NRC in Assam goes much beyond Hindu-Muslim binary; ignores state's complicated history
This might be a moment to pause, re-examine the way we have been thinking about this and articulating it to see it beyond a policy problem and solution.
At the outset let me state that I am an "outsider” to Assam, and my engagement with the place over the past five years is through my films What the Fields Remember on the Nellie massacre and Shadow Lines, which maps the vexed question of citizenship in Assam since the Partition (in-production). As a filmmaker, I have been interested in looking at what happens to people’s individual histories, memories and lived experience in the face of a complex socio-political situation that exists in Assam. Where is the space for accounting for the individual violence and trauma that different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups have been through? How do these individual and collective narratives become legible in the face of a complex place that does not provide any easy answers or reading?
A lot has been written already around the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a citizenship mapping exercise in Assam that has been going on for the past three years, but has its roots that go way back to 1985, or perhaps even earlier to colonialism and the Partition of Assam. I am not going to get into the history of the NRC, which is linked to the anti-foreigner agitation led by the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and the terms of the Assam Accord that was signed between the AASU and the Rajiv Gandhi government to bring “peace”, (and granted amnesty to perpetrators of violence during the period, including those who were responsible for the Nellie massacre), that has in many ways produced this moment. That is for another time. My own critique of the NRC, apart from an ethical one of the very idea of the nation-state itself, comes from a place of distrust of bureaucratic exercises and the way in which class and power have always historically favoured those who can work with it, or around it. We do not know yet what the final figures of those who will be rendered Stateless will be, but currently, the figure of four million being left out of the list shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. So I would ask those who have been rooting for free and fair NRC, and see it as a way of “settling” the long-standing citizenship question — how did they imagine it happening, where the dynamics of class, language and ethnicity was never going to be off the table? It has been said that those whose names have been left can submit the 'Claims and Objection' form, so that "genuine" Indian citizens whose names might be off the list, can be included. Anybody in India who has tried to access the bureaucracy has her own version of a Frankenstein’s tale to tell. The further down you are on the class ladder, the lesser your chances of accessing the system. How do the votaries of free and fair NRC imagine those who are poor (irrespective of the community they come from) and have possibly submitted all the identity documents that prove their citizenship, but do not find their names on the list, taking this forward? What new documents can they further furnish to prove that they are who they say they are? Where do they imagine that those who will finally be rendered Stateless as a result of this exercise go, and the social cost of being branded “foreigner” that people are already being made to pay. And finally, how do they imagine that the ruling party at the State and the Centre (BJP), whose very ascent to power in Assam and rest of India has been through a divisive politics, not use it to further its political agenda in the current moment?
The final figures of those who have been rendered Stateless might perhaps be less. But this might be a moment to pause, re-examine the way we have been thinking about this and articulating it to see it beyond a policy problem and solution. Some of my Assamese friends have been upset with the ahistorical way in which the NRC issue has been covered in the print and social media; of how the “outsiders” narrative does not take into account the history of colonisation, land distribution among indigenous people and their own struggle to carve out an identity independent of the upper caste Hindu Assamese, the trauma that Partition has produced in some communities in Assam that remains unacknowledged even today, cross-border migration that has led to enormous pressure on limited resources, the role of the Congress in creating this mess, and the easy way in which we, the left-liberal class, see everything only through the lens of a Hindu-Muslim conflict. To most of this critique, I would agree. I think anyone can/should write, think, make films, create art, poetry and academic papers on any place we would like to. To deny a person this desire to engage and create, is a kind of masculine parochialism that we are perhaps better off without. But having said that, those of us who work on Assam need to broaden our myopic gaze and understanding of history. Assam is not Gujarat, Delhi, Punjab, Bengal or even Manipur. Assam has its own specific history of colonisation, migration and redrawing of physical borders that have produced its own violence that different linguistic identities have inflicted on each other, both physical and psychological that continues even today. Merely to see it as a Hindu-Muslim conflict in the current moment, denies the specific history/struggle, including the vehement protest to the amendment to the Citizenship Bill 2016 (which allows for persecuted religious minorities from a certain number of countries, except Muslims, to enter India) that the BJP government tried to sneak in and was resisted by most people/groups in Assam. And online petitions like the one that avaaz.org circulated with the tagline, “Stop Deleting Muslims” only exacerbates it. Anyone can engage with or have an opinion on any place, but I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to read, understand, educate ourselves and listen to each other, especially when we disagree – and that would perhaps be true for everyone “insider” or “outsider”. The phrase “Fearless speech requires fearless listening” couldn’t be more the need of the hour.
