Critics of NRC, including Left parties, have failed to question the founding principles of the exercise

The issue here is that Sharjeel dared to question the Assam NRC, the detention camps and the general status quo that has emerged after the Assam Movement.

Jamila Firdaus and Adreeja Sarkar February 04, 2020 14:29:53 IST
Critics of NRC, including Left parties, have failed to question the founding principles of the exercise
  • The issue here is that Sharjeel dared to question the Assam NRC, the detention camps and the general status quo that has emerged after the Assam Movement.

  • Sharjeel is one of the very few to have openly spoken about the 19 lakh population who are excluded from the NRC list and incarcerated or would be.

  • There is an unstated assumption at work here that assumes that Assam has been unfairly burdened with Partition and post-Partition refugees from the fallout of the Bengal Partition by the Indian State.

Sharjeel Imam was arrested recently on charges of sedition. His crime? Calling for a blockade against Assam in response to the possible disenfranchisement of 1.9 million people on the back of the Assam NRC. Many of the ‘solidarity’ statements, while condemning the application of draconian anti-sedition laws and the UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act], have simultaneously distanced themselves or outright condemned Sharjeel’s call for a blockade. At this juncture, we need to break down the implications of these half-hearted solidarity statements.

Critics of NRC including Left parties have failed to question the founding principles of the exercise

File image of Sharjeel Imam. Twitter @MilitaryUpdate_

There can be two objections to this particular statement, one is that these groups oppose the manner of protest and the other relates to a condemnation of what has transpired in Assam until today. Sharjeel’s call for a blockade in the so-called ‘chicken neck’ against Assam is being interpreted as a call for aggression against the people of the state and its people and the North East at large, hence the sedition charges lodged by the governments of Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, apart from those in Assam, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. However, while one can understand that BJP ruled states (or in the case of Delhi, where the police fall under the control of the BJP-run Central government) would be trigger-happy with regards to sedition cases, this does not account for the objections of progressive activist circles in the so-called ‘mainland’.

It is important to note here that highway blockades are nothing new in the region. These have been employed multiple times, notably by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and the United Naga Council. Neither of these has led to such condemnations from the same progressive activist groups. Objections about this mode of protest often are about concerns that this will lead to a ‘shutdown’ of a state causing distress to its residents, but one can argue that this is certain for any such protest.

As a matter of fact, the anti-CAA protests in Assam also involved bandhs which by the same logic, would have caused the same kind of ‘distress’ to its residents. A similar logic can be used to delegitimise everything from bandhs to transportation strikes, but one would never find progressive activist groups opposing any of this. This is nothing but hypocrisy and this isn’t the actual issue for which such objections are being raised at this juncture.

On the contrary, the objection is concerning the second. The issue here is that Sharjeel dared to question the Assam NRC, the detention camps and the general status quo that has emerged after the Assam Movement. As a litmus test, those who have condemned Sharjeel’s statement, have they also condemned the Assam NRC in principle and not simply as a matter of implementation? For instance, the CPM while strongly opposing an All India NRC, has an unsavoury record of supporting the NRC in Assam, demanding a ‘foreigner free Assam’. There are a vast majority of such organisations and politicians who have condemned Sharjeel while opposing the sedition charges, in reality, have supported the Assam NRC.

The duplicity and hypocrisies of many of these groups, who while opposing an All-India NRC, support an NRC in Assam is attributable to the acceptance of the premise of the Assam Movement and the resultant Assam Accord i.e., the people of Assam can be cleanly divided into khilonjiya (the ‘indigenous’) and the ‘outsiders’ (illegal Bangladeshi migrants). That Assam has been ‘swamped’ by (mostly) Bengali immigrants, that they constitute an existential cultural threat to the khilonjiya and the first claim upon Assam lies with the former.

