The silence of the media: National Register Of Citizens in Assam

Suicides, violence, persecution – why is the media not reporting the NRC process responsibly?

WrittenBy:Parag Jyoti Saikia and Suraj Gogoi
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On June 11, 2018, four Special Rapporteurs of Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)  submitted a letter to Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj addressing the racial bias and human rights violations resulting from the National Register of Citizen (NRC) process in Assam.

A passivity and racist and xenophobic contours inform the political and cultural milieu in contemporary Assam, and more importantly, the media, different civil and cultural bodies, and intellectuals have remained passive to the anxieties and fears of the marginal groups who are at the receiving end of the whole process.

Immediately following the publication of the first list of the NRC on December 31, 2017, the Chief Minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal made a public plea asking that no one be discriminated against during the process being undertaken for NRC identification. He also went on to add that the Central Government has to devise something “humanely” to deal with those who will be excluded from the NRC process.

As it stands, 1.9 crore of the 3.29 crore applicants were incorporated into the Register. Between the first publication of the NRC list and the OHCHR letter, a lot has happened. Yet, most of the media did not report on the many suicides that took place owing to the publication of the list. Neither have the setting up of detention camps been reported on beyond a point.

However, Hanif Khan was not the first or last of the suicides related to the NRC process. Prior to the declaration of the first list, Akram Uddin Barbhuiya of New Ramnagar area in Cachar District also committed suicide on December 6, 2017. On December 3, Anwar Hussain committed suicide in reaction to a notice served to his daughter for verification of documents. All the three individuals who died were under pressure owing to the formalities associated with NRC process. Subash Chandra Kalita and Ratan Rai were also victims of the same anxiety and fear of exclusion.

These deaths can be attributed to the failure to humanely implement the legislative, bureaucratic and legal processes that surround such a process and weight the effect that such a process and the inability to meet its demands, can have on individuals. The xenophobia that persists against the common enemy in Assam—the Bangladeshi—does not help either. This is in fact the mainstay of organised and insurgent politics in the contemporary Northeast. This affects civil society and cultural bodies which actively advocate the exclusion and expulsion of so-called “Bangladeshis’.

Within such an ambit, certain disturbing trends were observed in the media over deaths related to the NRC. A section of media reported that Hanif Khan committed suicide because of “not having proper document’. Public intellectuals like Sanjib Baruah even made a mockery of his death.

In contrast to these NRC-related deaths, the Karbi Anglong incident gathered much media attention and solidarity. It proved that death is indeed not perceived equally for different individuals. Victims like Hanif Khan bear testimony to the almost indifferent political processes and ideology which surround the NRC process.

We would also like to highlight the importance of language as writer Moustafa Bayoumi reminds us, in reporting about the oppressed. He says that often in writing about the oppressed, they are first either killed by a bullet or by the language used to describe their deaths. A particular passive tonality and language which is used to describe the struggles of the oppressed, lends itself to victimhood. So much so that, the victim gets erased in the process of writing or reporting.

In the context of NRC, this was not an aberration. In fact, the language used to define and describe the process of NRC is not only misleading, but also aimed at creating an environment of fear psychosis and xenophobia. During the time when the process of NRC had begun, questions were raised about the basis of the NRC and there was confusion even within official circles regarding what is considered legacy data. Over a period of time though, the NRC has become the sole document forming a “protective shield of Assamese nationality”.

On January 1, the Asomiya Pratidin headline, stated: “Four Decades long Struggle – First Stage of Results of the Self-sacrifice of 860 Martyrs – The National Doctrine Published Midnight – First Draft of NRC with 1.9 crore Names”. The newspaper also carried columns from leaders of organisations such as Asom Sahitya Sabha (Assam Literary Society), All Assam Students Union and others who lauded NRC as a step towards “safeguarding the national life of Assam” for the son of the soil. The association of NRC with national pride is ill-fated as this elevation ensures that the NRC process cannot be questioned.

In his article, Dr Dhrubajyoti Bora, then President of Asom Sahitya Sabha stated that the literary body had made a submission to the Supreme Court of India demanding that “in order to include and identify the khilonjiya (son of the soil, roughly translated) population of Assam in the citizenship register, all the communities listed in the Schedule Caste, The Schedule Tribe (Hills and Plains), Backward Classes, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), MOBCs lists, should be included in the citizenship register without any legacy data”.  

