Journalist Rohini Mohan on her Assam NRC reportage, 'breakdown of fragile, important coexistence' in India
In an exhaustive report for Vice News in collaboration with Type Investigations, Bengaluru-based journalist Rohini Mohan explores the complexities of the fallout of the NRC in Assam, as is being carried out since 2015. She also closely examines the workings of the Foreigners Tribunals, where 19 lakh individuals are now facing trial to prove their citizenship. Her investigation points to procedural lapses in an initiative that was speciously launched to sieve out illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in the state. The NRC now threatens to systemically strip many bona fide Indians of their citizenship, raising possibilities of rendering them stateless.
Journalist Rohini Mohan's investigation points to procedural lapses in an initiative that was speciously launched to sieve out illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in Assam.
Mohan reflects on some of the most difficult aspects of her research, the implications of NRC and CAA in India, and what motivated her to undertake this project.
She emphasises on the lasting implications rulings like the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens can have on future generations.
Amid nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the 'gateway to the North-East', Assam, has been under an internet blackout since 11 December. Several districts in Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh are under similar communication blockades, following agitations opposing the CAA.
The legitimacy and constitutionality of the Act, seen as a mere stepping-stone for the highly contested National Register of Citizens (NRC), has been vociferously debated.
This ongoing debate on identity and citizenship seems to have only amplified the noise around the subject in Assam. Over 19 lakh people in the state didn't make it to the NRC that was most recently released earlier this year in August. These individuals are now due to face the Foreigners Tribunals, a system ill-famed for its opacity and inconsistency. In order to prove one's citizenship for the NRC, a person is required to produce their birth certificates, along with their ancestors', land records, and voter lists, besides a host of other mandated documents.
In an exhaustive report for Vice News in collaboration with Type Investigations, Bengaluru-based journalist Rohini Mohan explores the complexities of the fallout of the NRC in Assam, as is being carried out since 2015. She also closely examines the workings of the Foreigners Tribunals, where the aforementioned 19 lakh individuals are now facing trial to prove their citizenship.
Her investigation points to procedural lapses in an initiative that was speciously launched to sieve out illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in the state. The NRC now threatens to systemically strip many bona fide Indians of their citizenship, raising the possibility of rendering them stateless.
In a telephonic conversation with Firstpost, Mohan reflects on some of the most difficult aspects of her research, the implications of NRC and CAA in India, and what propelled her to undertake this project.
Firstly, what motivated you to pursue this investigation, and made you closely examine the workings of the Foreigners Tribunals in Assam?
In 2017-2018, there was a conversation around the ‘foreigner issue’ in Assam, which is when an editor from Huffington Post asked me to go and cover it. I had covered the Assam floods before, and had also written on child marriage in the state — which is quite rampant there — but not the identity issue. I have, however, in the past reported on the Sri Lankan Civil War, and its beginnings were quite similar to what’s happening now. For example, one community is seen as having too many ‘privileges’, and the majority community tries to revoke what they see as privileges, but are actually a community’s rights. That drives a wedge between different groups and has consequences that should be foreseen, because history is just repeating itself. So, I broadly looked at this issue, and went to discover the release of the first NRC draft list at the time.
When I was recently asked to do a talk based on my reporting [at the Bangalore International Centre in Bengaluru], I saw it as an opportunity to try and tell these realities that I found on the ground, which have been reported so well by local journalists in Assam. These are the people who went out there, day after day, and explained so much to me. I saw it as my responsibility to try and tell these stories in as many different formats as possible, and not just as reports. So I’ve tried to write it as long reports — long-form writing is what I usually do — and smaller stories, among other formats.
Different people have different attention spans, and different ways of understanding. The NRC is a very complicated, bureaucratic, detail-oriented process, which may be difficult for people to comprehend. But I wanted to make the effort to make it digestible to larger groups of people. Of course, it’s only in English, and not in other languages, which I hope will happen, but at the same time, I wanted to make sure that I did a talk, along with reports, which completely avoid mentioning or giving credence to any unsubstantiated numbers, theories, or claims, that come from absolute imagination and political agenda, from all sides. There are groups, who, from the beginning of this process, said that it is completely biased against Muslims. But it took months of reporting to show that the NRC is also biased against the poor. So we need to keep an open mind. While it is targeted against the Muslims, it was also affecting more people, and that is why so many care about the CAA and NRC now. You may not care at all about the Muslims, but you do care about yourself and the poor.
