NEW DELHI — Close to two million people were left out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is meant to include Indian citizens and exclude undocumented foreigners living in Assam. While people have crossed the India-Bangladesh border to meet with their families and to earn a livelihood for decades, Home Minister Amit Shah is the first politician to refer to the undocumented migrants, many of whom are Bengali-speaking Muslims, as “termites.” Shah has promised citizenship to everyone, except Muslims, who have been left off the NRC. Ten detention centres have been planned to house illegal migrants. One is already under construction.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is communalising the NRC, but Assam is resisting, says Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, deputy editor at The Wire, and author of Assam: The Accord, the Discord. For now her home state values its linguistic identity over the religious one which the BJP is ramming down its throat.
What has paved the way for BJP’s communal agenda to grow so fast, Pisharoty says, is that the Congress Party has played political games in Assam for half a century, instead of trying to fix problems that come with movement across the India-Bangladesh border.
Yet the current discourse, Pisharoty believes, erases the Muslim community’s deep roots in the state.
“The Assamese community will have to decide whether they want to be identified as Hindus first or Assamese first. If you want to be identified as Hindu first then you have to discard your Assamese Muslim brothers,” Pisharoty said in a conversation with HuffPost India. “You also have to discard all your social and cultural heritage, the songs of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, Bhupen Hazarika, and Bishnu Prasad Rabha, which we have grown up singing.”.
““The Assamese community will have to decide whether they want to be identified as Hindus first or Assamese first.”
Is the NRC a communal exercise?
It’s being seen by different people from different angles. How BJP has been dealing with the NRC is nothing but communal. BJP has weaponized the NRC as a tool to win elections. It has given them dividends. That is why they are doing it again. They are going to Bengal and saying — ek ek ko doondh ke nikalenge. But the other thing I see in Bengal is the narrative seems to be slipping out of their hands because a lot of Bengali Hindus are out of the NRC in Assam. That has helped (Chief Minister) Mamata Banerjee push the narrative that Bengalis are all together. So, there are solid repercussions in Bengal.
BJP has cleverly been able to use the Partition, use the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, to say that you (Bengali Hindus) are refugees and we will accept you, but the (Bengali) Muslims are ghuspetiyas (infiltrators) , and we will have to send them back. But now, the TMC (All India Trinamool Congress) is getting an upper hand. When the NRC final draft came, the TMC landed up there and they were calling it an exercise against the Bengalis, not Hindu or Muslim. That is the TMC’s tool to fight the BJP.
“How BJP has been dealing with the NRC is nothing but communal. BJP has weaponized the NRC as a tool to win elections.”
Would it be fair to say Congress Party’s failures in Assam have helped BJP communalize the NRC.
Absolutely. 100%. Congress took the Muslims for granted. Congress thought that them being in an insecure position was a good thing — they will continue voting for us. They did not care that these people were heading for trouble. The BJP can communalise the NRC because the Congress did not implement the Assam Accord (of 1985).
I see this as a policy failure of the Congress, which has pushed a very sensitive border issue into the hands of the hands of communal forces. When I talk about communal forces, I’m not just talking about the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). I’m talking about Muslim communal forces as well. They are also Arabizing people. This is actually helping the the RSS. One spawns the other. Both are bad for society. Both are bad for Assam. Assam has now become laboratory for fundamental forces — both Hindu and Muslim.
“Congress took the Muslims for granted.”
What have been the consequences?
Look at what happened in Tripura. People don’t talk about Tripura. The indigenous Tripurese became a minority. People who came from East Pakistan and Bangladesh, they have taken over the state. When you hear the earlier narrative in Assam, those agitating will only refer to Tripura because the tribes became a minority. The Assam issue is also about the rights of the smaller communities. The host communities. When a migration happens, ideally the Government of India could have given them some incentives to host them. They had land. But the Congress didn’t do it. They only played politics. BJP is doing the same now.
“The Assam issue is also about the rights of the smaller communities.”
When the first NRC was made in Assam in 1951 — Jawaharlal Nehru was PM — was this a communal exercise?
When it started in the fifties, I cannot call it a communal exercise. It was looked at from the security aspect. It was not done in a very rigorous way. It was not about planning and plotting and ousting people. It was only to keep a record. I don’t think people really engaged with it at the ground level and at a people level.
Where did the demand for the NRC come from?
