National Register of Citizens: Identity issue haunts Assam, again

The role of the colonial Census in fixing linguistic identities and turning them into causes of future conflict is poorly remembered.

BySamrat X
National Register of Citizens: Identity issue haunts Assam, again
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The new year began in tension and uncertainty for millions of people in Assam with the publication of a draft first list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) on December 31 midnight, which is intended to disenfranchise illegal migrants to the state.

Around 1.90 crore of 3.29 crore people made it to the list, while the remaining 1.39 crore anxiously await publication of the next list, in which they will hope to find their names.

The politics over the list has already led to an FIR against West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and the resurrection of the issue of identity that has long haunted politics in Assam: the politics of insider and outsider, of who belongs and who doesn’t.

Fear of, and violence against, those labelled outsiders, particularly Bengalis, has long been a fact of life in Assam. During the 1980s in Assam, which saw the often-violent Assam agitation against “foreigners”, it was common for Bengalis, Muslim and Hindu, to be the targets of attack.

Arguably, the worst single instance of ethnic cleansing in the history of independent India, which surpasses in scale the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the rioting against the Sikh community in 1984, occurred in 1983 in Nellie in Assam.

There, in one single night, at least 2,191 people were killed by a mob allegedly led by student activists. No one was ever convicted of any crime for the mass murders.

The trouble back then had started over the issue of inclusion of names of suspected illegal migrants from Bangladesh in the voters’ list. The powerful All Assam Students’ Union had insisted they would not allow any elections to be held until all such people were cleaned out of the list.

The government of PM Indira Gandhi decided to go ahead with the polls and sent the Central Reserve Police Force and the Army to the state. As a result, a confrontation built up and spiralled into violence, with casualties on all sides.

Many years later, legendary police officer KPS Gill, who was Inspector General of Police in Assam at the time, recounted the events of that day in Nellie, and the political backdrop going back to the Emergency of 1975 against which it had happened, in an interview to The Hindu.

“The state Assembly elections in Assam were held a year after the rest of the country as there were no atrocities during Emergency. Indira Gandhi lost the elections and Anwara Taimur of Congress – then representing the Mangaldoi constituency – offered to vacate her seat for her to contest as it was considered a safe seat. Then it was rumoured that Mrs Gandhi might contest from the seat vacated due to the death of Hiralal Patowary. Mrs Gandhi never fought from there but the then Golap Borbora government (the first non-Congress government in Assam) made some hard calculations, that if a certain number of Muslim voters were taken off the voters’ list, they would succeed in defeating a Congress candidate. So the students were used,” he said.

The movement took on the character of ethnic cleansing, and starting 1979 Bengalis, called Bongal in Assam, were targeted by mobs that did not trouble themselves with questions of citizenship. Trouble spread to other parts of the North-East and a pogrom worse and more prolonged than the one that befell Pandits in Kashmir was aimed at Bengalis in the North-East. A whole population, many of whom had for centuries been part of a resident minority, was forcibly driven out of the region after being labelled as “foreigners”. While the fate of the Kashmiri Pandits has been memorialised, what happened in the North-East remains largely unknown to the outside world.

The current FIR against Mamata Banerjee was filed after she described the ongoing NRC exercise as one designed to drive out Bengalis from Assam.

The NRC is meant to do what the Assam Agitation failed to do: clear suspected illegal Bangladeshi migrants out of the voters’ list. Its stated purpose is sound, since no country voluntarily gives electoral rights to illegal migrants. It has been broadly welcomed by all communities for their own reasons.

The disgruntlement and court challenges to the NRC have not been to the idea of the NRC per se, but over fears of discrimination that have been heightened by certain aspects of implementation. A contentious point relates to the question of who qualifies for what might be called “tatkal” inclusion in the NRC in the “original inhabitants” category.

The government in power in Assam at present is led by the BJP and includes the Asom Gana Parishad – whose leaders Prafulla Mahanta and late Bhrigu Kumar Phukan had led the Assam Agitation of the 1980s. Mahanta and Phukan were signatories to the Assam Accord along with Rajiv Gandhi, who was the PM in 1985 when it was signed. They also became respectively chief minister and home minister of the state after the signing of the Accord, but in their tenures largely failed to ensure its implementation.

The current exercise is being carried out on orders from the Supreme Court and under its supervision. A judge who happens to be from Assam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi, has been hearing cases related to the NRC exercise. On December 5, 2017, a Bench comprising Justice Gogoi and Justice RF Nariman passed a judgment on a writ petition that had sought clarification on who could be considered as “original inhabitants” of Assam.

The court observed that “the exercise of upgradation of NRC is not intended to be one of determination of who are originally inhabitants of the state of Assam. The sole test for inclusion in the NRC is citizenship under the Constitution of India and under the Citizenship Act including Section 6A thereof”.

In an interview with Scroll, answering a question on why well over 80 per cent of people in Upper Assam, who are mainly Assamese speakers, made it to the list while in Lower Assam, where the population is predominantly Bengali speakers, the corresponding figure is less than 40 per cent in some districts, NRC state coordinator for Assam, Prateek Hajela, explained that “in Upper Assam, a large number would be coming through the original inhabitant category, whose citizenship we have established beyond reasonable doubt through field verifications”.

These were people who, according to Mr Hajela, prima facie seemed to be okay. “They did not have to go through such a vigorous process of matching like others as their citizenship is proven beyond doubt through local inquiry,” he said.

