As the date for the publication of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam inches closer, voices of criticism are growing louder. Not unexpectedly, detractors who want to shut down these critical voices too are getting noisier.
The NRC updation exercise, sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 2014, is aimed at identifying “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh who entered Assam on or after 24 March 1971. Critics argue that the Rs 1,200 crore exercise has been selectively targeting Assam’s Bengali-speaking minorities, mostly Muslims, and has caused trauma and distress to large sections of the economically and socially marginalised population.
Supporters of the exercise – Assamese jatiyatabadis (ethno-nationalists) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) affiliates – insist that it is a necessary administrative endeavour to ‘cleanse’ Assam of ‘infiltrators’ (or “termites” according to the current union Home Minister). So, anyone criticising the NRC is not just an ‘anti-Assamese’, but also an ‘anti-national’.
But, the house of jingoism, xenophobia and majoritarianism hasn’t been in order off late. Faced with an avalanche of criticism from sections of the domestic and international media on the NRC and the attendant ecosystem of Assamese chauvinism, reactionary censurers in Assam are now devising creative means to intimidate critics, after failing to secure prosecutions in court. Recently, one such innovation from the devil’s workshop revealed itself to the world through the hallowed corridors of WhatsApp.
The masterpiece came in the form of an obscure “report” titled “NRC: The Other Story / Truth, Reality & Conspiracy” – a bunch of unattributed PDFs divided into multiple chapters with the official NRC logo on the cover page of each chapter. The documents began finding their way into WhatsApp messages from August 17. We received it on 18 August.
Two days later, in an official statement, the NRC State Coordinator clarified that the “NRC authority has nothing to do with its creation or circulation.”
Made to look like an official intelligence dossier, the shoddily-designed PDFs seek to expose the “anti-NRC propaganda network”. The chapters are lusciously titled “Propaganda Network”, “Tip of Anti NRC Brigade”, “The Brigade & The Nexus”, “Harsh Mander, Assam & NRC”, “Role of Teesta Setalvad” and whatnot.
Each running into at least more than a dozen pages, they contain a wide array of seemingly “damning” stuff about crooked journalists, activists and academics who have been doing the crooked job of criticising a discriminatory government policy, giving a voice to the voiceless, and rooting for justice (such treachery!). The makers have gone to great lengths to compile comprehensive professional-cum-personal profiles of this wretched “brigade” that is out to protect India’s democracy and uphold the Constitution.
Some of the chapters are meticulously done. From screenshots of personal Facebook profiles (and certain posts critical of the NRC) to flow charts depicting the personal relationships (love interests included) of this “gang”, the high-level dossier has it all. The chapter on the “anti-NRC journalists” also contains a point-by-point breakdown of the perfidious agendas of journalists who have undertaken the nasty job of speaking truth to power. Tell us again, why shouldn’t they be exposed?
The hardworking and ambitious authors have spared no one. They have gone after fish of all sizes and shapes – Al Jazeera, Firstpost, The Wire, Scroll, Outlook, Countercurrents, Newslaundry, Jhai Foundation, Karwan-e-Mohabbat, Sabrang India, Pangsau Collective, Voice Raiser, NEThing, CJP, Harsh Mander, Teesta Setalvad, Subir Bhaumik, Hafiz Ahmed, Abdul Kalam Azad, Aman Wadud, Avijit Sinha, Subasri Krishnan, Parag Jyoti Saikia, Abdul Gani, Ipsita Chakravarty, Sadiq Naqvi, Shoaib Daniyal, Makepeace Sitlhou, Mukut Lochan Kalita, Prasenjit Biswas, Suddhabrata Sengupta, etc.
Both of us also found our kind mention in the document. Needless to say, we are honoured to be sharing a list with people for whom we have nothing but sheer respect and admiration. We know many of them personally – a fact that we are proud of.
The above organisations and individuals have done extensive work on the NRC and Assam’s oppressed minorities. They have gone against the grain to tell stories where there are no storytellers, criticise where there are no critics, file petitions where there are no petitioners, and protest where there are no protestors. Some of them have literally crossed swamps and rivers to lend a shoulder to the grief-stricken and assure them that one day, justice will arrive home and the oppressors brought to book. Others have given the voiceless a meaningful voice to enunciate their angst.