It’s important to show these realities of this process in different ways. And the reality of the anti-CAA protests in the North-East is not that they want a secular India, but that they are only trying to protect their own backyards. So, you can see it in any way — you may criticise it or empathise with it, that’s different — but one needs to know that reality. People may come to their own conclusions. There’s too much fake news and fake agenda around this, and I think we, as responsible journalists, have to make sure that we tell these stories in as many different formats as possible, with as much accurate information as we can provide. And if we don’t know something, we should say that we don’t know it yet.
Now that the Citizenship Amendment Act has been passed by Parliament, different parts of India are witnessing protests and police crackdowns. What kind of socio-political ramifications do you think this move specifically has on a state like Assam, where matters of identity and citizenship are already so contested?
I think it has rekindled differences, while not at all addressing actual sources of insecurities. There is fear among the tribals over the loss of their identities, land, and language, and because of CAA and NRC, these issues have become subsumed in a larger ‘Assamese identity versus Bengali identity’ narrative. Even in the beginning, there was never a let up in the violence and discrimination against Bengalis in a social setting in Assam. But with the centre and the state governments giving more space for them to shout, thereby lending more legitimacy to divisive voices, instead of ones that encourage coexistence, it is driving a social and political wedge, besides paving the way for more law and order problems. As soon as the government legitimises these insecurities, and tries to get political dividend out of them — which is what this is all about — it immediately becomes a crisis. I don’t think we expected Hindu-Bengalis to be included in such large numbers in the excluded list of the NRC.
The way the North-East is opposing the CAA is very different from the way in which the rest of the country is doing it. The North-East doesn’t want any outsiders. It was a simmering feeling, and now the government has given it legitimacy, and it’s dangerous. Every state is defining an ‘outsider’ in a different way, and the North-East is extremely diverse with several groups living there. All sorts of groups exist; for instance you don’t know what positions the Bodos hold in Assam in this regard. There are autonomous areas assigned to these groups because they have different needs, but those also don’t seem to be enough. Instead of addressing those fears and some legitimate land and resource concerns, these sorts of laws have just created a situation where the only answer seems to be to throw people out, which is really not the answer. They’ve thrown out so many people over the last decade that it has just created a deeper divide between everybody, especially the minority communities.
As you mentioned, your investigation makes it amply clear that not only are more Muslims and Bengali speakers being targeted in Assam, but the process is glaringly anti-poor in nature as well. Documentation continues to be a challenge across the board, with most people who aren't millennials missing a birth certificate. How do you think this impacts our ideas of citizenship and national identity?
For such a long time in India, the identity as an Indian was not so limited that it would exist only on a piece of paper. It actually began with the idea of Aadhaar — although it was supposed to be for residents and not citizens — but as soon as the idea of ‘nationalists’ gained currency, it started to reduce what it means to be an Indian. First, it was the person who questions the government in democratic, non-violent ways, and ends up becoming a non-Indian or an anti-national... those kinds of wordplay is where it began. And now I think it has been reduced to who can show a piece of paper, in complete and callous disregard for the poor. This was happening under the Congress government as well, where they said that through Aadhaar, only if one’s biometrics are in place will they be given rice and ration. So if your biometrics don’t work for various reasons, it’s troubling because you’re actually not going to get food.
Hence, from there itself, one can see how technological and bureaucratic ‘solutions’ are being imposed on people, without actually testing whether it works on the ground. And now that the NRC is stripping people of their citizenship, including ones who belong to BJP’s Hindu vote-banks — who may have not been there in the lists because they did not have the required documents, and others for other reasons — there is still no desire to see this reality and fix it. These are obviously bad solutions, because they depend on perfect paperwork, which very few people in the country have. Therefore, this risks so many people getting left out and not being granted citizenship.