To return to what I began the piece with – individual histories and experiences — Moinuddin Ahmed (name changed), lost all his daughters except his oldest one, and close to 50 people in his extended family during the Nellie massacre on 18 February 1983, where more than 2,000 Muslims of Bengali origin were killed. He was born in Assam, studied in Gauhati University in the 1960s and lived in the town of Nellie. In early 2000, he was notified as “Doubtful” citizen, a term that in Assam has a long history. In 2016, the Foreigners Tribunal declared him an Indian citizen. Farhana Bibi (name changed), lives in Goalpara district. In December 2016, she was picked up in the middle of the night from her house after a long day of work in the field. In her own words, “I was tired, but my husband insisted that we eat. I didn’t want to but he kept insisting. Perhaps Allah knew what was in store for me. We were watching the film Diljale and each doing our own thing.” The police took her away, and she spent the next 8 months 20 days in the Kokhrajhar jail, which also acts as a Detention Centre for women. When being gently prodded upon her memories of her time in the jail/detention centre, she seems to hold no anger towards any individual in particular (or so it seemed to me). She remembers the detention centre in broken down everyday routine, the camaraderie she built with her fellow “Doubtful” voter detainees (Hindus and Muslims), and equally the jailers as well. She was able to get out as it finally surfaced that the police had picked up the wrong Farhana Bibi, a case of mistaken identity. The Farhana Bibi I spoke to, says the only thing that haunts her is the image of the other woman entering the Kokhrajhar jail/detention centre, as she was leaving. She says she haunts her dreams very often. Sanjukta Das (name changed), lives at Rowmari village in Kamrup rural district, drives a vehicle for a living. She has a 10 year-old-son and recently lost her husband to cancer. Her name and her son’s names do not feature in the National Register of Citizens list that was announced on 30 July, 2018 to determine the status of Indian citizenship for those who live in Assam. Her parents’ names, on the other hand, figure in the list. Sanjukta says she had submitted all the “best” documents that she had that would maker her count as a citizen. She is not sure what further proof she can furnish, in the next month or so.
Moinuddin Ahmed, Farhana Bibi and Sajukta Das are all people I spoke to with while making my film What the Fields Remember and during research for my forthcoming film Shadow Lines, which attempts to trace the citizenship question in Assam in the context of the NRC. How do we account for what they have been through (and still going through), and their individual trauma? Where do we go from here? I do not know. And perhaps it might be hubris on my part to say this, but I do not think anybody does — neither those rooting for the NRC or those against it, and definitely not the Indian State.
Which brings me to my final point of this piece. How does one find a language of engagement with each other, especially when we disagree, that goes beyond name-calling and self-righteousness? How can our politics encompass empathy without losing critical perspective? While it is important to keep in mind what the history of colonialism in Assam and what it has created, how do we not get trapped by it and break the cycle of violence? How do we keep reminding ourselves that potentially millions of people can become Stateless, and no matter which side (or sides) of the ideologically divide we come from, their lives will change forever in some fashion or the other. Perhaps, how we use language with each other, in how we think, write, create might be a good place to start. In rethinking in how we perform our politics through language, whether in writing, film or art, we might begin to accord the humanity to those around us, even if we disagree with them. Maybe then we could move beyond terms like “insider”, “outsider”, “genocide”, that have been bandied about so easily by so many in the past few months. Language, like everything else, has a history but it is not static and can/does change. To reshape and renegotiate it so that it goes beyond finger pointing I believe is critical, not just in Assam but in the rest of India as well, because how we use language whether, in speech, writing or filmmaking isn’t just about form, but politics itself.
Subasri Krishnan is a filmmaker whose films have dealt with the question of identity documents, the figure of the citizen and nation-state. Her forthcoming film “Shadow Lines” (in production), is a continuation of these issues in Assam.
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