“The way the NRC has rolled out has created, in our opinion, an immense human tragedy destroying the lives of millions of our poorest people. To dub those who speak in anguish and solidarity with these people as a vested mafia is maligning them,” says Mander, who has written an extensive report on the conditions of detention camps in Assam as National Human Rights Commission’s Special Monitor for Minorities.
This attention that Assam’s disenfranchised minorities are receiving, especially from non-Assamese quarters, on account of the NRC is precisely what unsettles the dominant Assamese elite – a powerful sociopolitical group, which continues to set and safeguard the mainstream political-cultural narrative in the state. In their constricted worldview, anyone calling out Assamese chauvinism is an agenda-driven agent of “outsider forces” who is out to divide Assam. The underlying assumption here is that Assam, as a society, has always been tolerant and bereft of any ills, which of course, is a false belief.
The compilers of the list should know that they are engaging in a serious case of hate speech and disinformation, alongside criminal defamation, as put down by Indian law. The spiteful document that uses religion, culture, race, place of birth and language to mark social distinction promotes enmity between different groups. This qualifies as hate speech as under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), while the personal slandering comes under Section 499. The use of the official NRC logo without authorisation, moreover, falls under copyright infringement as laid down by the Copyright Act 1957.
The implicit intent behind making a list of this nature – one that puts individuals in neat regional, communal or ethnic brackets – falls squarely in an age-old pattern and practice of Axomiya jatiyatabad, now mixed with Hindutva nationalism, that seeks to preserve narrow ethno-religious boundaries at the cost of slandering and othering “outsiders”. The “outsider” could be anyone – a Bengali Hindu, a Bengali Muslim, a Bengal-origin Muslim, a Hindi-speaking “mainlander”, or even an Assamese-speaking Hindu who refuses to toe the ethno-nationalist rhetoric.
Sample the make-up of the “anti-NRC journalist” chapter. The authors have carefully cherrypicked individuals who are either Bengalis (both Hindus and Muslims) from Assam (and the Northeast) or “mainlanders”. There is literally just one Assamese-speaking individual, Gaurav Das, in the list, and the authors have made sure to mention that he is the “only Assamese journalist” in this “gang” who is “confused” about what he is reporting. Das has been vocal on social media about the NRC’s ills and the xenophobic atmosphere in Assam, effectively rendering him a “jatibirodhi” (anti-Assamese) in the eyes of the chauvinists.
The divisive and malicious profiling in the whole document is less than subtle, and at places, plain amusing. For instance, Scroll correspondent, Ipsita Chakravarty, is described as a “Bengali chauvinist who thinks Assam should be the next Tripura”. Veteran journalist from Assam and former BBC correspondent, Subir Bhaumik, is profiled as a “Bengali chauvinist to the core”.
Shoaib Daniyal, who is currently with Scroll, too is profiled as a “Bengali chauvinist from Kolkata”. Hindustan Times correspondent, Sadiq Naqvi, is described as a “chupa rustam” (sly). Saif Khalid, an Indian journalist currently with Al Jazeera, is labelled an “Islamic fundamentalist in the garb of journalist”.
Abhishek Saha, principal correspondent for The Indian Express in the Northeast, is described as being “obsessed with reporting only on detention centres, atrocities on Bengali Speaking Muslims”. Rohini Mohan, independent journalist, is apparently “very eager to win awards by reporting on NRC exercise in Assam” and is in “close touch with Miya Poetry Gang”.
“This kind of branding is part of a new culture to muzzle the media by trying to discredit those who oppose the dominant narrative. But, this will not work. The pitfalls of the NRC process has been extensively covered by the national and global media and a Times of India editorial this week said that the government should give up the idea of extending the NRC to other parts of the country,” says Bhaumik, who has written extensively on the NRC for international publications.
“By the way, the most damning indictment of the NRC appeared in The Economist, which went to the extent of saying that India is turning its own citizens into foreigners. So, I was surprised not to find The Economist on this list,” Bhaumik further says.
All of this would be simply funny, if not for the very real culture of hatred, chauvinism and vigilantism that lie behind it. Pernicious ‘hit lists’ such as these are only a manifestation of the wider industry of exclusion and discrimination that a section of the Assamese social elite continues to run.