How someone might be considered ‘prima facie okay’ and someone else not is unclear. Since there is no transparency in the process, it is unclear for instance whether ULFA chief Paresh Baruah, whose name has appeared in the first list, is considered prima facie okay. Names of MPs Badruddin Ajmal and his son Sirajuddin and several MLAs including three from the BJP – Shiladitya Deb, Ashwini Rai Sarkar and Angoorlata Deka – have, however, not appeared in the first list.

Deka is identifiably Assamese by her surname, whereas the others are not.

The association of certain names with the Assamese identity is a product of colonial history. Upper Assam is where the erstwhile Ahom kingdom was located. It has a large Assamese-speaking population that calls itself Ahom.

Lower Assam and the Barak Valley have large populations that speak Bengali. These areas were not historically a part of the Ahom domains, being part of Kamrup – an ancient name that survives to this day. It was in this area that the oldest kingdom known to have existed in Assam, the Kamrup kingdom, was located. Kamrup was already an old kingdom when Chinese scholar Hiuen Tsang visited there around 640 AD. The famous Kamakhya temple in Guwahati is associated with Kamrup.

The Ahoms, by their own accounts known as buranjis, were a band of Tai invaders from Yunnan in China near its present border with Myanmar. They arrived in Upper Assam in 1228. They did not get as far as Kamrup and settled in Upper Assam, which did not then have a strong ruling power. Successive Ahom capitals were located near Sibsagar.

The Ahoms were not the first invaders to enter the state – the first Muslim invasion of Assam had occurred two decades earlier. A powerful Muslim army under Bakhtiar Khilji had entered Lower Assam, meaning Kamrup, in 1206, and been defeated by the king of Kamrup. A detailed account can be found in A History of Assam by Edward Gait.

It would appear from historical record that the claim to being original inhabitants lies with different groups in different parts of Assam. Different parts of the state have had different inhabitants since time immemorial. There are distinct Bodo, Dimasa, Karbi, Mishing, Rabha and other tribal areas. The oldest kingdom of note in Upper Assam was the Sutiya kingdom which fought the Ahoms. At different points in history, smaller groups such as Motoks have also had their own kingdoms. The Barak valley has traditionally been inhabited by Bengali speakers just as the Brahmaputra valley has been inhabited by Assamese speakers. The unification of all these diverse territories under a single administration was achieved by the British who entered the state in 1826 after it had been devastated by Burmese invaders.

In order of priority – the question of which group was there first – barring tribal groups, descendants of the people of the ancient kingdom of Kamrup such as the Koch and possibly the Kalitas can claim first place. The descendants of the earliest Muslim invaders such as the Goriyas and Moriyas would be second. The Ahoms would be next, in strictly chronological order.

Establishing descent, however, would be difficult for members of all group. It is particularly complicated in the case of the Ahoms.

Ahom king Chaolung Siu Ka Pha is known to have arrived with a band of only 9,000 people. In time, people from other communities were given titles in the Ahom kingdom’s administrative services and these titles remained as surnames. So, for instance, the title of Saikia was commander of 100-foot soldiers or paiks.

The Hazarika was the commander of 1,000 paiks. The Phukan was a commander of 6,000 paiks. And so on. People from various places and communities including Muslims entered the Ahom king’s service and got those titles, which is why there are both Hindu as well as Muslim Saikias and Hazarikas.

The Bezbaruahs were the Ahom royal family’s doctors. They trace their origins to two brothers who came to Kamrup from Mithila or Kannauj before joining the service of Ahom king Jayadhvaj Singha and getting the title of Bezbaruah.

The Ahom therefore is not an ethnic group in the way that a Naga tribe such as the Angami is. People from Kamrup, the Naga Hills, the many tribal communities of Assam, the Gangetic plains of north India, neighbouring Bengal, and possibly descendants of the Khilji soldiers who came in 1206 therefore became Saikias, Hazarikas and other officials in the Ahom administration. Their descendants are all now culturally Ahoms, along with descendants of the Tai groups that came at various points down the centuries from Myanmar and China.

The idea of fixed linguistic communities is a new one in India. There is scant evidence, at least in Bengal or Assam, of a fixed Bengali or Assamese linguistic identity that predates the arrival of the British and the Baptist missionaries in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Linguistic identities were historically fluid. You will find many of the same surnames – Goswami, Talukdar, Choudhury, Chakraborty, Bhattacharjee, Das, Dutta, Bhuyan, Baruah etc – among both Assamese and Bengalis. Sharma and Mishra are surnames found among Assamese speakers as well as Hindi speakers of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar; Assamese Brahmins typically trace their origins to Kannauj.

The role of the colonial Census in fixing linguistic identities and turning them into causes of future conflict is poorly remembered.

Even to this day, linguistic identity remains in practice a fluid one. Assam knows this from the experience of the “new Assamese”, Bengali Muslim migrants who identified themselves as Assamese after Partition in the Census of 1951 – as a result of which Goalpara district remained with Assam rather than going to West Bengal during the reorganisation of states on linguistic lines.

The best illustration of the living fluidity of linguistic identity comes from the only Indian state with a classical language not derived from Sanskrit. How many people would say Rajinikanth is not Tamil? His name before he became famous as Rajinikanth was Shivaji Rao Gaekwad. By descent, he is a Maratha. By citizenship and culture, he is Tamil. The National Register of Citizens is, as the name implies, meant to be national. If the exercise is ever conducted in Tamil Nadu, will Rajinikanth be considered “prima facie okay” to be a citizen of that state?


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