It was a security concern. The border with East Pakistan was open. The demand came from within the (Jawaharlal Nehru) government. The Government of Assam also had a role to play. A letter from the first Chief Minister of Assam (Gopinath Bordoloi) to Nehru says that a top official from Pakistan is holidaying in Meghalaya (then part of Assam), without taking any permission. He informed Nehru and asked whether they (the Pakistanis) were spying on us.
It was not looked at as a Muslim problem?
Not at all. Even now, in Assam, people may have voted for the BJP, but they don’t see it as a Hindu-Muslim issue, and that is the difference between the BJP’s narrative and the narrative of the common people. Otherwise, do you think there would be such resistance towards the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. This is to create Hindu axis in Assam and Bengal, saying let all Hindus come together and fight the Muslims. But people are more connected with their linguistic identity. That is very important.
“People are more connected with their linguistic identity. That is very important.”
Why is that?
When the British came, they introduced Bengali as the official language in Assam. So, the Bengali babus were brought in from different parts of Bengal. There were other routes, but the majority came at that time. They were using their own language over a set of people and that was seen as an imposition. That helped the formulation of the Assamese sub nationalist linguistic identity. That is why Hindu, Muslim, Christian, whoever call themselves Assamese, come together against the Bengali Hindu. The ethnicity comes first. That is what the BJP is trying to break. If they manage to break it, then it will be communalized. I see it happening in another five or ten years. The BJP is zabardasti trying to make its communal narrative the narrative of the Assamese people. It is not so.
“The BJP is zabardasti trying to make its communal narrative the narrative of the Assamese people. It is not so.”
What else was happening in the 50s and 60s?
The Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 was passed by Parliament to help Bengali Hindus because they were moving in. Using that Act, many Muslim politicians were also pushed into East Pakistan by the Government of India. The problem was that there were so many refugees coming in. Where is the space? So these things also happened. Then came the PIP (Prevention of Infiltration from Pakistan) scheme in the sixties. That was the work of the IB (Intelligence Bureau) under the Nehru government. That is how we have the Assam Border Police, which is quite infamous now — going out and looking for so called foreigners in area.
How did the Foreigners Tribunals come about?
The Foreigners Tribunals had come by 1964. That also had a solid link to security. The IB was pushing people, mostly Muslims, back. When they were sending people, a lot of Bengal-origin Muslim politicians like Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, who later become president of India, and Ghulam Osmani, complained to Indira Gandhi that even Muslim Congressmen are being pushed. This became very big. Then, Pakistan threatened to go to the U.N., saying that you are pushing your own people, Indians, into our territory on the eastern side. The Government of India didn’t want to internationalise the problem. It brought an executive order, saying that there needs to be at least some amount of legal screening before we push people out. That is how the Foreigners Tribunals came about as quasi judicial bodies.
There was also a pushback system between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. You don’t have a formal extradition treaty so you push each other’s citizens back. But it stopped.
Why did it stop?
It very likely stopped because of a tragic incident (in 2011). This young girl from Bangladesh had crossed over and was staying on the Indian side. Her father had come to pick her up for a shaadi. By that time, in some places on the India-Bangladesh border, barbed wire had come up. They had to go over the barbed wire. The father jumped. The girl’s clothes got stuck. She screamed at the father, saying that she had not been able to cross. There was a security guard who saw her and shot her. She bled to death there. This became a huge thing. Who is she? Is she Indian or Bangladeshi? The Bangladesh Rifles came after many hours to remove the body. The father of the girl filed a case in India’s Supreme Court. Nothing came out of it, but it led to the stopping of these pushbacks. There was also a very solid business. The CRPF guys, the Bangladesh Rifles — you pay them some money, you go for a few days, and then you come back. They all made money on this.
“Who is she? Is she Indian or Bangladeshi?”
When does AASU (All Assam Students’ Union) get involved?
AASU had become the voice of the Assamese people since the sixties. AASU played a role in the demand for oil refineries from the Centre. All oil refineries in the Assam were set up in Assam only after the agitation. That is why people in Assam have great anger against New Delhi — you take oil from us, you take tea from us, then you make the centre (tea board) in Kolkata. You make the biggest refinery in Barauni (Bihar). There was not much difference in how people saw the British government and the Indian government post Independence. It was always seen as an outside force that is not working for us.
What happened in the 70s?