Then, there are so many subjectivities in this process, which involves the question of who deserves to belong. For instance, in Assam, they’d say that Bengalis shouldn’t belong. If it’s the central government deciding, then they’d not want any Muslims, because they don’t care what language they speak. In the rest of the North-East, they might not want any Nepalis. The Indian Constituent Assembly had decided that one should be granted Indian citizenship by birth. But over the years, this has been whittled down and changed to citizenship by descent. Now each area has different cut-offs...this is very complicated.
The government is supposed to determine who’s Indian and who is not; but now it’s made it the responsibility of the people to prove it. And we are talking about people who have lived in the country for a very long time, and haven’t just crossed borders.
Also, by reducing the meaning of who’s an Indian and what they’re entitled to, you’re actually undermining, in many ways, what a human being’s rights are. The larger human rights discourse is on who gives you your rights. It is already present within a human — one’s intrinsic right to exist, to practice religion, to education, life, and so many other things. By questioning that at a time when there is such a threat of statelessness, alongside this rise in nationalism that wants to draw borders within communities and around geographies so rigidly, it puts millions of people at risk of losing their intrinsic rights. If we are going to take away rights from people who have lived as Indians, I can’t even imagine the kind of treatment such a country would mete out to people who it sees as stateless, who don’t belong here or in Bangladesh. And it really worries me that the intrinsic rights as human beings of those people are going to be taken away.
Assam's tendentious history, of course, has everything to do with its complicated social structure. Conventionally, border states are politically and socially more volatile, as we all know. Essentially, do you think there will be any significant difference in the way NRC will play out in non-border states?
So the border areas are the ones with sharp insecurities and sharp divides, and the politics there is very inflammatory and urgent. But in non-border states like Madhya Pradesh, or all of the South, I don’t see this being anything more than anti-Muslim. In places like Karnataka, which is where I come from, it is not about the ‘state’, and it hasn’t experienced the impact of Partition the way the North has. But there were people from Bangladesh who were working here — it is a very diverse place, and because of all the economic activities, a lot of people from across the country come here. The impact of such a ruling on a state like Karnataka has already shown, when the Bengalis were almost booted out. Many of them admitted that they were Bangladeshi. They have lived here in full knowledge of the police and the local municipality, doing some of the worst, most menial work, like ragpicking, and were a part of the recycling industry. They did a great economic service while existing in full knowledge of all authorities, until they were suddenly declared criminals. They had to be on the run and were deported, and finally they disappeared. They were taken to Kolkata by the Bengaluru police. This is really worrying because the whole colony where they were living had emptied out, and all of this happened in Karnataka even before the NRC debate.
So I think such laws, even before they come into force in different states, would only polarise societies and vilify certain groups, whether it’s Muslims or Bengali speakers. These could be different groups in different places.
There were some Rohingyas who were living in a small colony in Chennai for some time, who might be vulnerable. At the time when Home Minister Amit Shah was saying in Parliament that throw the Rohingyas out, so many of them, who were living peacefully with UNHCR refugee cards, were suddenly seen as suspicious. Coexistence is a very delicate and beautiful thing; as soon as you vilify one group, it creates mistrust in society and it ends up disadvantaging everybody altogether.
But the largest impact will be on the most vulnerable and poor if these policies come into play in any of the other states, apart from the targeted groups like Muslims, or anyone seen as ‘foreigner’. It will also affect large numbers of women and the elderly people across the board and across classes, people who don’t have documents, groups who are migrating, groups who are affected by climate change, other displaced people — individuals who already exist on the margins of society. Even if they aren’t disenfranchised, they will be harassed and will lose a lot of money for years together.
"I thought, why am I not finding any foreigners? Then I realised that they are just not there." — This one quote seems to poignantly encapsulate the nature of this crisis, the idea of the ‘insider’ vs the ‘foreigner’. How has this influenced the way in which you perceive the concept of belonging and 'Indianness'? Do you see an increase in divisive and communal feelings in your familiar circles, ever since the NRC debate caught on?