It is a matter of fact that colonial Assam saw the merger of three districts (Sylhet, Cachar and Goalpara) from Bengal to Assam. So is the migration of Bengalis from say, Mymensingh to Goalpara internal, or as many contend, external? If the precolonial status quo is the basis for making such judgements, then such migration would be internal migration. These mainly Muslim migrants from Mymensingh to the fertile chars of the Brahmaputra Valley as cultivators have faced unspeakable horrors resulting from structural xenophobia and Islamophobia from the 1930s, culminating in the infamous Nellie Massacre in 1983. The Muslims of the chars remain among the most marginalised people in Assam today.

There is an unstated assumption at work here that assumes that Assam has been unfairly burdened with Partition and post-Partition refugees from the fallout of the Bengal Partition by the Indian State. Except, this completely ignores the fact that Assam too saw its own Partition, where Sylhet saw a referendum, through which Sylhet minus Karimganj became a part of East Pakistan (although Karimganj voted for merger with Pakistan, whereas Moulvibazar voted to stay in Assam) -- a process which had the support of the Assamese Hindu elites.

Furthermore, after Partition, large numbers of Muslims were expelled from Assam on the back of the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 and the NRC in 1951. The stories of the Sylhet Referendum and Partition of Assam are little recorded and spoken of either in popular discourse in the Brahmaputra Valley or the mainland and scholarship on the same, remains much poorer than that of the Partitions of Bengal and Punjab but this hardly means that these should remain unspoken of today.

Even if the claims of the Assamese nationalists were true and that Assam was indeed burdened by an influx of immigrants for which it had no responsibility historically, any process that leads to the mass disenfranchisement of 1.9 million people, the construction of concentration camps, the talk of stripping people who are not khilonjiya of property and political rights are horrific and condemnable.

The recent, but belated public interest in the NRC in Assam has thrown up shocking stories like that of Sandhya Chakraborty and Moimunnissa -- of the horrors of the detention camps, the Foreigners’ Tribunals and so on when these have been ignored and waved away by activist and political groups in the ‘mainland’. The list of over 30 suicides in response to the NRC may be termed as nothing but institutional murders in the face of a state that rejects the value of the life of anyone they deem as a ‘migrant’ and an ‘outsider’.

This uncertainty that the people find themselves in did not escape the report of even the mainstream newspapers, so on what basis has Sharjeel’s concern towards these people earned the ire of narratives in Assam and caused discomfort among progressives in the ‘mainland’?

There are also differences in response to the solidarity offered to Sharjeel Imam and Akhil Gogoi. While the worst thing Sharjeel has probably said in his speech was expressing a nihilistic view of politics, where he cannot comprehend the possibility of solidarity towards Muslims from mainstream Hindu society or secular groups, except cynically, Gogoi had infamously stated in Bidexi Somsya Aru Jatiyo Andolonor Path that constituencies, where minorities are less than 50 percent, should be reserved for the khilonjiya, extending such a regime to local bodies and simultaneously restricting land rights as well.

Similar policies have been echoed by the ruling BJP government in Assam over the past couple of months with discussions of policies that will evict millions of ‘outsiders’ in Lower Assam, restrict the sale of property by khilonjiya to other khilonjiya and restrict political rights for those who aren’t seen as the same in what used to be undivided Goalpara once. However, in spite of such proposals, Gogoi has been welcome in progressive activist circles in the ‘mainland’ for years with no disclaimers being associated with solidarity statements for his condemnable arrest under the UAPA. On the other hand, statements of solidarity with Sharjeel are almost universally accompanied by a condemnation of his statements on Assam, even from people like Asaduddin Owaisi of the AIMIM.

Until the recent interest in the NRC, voices of dissent against NRC in Assam, from Assam itself whether Bengali, Na Axomiya, khilonjiya or otherwise, have hardly found an audience in progressive circles. The gradual emergence of such voices in these circles has now caused indigestion to a lot of voices who have thus far claimed to be the authentic voices from the state.

Sharjeel is one of the very few to have openly spoken about the 19 lakh population who are excluded from the NRC list and incarcerated or would be. The ones who have raised their strong disagreement with Sharjeel’s comment, have never been found to be sensitive towards the victims of NRC and detention centre, rather many of them are even tacitly complicit in their explicit support for NRC.

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