“This is nothing but an attempt to silence any questions raised about NRC. The ones who prepared these reports seem to be more uncomfortable with the problems associated NRC coming to light than the problems created by NRC in the lives of hundreds of people,” adds Parag Jyoti Saikia, a doctoral student in Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Saikia, much like the others, has contributed significantly to the bulging public literature that is critical of the NRC and Assamese chauvinism.
“I think the report is a frustrated attempt to intimidate some of us. It’s a jerry-built document for public display of stalking skills. Having read it, I was reassured that one, I am doing good work and two, the authors really need to enrol in a writing centre,” says Jyotirmoy Talukdar, who teaches at a writing centre in Ashoka University. Talukdar, whose name and social media profile featured extensively in the “dossier”, has also written critically on the NRC process, and was recently involved in drafting a public statement condemning criminal prosecutions against and online trolling of Miyah poets.
“I condemn this act, and stand by what I have reported so far. One, they have tried to mislead people by using the official NRC logo. Two, if they had any problem with a particular report, they should give a detailed analysis of the same. Intimidating journalists in this manner in a democratic country is not an encouraging sign,” says Guwahati-based freelance journalist, Abdul Gani, who was elaborately mentioned in the “dossier”. Gani has written several reports on the NRC process for various publications. His latest article for The Telegraph discusses the humanitarianism shown by some good Samaritans during the recent case of inter-district mass NRC hearings.
“As a freelance journalist working in the world’s biggest democracy and under the great Indian Constitution, it gives me tremendous honour to write about common people’s struggle and who are marginalised, whether it is the LGBTQ community or people struggling to prove their citizenship. If writing about people’s struggle is deemed anti-establishment, then there could be no other bigger tragedy,” says Gaurav Das, who is flagged as the “only Assamese” journalist” in the list of “anti-NRC journalists”.
He says, “Personally, I have no grudge against those who prepared the ‘dossier’. It is a free country. But, they should have come out with their names. Not doing so shows shadowy intent. If one is brave, like us who are writing reports, than they should be equally brave themselves. Luckily, my 79-year old mother, who is a former state awardee artist, is proud of me and my writings. She told me, ‘don’t stop reporting’”.
The ‘hit list’ as a product shows the inner self of Assamese nationalists and how they engage with its critiques. In their narrative, any opposition to or criticism of NRC is de facto criminal or acts of propaganda. But, one ought to ask certain questions to the producers of this list: are they the gatekeepers of Assam or are they the only ones to draw the measurements of Assamese culture? Do they believe that have a divine right to decide the boundaries of public intellectualism in Assam?
The list also tells us about Assamese supremacy and the social disdain towards ethno-linguistic minorities that it fosters day in and day out in almost every sphere of life. This supremacy is evident in the twisted way the various journalists in the list were described and the alleged “network” of people they use to get their stories on NRC.
The very fact that any opposition to the NRC is seen as a threat to Assamese cultural life, and hence anti-Assamese, shows how the whole exercise is a legitimate tool of exclusion and not inclusion. The opposition to NRC, thus, equates to questioning Assamese legitimacy, an identity that is portrayed as narrow and selfish, one that is incapable of accommodating difference. If this is not Assamese Supremacy, what is?
Moreover, the list portrays char areas (riverine areas) as ‘Miyah-only’ settlements, thus re-imposing the stigma that is associated with it. The first permanent settlers of Char-Chapori areas in the Brahmaputra valley are Mishings and Kaibartas, who, like the Miyahs, remain distant from the caste Assamese society. The gaze that char areas are being seen with is a stark reminder of how these spaces still remain stigmatised, not just because of who live there, but what they do.
Hence, reporting from and about Dhubri and Barpeta – where large sections of the Miyah population are settled – becomes unbearable and turns in the stomach of the caste Assamese middle class Assamese.
Creating and sustaining a racist other is an integral characteristic of Assamese supremacy. Like Hindu nationalism which largely operates on notions of cultural superiority and monopoly, Assamese supremacism also foregrounds a kind of Assamese nationalism, which promotes a certain culture of exclusivity.
This notion of culture is dominantly derived from language. Promoting and guarding this culture gives individuals the kind of social honor that is accepted in Assamese society. Anything beyond those measurements is seen as a deviance and anti-cultural. The recent debate around Miyah poetry shows how the hegemony of Assamese language is guarded with disturbing regularity.
This spam “dossier”, thus, is only the latest demonstration of everything that is wrong with the Assamese socio-political milieu.