On July 30, 2018, more than 40 lakh people residing in the state of Assam woke up to find that they are no longer citizens of India. The NRC (National Register of Citizens) has been updated for the first time since 1951 and their names do not feature in the published final draft despite applying with whatever documents they possessed. Just to put that number into perspective (40, 07,008 to be exact), the population of Bhutan is around 8 lakhs, Norway 52 lakh, Finland 55 lakh. Thus, a population, the size of a small nation-state, finds themselves turned into state-less refugees in their own country one fine morning.
The situation is Kafkaesque to say the least. It has been so for many years now in Assam (ever since the nefarious Assam Accord), what with the NRC, the Foreigner’s Tribunal, the Detention Camps (actually prison cells that go for Detention Camps here), summons arriving out of the blue to appear before the Magistrate or the NRC officials with proof of citizenship etc. Kafka’s novel, The Trial, begins with the line “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.” This sums up the situation in Assam with rather uncanny accuracy. In the rest of the novel, the protagonist runs from pillar to post trying to find out what his crime was and seeking relief from the same. He fails and is killed in the process. That too looks very much like the bleak future that faces those not accommodated in the NRC in Assam.
What will happen to these 40 lakh odd souls? Will they lose their voting rights? Will they lose their right over land? Will they be sent to detention camps? To jails that operate as detention camps? Will they be ‘pushed back’ to Bangladesh, their alleged country of origin? Will Bangladesh accept them? Are they going to be stuck in ‘No Man’s Land’, like flotsam and jetsam, like the Rohingyas of Myanmar? The truth is: No one knows. Nobody, not the 40 lakh ‘foreigners’, nor the NRC officials, the politicians, the peoples’ representatives, the social workers or the Judiciary; nobody really knows what is going to happen next.
The truth is that a procedure of this kind and this magnitude has never been undertaken in the history of India. Something like this is rare, perhaps unheard of, even in world history, unless you compare the situation with the Nazi regime in Germany. This has never happened before, not anywhere close to this scale. And those who are involved in the decisionmaking process are basically making up the rules as they go along. Thus, despite the Home Minister’s assurances that ‘no coercive action’ will be taken, that ‘everyone will be given ample chance to prove their citizenship’, the fear psychosis at the ground level is real. This state has a history of detention camps, a history of dragging genuine citizens from the minority community (Bengalis and other non-Assamese linguistic groups that have practically lived here forever) into jail to prove their citizenship. The fear is real.
The lady who cooks for me in Silchar (her name is Khushi), the district headquarters of Cachar, is one of those 40 lakh people. She is fifty-something, a proud, self sufficient woman, who has single-handedly brought up three kids, educated them, has got two of them married, after her husband abandoned her. She has her document – an antique parchment that has seen many seasons, a refugee card stating that her parents arrived at Silcoorie Refugee Camp in 1964 (the legal cut-off date for refugees in Assam is 1971). She proudly claims that the refugee card was given to her family by none other than Indira Gandhi herself. However, during the document verification, the officials have shown no interest in her parents’ refugee card. Today, she is stateless. She seemed resigned today, resigned to fate after the long struggle that has been her life. “At least my children’s names are in the NRC, Sir, that’s good enough” (her children used their estranged father’s legacy data as proof of citizenship). “What will they do to me? Send me off to Bangladesh? I just hope my elder daughters look after my young son, he is the one I worry about”. That’s what she said today. I had nothing to say. I looked away.
Another domestic help (Lakkhi Mashi) broke down in supplication in front of her employers. She does not have any document; neither does she have the resources or connections to ‘get them done’. She is working in this household for the last 25 years. Someone has told her that if she gets ‘adopted’ she will be safe. So a sixty-year old woman goes down on her knees saying ‘Babu, please adopt me, please tell them I am your daughter’. The rumours are rife. The fear is real.
At the University, colleagues, students, have the same question that they ask one another. ‘Naam ailo ni? Poribaarer shokoler naam?’ (Is your name there? What about your family?). There are quite a few, teachers, students, non-teaching staff, whose name or that of their family members does not feature in the final NRC draft. They are more confident however. They talk of clerical errors, tired, disinterested, callous data-entry operators. These are educated, resourceful people. Mostly, they have both the means and the connections to get these mistakes corrected. Some are surprised though. A Professor in the Visual Arts Department complains that his wife’s name was there in the First NRC Draft. His and his son’s names were absent. Since then, they had gone to Dibrugarh, ran from pillar to post to prove their citizenship. In the final NRC Draft, his and his son’s names are there, while his wife’s name is mysteriously missing. There are many, hundreds, thousands, lakhs, whose names did not feature in the list despite submitting every possible document.
A large chunk of the 40 lakh plus population are women; women from other states who have married someone from Assam; underprivileged Muslim/Hindu women who do not have proper marriage certificates. A prominent social activist from Silchar woke up today realising his wife’s name is not in the NRC list. Her family is from Kolkata, originally from Birsingha gram, Midnapore, the home of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar. She has documents from her grandfather’s time (along with her father’s birth certificate from Calcutta Medical College). Today however, she is no longer a citizen of India until she can prove otherwise.
The stories are plentiful. And so is the politics surrounding NRC. In the last few years, this NRC process has left this Indian state divided, cleaved, broken into pieces. It has successfully fuelled the prospect of ethnic clashes (of which Assam has a gruesome history), and resurrected the bogey of ethnic cleansing. There is the group of Assamese-speaking population (my students among them) who wholeheartedly believe that foreigners in Assam need to be identified and thrown out. There are minority groups, many of them, like the Bodos and the Karbis and the Dimasas, who are passively playing a role of wait and watch. There is the considerable Bengali population (who mostly have been here for more than a century) that have been successfully divided into Hindus and Muslims. Hindu Bengalis look for the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill floated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that grants minorities refuge in India on the basis of religious persecution. Muslim Bengalis, especially those outside Barak Valley, fight their own lone battle, at times claiming to be Assamese, at others asserting their religious identity. In the mean time, 40 lakh people become disenfranchised and stateless.
Admittedly, the 40 lakh number will come down. Admittedly, quite a few of these are simply clerical errors that will be corrected in the coming months. But by how much? 10, 20, 40 per cent? Let’s say 50 per cent of these are clerical errors or are relating to people (like my colleagues) who have means and resources to get it corrected. Even then we are left with a population of 20 lakh. What does the Indian State intend to do with them? How many prisons would it need to accommodate this population? More than 2000 crore rupees of tax-payers’ money has already been spent on this Quixotic adventure till now. How much more? The answer is: Nobody knows. Nobody really knows what is going to happen. The rules of the game are being made up as we go along. And in the mean time, the proverbial sword of Damocles, hangs over 40 lakh residents of Assam.
[The views expressed belong solely to the author, and may not reflect the opinions of the editorial team]