For sure! I think suddenly everybody is very worried about ‘foreigners’, a thing that they never really thought of. And this is a narrative that I’ve heard in countries like the UK, the US, even in some European nations where people are worried about immigrants. And around Brexit, people voted to "leave" because they thought that they were being impacted by immigrants, and we all know that’s not true. Immigrants add to economic activities and are always beneficial. They do the jobs that locals don’t want to do, or have left doing for a really long time.
The quote that you mention is said by a Foreigners Tribunal member, and he was someone who had bought into the narrative, but was later shocked at the reality of how inflated those figures and exaggerated those claims against immigrants were. I too kept having this doubt throughout my time reporting, and kept thinking that it is a question that one has to address because there is a lot of immigration, and this is a real problem. But soon, I understood that yes, there is immigration, but the response to that is disproportionate. The answer is creating new issues for those who are Indians — and there’s no doubt that they are Indians — which is most of the country. Additionally, it is not at all addressing the immigration issue.
I am not someone who is so fearful of immigrants, but if I had lived in Assam or had grown up in Kashmir, I may have had a very different perspective of who’s a ‘foreigner’, than if I had lived in a place like Delhi, where there’s been a constant influx of people from outside. In some ways, I was actually a foreigner — a Tamil-speaking person living in a Kannada-speaking region. But I never felt the fear of a ‘foreigner’.
However, there were some instances during the Cauvery water-sharing conflict when there was some violence in the Tamil-dominant neighbourhood where I used to live. So my mind went back to those moments, and it is only then when I understood what it means to be an outsider, but not really, as I never faced any violence or never really felt threatened. I just felt the fear, and then we came up with a solution and decided to simply learn Kannada better, and assimilate. And this is exactly what a lot of Bengalis have done in Assam as well, much like what any community living in an area for a long time will do. They don’t hide, but fit in and enjoy being a part of that community. They learn the language and the ways of the region.
The manner in which people were celebrating Bihu in Assam — whether they were Bengalis or Bodos or Assamese, was just amazing. They were all following the same regional practices. So why a foreigner is so feared is not something I have experienced, but my eyes were open to. At the same time, I don’t think the solution can ever be to suddenly question groups of people, who have lived in a particular area for decades and generations, on where they’ve come from. It is heartbreaking. If my parents, at that point, had suddenly been asked where they came from, my dad may have been able to answer. But if I have grown up and lived for 35 years in one place, why should anyone ask me where I am from and why have I come here?
These questions made me start thinking, and also made me go back to my family and check whether they have papers and documents. They do. But when you look at them closely, these papers have so many mistakes.
If you ask me whether there’s polarisation and communal feelings — yes, I think so. However, what is also heartening to see is that if there’s anyone who actually listens to the problems related to the NRC, they look at their lives and realise that this is absolutely ridiculous. They understand that they won’t be able to prove their citizenship, or their siblings might not be able to. People are identifying with it, and realising how it affects everybody.
But most people are quite gullible and willing to play along with drawing borders. It comes very easily to everybody, and with the economy in such bad shape and people losing jobs, everyone wants someone to blame, and they do find someone to blame.
Incidents of Kashmir's lockdown following the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A, journalist Aatish Taseer's Overseas Citizenship of India status being revoked, and now the CAA, indicate a narrative that ousts Muslims from the Indian mainstream. During your interactions with the Muslim population in Assam, what were your observations on the way they were coping with the growing animosity against them?
They are exhausted, as this has been going on for decades in some form or the other. They were scurrying around, first out of fear, and then out of acceptance. And then they tried to move on and fix the situation for their families. They were frustrated, running around trying to arrange papers; there were suicides out of fear that they won’t make it to the NRC, because one old man not getting citizenship means the entire family not getting it. The responsibility and guilt is too much.
Then, of course, a lot of family disputes were being caused, with families coming together to find one land paper that they all shared, and then make copies of it.
