on the world stage? A civilisation built upon the principle of "vasudhaiva kutumbakam", does the NRC exercise truly represent India, the nation the world adores?

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Siddhabrata Das

Siddhabrata Das

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