During 2015–16, I had visited many villages of lower and middle Assam as part of my study on immigration from Bangladesh to Assam. This was the time when the submission of the NRC-related documents was in full swing. As part of my study, I was conducting many in-depth interviews in the districts of lower and middle Assam. One of my such respondents in Nagaon district, Maminul Haque (name changed) pointing out the recently established Bangladeshi Muslims colony in the government-owned reserved land, said “Go and survey in this reserved land. There were only a handful of families in late-eighties, but now they made a big colony.”
Maminul Haque, a Bengali Muslim himself, whose father migrated to Assam much before Independence, proudly said that his father had Indian passport in 1950s and travelled to Pakistan for business reasons. He further explained that he has been approached by many “foreigner families” in his area to use his legacy data in exchange for money. Maminul was reluctant to share his legacy code with those families as he was afraid that if they are documented as his father’s family, they may also, later on, demand his family-owned property!
This is just an example. Since the beginning of the NRC, there has been regular news of theft of legacy data in regional media.
In fact, it is much easier for illegal Muslim immigrants to use legacy data of others acquired through unscrupulous means. Unlike illegal Hindu immigrants who need consistency in their surnames to include themselves in the family tree of another family who came before 1971, Muslim immigrants do not require such surname consistency within family members.
This may clearly be the reason why the people excluded from the NRC, could be more Hindus, than Muslims. Not only that, the NRC State Coordinator himself declared that legacy data has been misused. The mainstream national media often reported how genuine citizens of India (for instance, the family of former president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed) were excluded from the list, but did not undertake enough investigation on how illegal immigrants managed to enlist their names in the NRC, in the central and western districts of Assam, compared to, for instance, Karbi Anglong, a district primarily resided by the tribal people.
What makes NRC unscientific?
There are numerous loopholes in the NRC system, which were raised in the Supreme Court by Upamanyu Hazarika, an advocate-cum-activist working on this issue for past several years and by other petitioners. But there are at least three issues which make the NRC unscientific.
Firstly, the NRC is a gigantic process of collecting data on the family histories of three crore people. Yet, this exercise was done without a pilot survey. In fact, an attempt to conduct a pilot survey was foiled by the All Assam Minority Students’ Union, a Bengali Muslim student organisation, on 21 July, 2010 in Barpeta district of Assam. Field peculiarities are always much different from theories that guided the NRC algorithm. In the absence of a pilot test and retest, even a small mistake in the census or survey instruments, or the computer algorithm of family trees in the NRC, can lead to disastrous results. This is exactly what has problematised the NRC. The NRC State Coordinator gave an affidavit to the Supreme Court that the NRC computer algorithm or the software cannot detect legacy data correctly. In addition, there were numerous technical failures while conducting the NRC.
Secondly, the Supreme Court denied a re-verification of the NRC, which was essential to making the NRC information robust. The exercise of re-verification of demographic data is again fundamental to understand the extent of the error. In fact, this step is always prioritised in the census or any other major demographic data collection.
Thirdly, there are no countermeasures to identify the fake documents submitted by illegal immigrants. During my field study, it was pertinent that Assam had become a haven for fake documents. Illegal immigrants, who travelled to Assam for economic reason, came through an established network. From ration card to passport to voter card, they have all necessary documents to establish themselves as citizens of India. Thanks to the long porous border that existed for decades, historical routes of immigration from East Bengal to Assam, vote bank politics by the political parties and the corrupt officials of indigenous origin, who worked hand in hand to encourage settler colonialism in Assam.
The NRC excluded about 19 lakh people, that include four lakh did not apply. It reduced the number of excluded citizens to about 15 lakh. There are many people of indigenous origin including indigenous Assamese Muslims who failed to be included in the NRC. What is more noticeable is that out of the excluded 15 lakh people, majorities are Hindus, indicating there being nearly no exclusion of illegal Muslim immigrants. Indirect estimates based on census data, drastic change of religious composition of several districts of Assam and transformation of thousands of ethnic villages of Assam to Bengali Muslim villages, reveal that Muslim immigrants constitute about 85 percent of the total illegal immigrant population in Assam.
Despite the higher fertility of the Muslim population, it is not enough to change the religious composition of Assam in the absence of mass immigration of Muslims from Bangladesh, which was always recorded in pre-Independence. There are several independent studies, which estimate that the total number of immigrants in Assam is more than five million. There is recorded discussion on millions of Bangladeshi immigrants in the Parliament, presented by the Ministry of Home Affairs from time to time.
Since the first list of NRC has been published, there has been a great hue and cry in national and international media that NRC has been making millions of citizens, particularly Muslims stateless. These liberals and human rights activists are selectively concerned only about the rights of illegal immigrants. They are however surprisingly silent over settler colonialism that has been going on in Assam for the past few decades, a process started in British India. No human rights activists ever speak on Bangladeshi Muslims aggression to the indigenous people in the form of land grabbing, harassment to women, theft and murders that compelled indigenous people to run away from their ancestral villages. One such example is overnight disappearing of 60 Garo tribe families in Harinmara village of Dhubri district a couple of years ago. Another example is systematic sexual and mental harassment of indigenous origin female teachers. The instances of human rights violations perpetrated by the immigrant communities on the indigenous people never found a place in national or international media.
The outrage of the indigenous people on the immigration issue is neither due to their religion, nor due to their language; rather it is because of what they experienced in front of their own eyes, in their very own lifetimes. There are thousands of indigenous villages which transformed into Bangladeshi Muslim villages, in the past few decades. They occupied government-preserved lands, which were common property for the local people until a few decades ago. The properties of the Satras including Batadrava, the birthplace of Saint Srimanta Shankardev (to be precise, a part of the Shantijaan lake, which is the property of Batadrava Satra) have been illegally occupied till now. The migrant lobby is so powerful and well connected that even the administration has not been able to usher in stringent measures.
There can be no doubt that Assam experienced a change in religious composition before Independence, which was due to recorded immigration from East Bengal to Assam. It again experienced another drastic change in religious composition at the local and district levels in the post-1971 period. Nowhere in India has such a shift of religious composition by means of natural increase in population has been experienced.
A change in population composition and real-life experiences show that Muslim immigration from Bangladesh to Assam is a reality, despite the NRC not being able to effectively detect illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh to Assam. While Bengali Muslim illegal immigrants are able to get their names included by any means, the BJP government is committed to giving citizenship status to Bengali Hindu Refugees. Hence, the NRC failed to reflect the aspiration of the indigenous population of Assam.
Is there a solution?
In terms of ethnic diversity, Assam can be called mini India. If not addressed now, hundreds of ethnic indigenous communities with distinct cultures will be wiped out in the advent of aggression by people of Bangladeshi origin. The aggression is in the form of demographic, linguistic and economic composition that is evident in select districts. Unlike the rest of India, Assam alone took the burden of additional immigrants in 1947–71. If the NRC has been implemented because of the Assam Accord, the constitutional safeguards to the indigenous people, as per this accord, must also be ensured.
As promised in their election manifesto, the present government should grant special reservation in electoral positions, land and jobs to all communities that were present before Assam was annexed to India in 1826. In addition, the six major communities should be granted tribal status, without harming the present tribal population in Assam. Meanwhile, the leaders of the indigenous communities should also retrospect the reasons for their failure in the past forty years for any practical solution. It is high time that they must devote themselves to the cause of a “stable working culture”, inclusive of all indigenous and non-indigenous communities, for collective economic and social upliftment of the Assamese people.
The author is an Assistant Professor in Population Studies at the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Updated Date: Sep 06, 2019 15:40:41 IST