I was also quite amazed to meet people who already have disputes within their families, and the way the situation was affecting them. For example, there was this one lady who married someone her family didn’t approve of, and she was consequently estranged. However, now she has to come and meet her family after decades of not being in touch, and after having children who are now college-goers. She has to return to her mother’s house and ask her brother, who threw her out after she married outside their community, for papers, to prove her citizenship! People are understanding, of course, so some give the papers, but some communities and some brothers are not, and hence, she wasn’t getting her papers. Some people weren’t in touch. In a few cases, individuals were finding out that they are not on the list, when, say the sister who does not have the papers did not make it. There’s this rule in the NRC that if one sibling doesn’t make it to the list, then the remaining are suspect.
It was crazy! It felt like a bizarre fiction, but then it was all real.
"In March, the chief justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, reprimanded Assam’s state representative about the small number of detentions of those declared illegal immigrants." The fault-lines are evidently systemic. Did any of this come as a shock to you at any point? What were some of the more difficult revelations in your research that didn't make it to the final report?
Whatever didn’t make it to the final report, I have been trying to put out in some form or the other. What I didn’t write much about was the xenophobia and the hatred that communities like the Assamese-speakers have for some groups. So if I was writing on Hindu nationalism, I wouldn’t write every horrifying thing that the nationalists say about Muslims, because it’s unfair, and also gives them a platform to propagate their hatred. So, a lot of people from Assamese communities said some very shocking and inflammatory things about Bengalis; a lot of claims that had no basis were made. Such lies don’t and should not have any place in real discourse at all. There are too many people who are repeating lies, for example that there are 50 lakh Bangladeshi immigrants in India, and this is being said for the last 50 years or something now. There is absolutely no way to substantiate it — it’s a made-up number to instil fear. And these numbers continue to be repeated, bearing more power to convince than even a process like the NRC does, which has been carried out for four years. And yet, people still believe in these imagined numbers. Therefore, these are the kind of things I didn’t include at all.
All of these were shocking, of course. The demonising of certain groups and then meeting those people and realising how exaggerated the claims were. Everyone wants to protect their own community, that’s different, but the extent to which people are willing to go to protect their own lives — while they weren’t really in any danger — besides the extent to which they can go to exclude others, never stopped shocking me.
This kind of active and red-hot hate, even among the intellectuals in Assam, that is couched in a self-preservation narrative, — which is what majorities in so many places do — never stopped shocking me. This feeling comes from seeing people with privilege grabbing and taking away the little security some of the most marginalised communities have. How that makes their lives better, I don’t know.
Finally, from the experience and insight you've gathered from your travels and investigations in Assam, what are your final thoughts on the CAA and the nationwide NRC? Is it 'ethnic cleansing', as it is being termed in several quarters, despite the government vehemently denying that it is so?
People are calling it ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘fascism’, majoritarianism’. Some are saying it’s ‘restoring balance’, and all kinds of things. I think we all have to recognise it as a breakdown of a very fragile and important coexistence that India’s stability and identity depend on. And our country is based on maintaining an equality and balance between diverse groups, their needs, demands, and aspirations. We are a democracy whose Constitution is written so beautifully, recognising this crazy country we have, and recognising that at any point it can be broken. We are seeing that being dismantled.
Regular people don’t have to care about the Constitution, but a regular person does care about stability and equal opportunities, in order to go about their lives in the most boring way. They want to be able to predict that if I write an exam today, the results will come tomorrow, and based on the results I will get or not get [admission] somewhere. If I marry, I can move in with my partner according to the job I get. I can then have children. My children will grow up to do something. But with climate change and everything else, we can’t really predict any more as to what will happen some years from now. However, instead of dealing with the everyday pressures, if the government is going to spend all its waking hours into removing this stability we have — this very difficult stability that every family is trying to maintain, no matter which community they are from — then I wish people would open their eyes and see that this is not what we want, this is not going to help our children, our neighbours, or ourselves. There’s so much to do and deal with.
You don’t have to understand fascism or ethnic cleansing...maybe you don’t care. But we can all see it as a dismantling of the stability that we really aspire for, of the equality that everybody wants. It’s affecting all of us.
This is not like demonetisation — it will have lasting effects on who we are, how we live, and the kind of effect it will have on our communities and societies is huge.
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