The National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam that had long been in the making was finally published at the end of last month and predictably it led to a storm of protests.
The opposition and primarily the Congress accused the government of communalising the region for short-term electoral gains. When the final draft of the report was made public it revealed that nearly four million people did not figure in it and that shock was not confined to the borders of that state.
While the state’s BJP Chief Minister, Sardananda Sonawal , appealed for calm and asked the people not to panic if their names did not figure in the list, he also requested them not to make any inflammatory remarks or communalise the issue and cautioned that some elements might try to create trouble by rumour-mongering. He appealed to them to defeat the designs of these anti-social elements.
The citizenship of Bangladeshi immigrants has always been a critical political issue and these people have been looked upon as a national security threat. With the result every Bangla-speaking person has to prove his identity every day to survive.
Historically when Pakistan was formed many people of that region had been forced to migrate to India. The formation of Bangladesh in1971 in a sense arrested that periodic migration.
This migration has a history of its own and some of it has been of the making of the British themselves. Even as early as between 1911and 1931 more than a million Bengalis had migrated to Assam and settled in the Brahmaputra Valley.
Interestingly while this is a political issue in Assam it has not been viewed that way in West Bengal, where they do not feel threatened by the influx. Settling in Assam has never been an easy task for the migrants as there has always been local resistance to their presence. Thus the Assam Accord of 1985 according to which only those who came prior to January 1966 figured in the electoral rolls and only these people were regularised.
That was a major gain for the newly emerging political formation, the Asom Gana Parishad(AGP) that came to power on a ground swell of support. There were economic reasons also, with the hard-working immigrants taking away local jobs and upsetting the local economy. While the ‘sons of the soil’ argument became a dominant plank for the rise of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai because the capital owning classes there were non-locals that was not the case in Assam where the migrants had been brought in by the British to work in their plantations.
Thus the Muslims in Assam have not risen from their peasant ranks and have not posed any threat to the local economy. Their contribution to the state’s wealth has also been, as a result, less spectacular, spread across the informal sector and labour contribution.
World-wide immigrants have been blamed for hurting the local communities and taking away their job opportunities and livelihood. But all these do not explain the reason for enumerating the citizenship of 40lakhs people who have been resident here for generations. According to data these migrants are the active working population in vulnerable conditions and their contribution should be enumerated rather than looking upon them as just numbers.
That is for those who examine things through the prism of pragmatism and not through narrow sectarian angle. For the latter, for those who view everything through the ‘nationalist’ angle this has provided enough armour to raise the spectre of the intruder with evil designs. Caught in the pincer of such contending postures, - one lambasting the exclusions the NRC has wrought and the other applauding it - the Assam people have shown exemplary restraint.
Assam itself has a chequered history with the intermingling of tribes for centuries. The Ahoms, who once ruled the state reportedly trace their ancestry to Thailand and settled among the existing indigenous people. Under the British, when it was part of Bengal Presidency migrant s from other parts of the country came and settled here to work in the plantations. The Bengalis themselves picked up all the administrative jobs.
Bangaldesh’s geography is such that with every tidal wave it displaces people and they finally have to migrate and the sparsely populated plains of Assam have always attracted them. With global warming and rising sea levels becoming a reality, one has to expect more people being moving upstream, to the higher reaches of Assam.