While legacy data has been deemed as a cornerstone to be included in the NRC, relaxing these norms for certain sections while making it strict for others, dependent on language or religion, is another method of spreading xenophobia and practising racial discrimination as the OHCHR letter rightly pointed out.

On the eve of June 30, 2018, which was slated for the publication of the final draft of NRC (even though State Coordinator of NRC has stated that list will not be published on June 30) most regional newspapers had published a lead article pointing out the increasing number of Bengali speakers and decreasing number of Assamese speakers. But the numbers vary from newspaper to newspaper. The headline in Amar Asom on June 29, was “Number of Bengali Speakers increased to 30%”. On the same day, Asomiya Pratidin’s headline was, “Bengali Speakers number increased to 29% in the state – Number of Assamese speakers reduced to 48.38%”. The decline of Assamese speaking population is not new, nor is language switching, which played a crucial role in the Assam movement as Myron Weiner notes.

In fact, in the decade 1991-2001 the share of Assamese speakers went down by 9 percentage points as opposed to this decade’s drop of only 0.4 percentage points, notes Debarshi Das (unpublished). Similarly, the Bengali-speaking population rose by 6 percentage points in the last decade as opposed to 1.4 percentage points this decade. The Assamese dailies also did not consider it necessary to add the higher Total Fertility rate of Muslims which may be responsible for the high growth of Bengali speakers.

Writing about NRC in other languages such as in the Kolkata-based Bengali media also suffers from similar problems. Apart from being ill-informed about the Assamese language and grammar, a section also seems to highlight the Assamese versus Bengali binary, which at this point is totally uncalled for.

A section of commentators who claim to be alternate also fail to address the issue in the true sense of alternate. One of the mainstays of alter-politics as anthropologist Ghassan Hage points out, is the notion of hope. To hope is a very futuristic and objective thing. What we do need is to co-hope, hope with the other. With or without NRC, that kind of hope sharing hasn’t happened in contemporary Assam, particularly after the Assam Movement.

Alternate media platforms have been, both at the regional and national level, overtly generous in offering solutions to the NRC process. One such solution that has gained currency is the notion of work permits. Yes, perhaps the inevitability of the process does lead us to think practically, however, how can so-called alternate media and commentators ignore the gross human rights violations and continuing speaking with such passivity? The neutral language hides the perpetrators and also makes them what Sartre would call “passive complicit” to the process. What people in Assam need, irrespective of caste, creed and religion, is full citizenship, not a token that is the work permit.

“The passivity of language haunts us yet again with the nature of injunction to the OHCHR letter.” It is suggested that the letter was written on the pretext of information provided by “civil society bodies from India” and point to their “inadequacy”. Such shifting of attention from the main crux of the matter, which is racial discrimination during the NRC process, to other procedures drives more pressing issues into oblivion or makes one indeed ‘wait’.

Also, it is not easy to wait for a solution, given what is at stake – belonging and citizenship. (Real) People have been waiting to be reported, deported, identified, excluded, humiliated and perhaps, to be loved. They all hope to be included. The waiting and exclusion have caused deep trauma, anxiety and fear.  Hanif Khan and Akram Uddin Barbhuiya and Anwar Hussain are memento moris of the effects of this exclusion.

In am NE Live TV debate on June 25, All Assam Student Union’s (AASU) advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya labelled the UNHRC letter unfair. He even suggested that the United Nations is against the indigenous people of Assam. It’s ironic that a “son of the soil” blamed the UN for reverse discrimination against the indigene, the same institution that they have approached multiple times for various reasons!

The state, too, is equally responsible for such fear. Paramilitary forces, army units and police officers were deployed across Assam before the publication of the first list. When the state makes such overt displays of legitimate force, the general public is obviously petrified.

In such a milieu, the presence of the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) does not help the cause of the state. Given this situation, the media, intellectuals and civil bodies should show some sensitivity, which has sadly not been the case. A society reaches utmost decay when its intellectuals submit themselves to the popular and populist imaginations. We have arrived at those gates of decay, undeniably, as we wait for the final list.

In essence, the NRC has managed to reinforce social hierarchies and deepen social differences, and in the process integrated the dominant culture of the state. Of course, there are exceptions and there are certain real alternate voices that have maintained a robust criticism of the NRC and the state bureaucratic and legal processes. Mukul Kesavan, Prasenjit Biswas, Harsh Mandar, and Debarshi Das, among others, have regularly questioned the process through their opinions. But the voices are few and far between and more voices are required to highlight the ground realities of the NRC process.


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