The problem began when the refugees started coming during the Bangladesh War. There was a huge demand to send them back but Indira Gandhi did not send them back. In 1971, there was an incident when Indira Gandhi had gone for the convocation of Cotton College. She was about to speak when a student leader got up on the stage, snatched the microphone from Indira Gandhi and said ‘take back all your refugees.’ The Statesman, which was very big in those days, gave the headline: Prime Minister Heckled By Student Leader. The refugees being settled down by the Indira Gandhi government, without giving anything to the people living there, was a very big issue in Assam. In the rest of India, however, Indira Gandhi was celebrated for breaking Pakistan into two and forming Bangladesh. Even the RSS, (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee and all, called her Ma Durga. But this was the problem that came with the Bangladesh war.
Who was the student who grabbed the microphone?
He was General Secretary of Cotton College Students’ Union. He is now with the BJP. Atul Bora (Senior).
Who were refugees from the Bangladesh war?
These people were actually Bengali Hindus. Only very few Muslims came. This whole thing started against Bengali Hindus, not Muslims. That is why you find Bengali Hindus outside the NRC now. Many may have entered Assam before March 1971 but don’t have papers to prove it.
“These people were actually Bengali Hindus. Only very few Muslims came.”
How did it become a Bangladeshi Muslim-issue?
This is also the Congress’s responsibility. The Congress was bringing in some people and helping them settle down to become their vote bank. This is typical vote bank politics that Congress played. They have done this. They cannot deny it.
When did they start doing this?
This was from the late 60 onwards. If you read Strangers In The Mist, Sanjoy Hazarika’s book, this is all based on interviews with CRPF guys. One guy actually refused to let them enter and vote and go back — he said that I cannot do that. Anwara Taimur (a former Congress leader and chief minister of Assam from 1980 to 81) was also accused of adding a lot of people from Bangladesh in the voter list to win elections.
How else did the Congress play vote bank politics?
The Congress brought in the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983, where if you accuse someone of having come from the other side, the onus is on the complainant. Under the Foreigners Act, 1946, the onus is on the person to prove that he or she is a citizen. From Congress, there were no Assamese MPs in Parliament. Indira Gandhi got this passed with the help of some Bengal-origin Muslim leaders. In the rest of India, the law was Foreigners Act, 1946, but the IMDT Act was brought in to protect a certain number of people who would be voting for the Congress.
The IMDT Act did a solid harm to Bengali Muslims. The perception that was created was that there are so many illegal immigrants that Congress wants to protect for its vote bank politics. It tarnished the image of the entire community as illegal immigrants. People thought they either harbour illegal immigrants or they are illegal immigrants. This was a terrible mistake done by the Congress. If the BJP manages to bring the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Assam, this will happen to the Bengali Hindus also. There are more Bengali Hindus in the Brahmaputra Valley than the Barak Valley. Everyone will be then seen as harbourers or illegal immigrants. They will be looked at suspiciously. The BJP will be doing another harm to the social fabric of the state. I don’t see any difference between the IMDT Act and the CAB. There are only two different sets of people set against each other.
“It tarnished the image of the entire community as illegal immigrants.”
What else did the Congress do?
The Congress milked the insecurity of these people — kutch denge nahin par tum humein vote dete raho. There was a time when the Congress ran a very derogatory slogan in Assam — we don’t need the Assamese, we only need the Ali, kuli, Bongali. Ali, means the Muslim, kuli means the tribals working in the tea plantations, and Bongali means the Bengali Hindus. This is what the Congress’s history is. That is why they cannot question anything. Now, BJP is doing the same thing. BJP is saying kick out the ‘Ali,’ and telling the ′kuli’ and the ‘Bongali’ to get together because they are Hindu. This is the political access point. That is what Himanta Biswa Sarma and all have been saying — ‘you have to find your enemy.’ The enemy is ‘Ali.’ The problem that the BJP is facing is that Assamese society is not yet communalised. They are saying that we would rather take the Ali than the Bengali. Why? Because the Assamese sub nationalist identity is still linguistic not religious.
“The problem that the BJP is facing is that Assamese society is not yet communalised.”
Janata Party plays politics, enter Bharatiya Jana Sangh
You say that post Emergency politics had a role?
The first Janata Party government in Assam came in 1978. The Assam agitation started in 1979. You have to see the 1978 politics. There was a plan inside the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJP’s predecessor) to topple the Assam Chief Minister at the time, Golap Borbora. KPS Gill told me in an interview for The Hindu in 2013, “Borbora used the boys” to rake up the refugee issue. This gives you a solid idea that if it was not politicised, Assam may not be where it is today.
(KPS Gill, an Indian Police Service officer, was in charge of law and order during the Assam agitation).
What does it mean “Borbora used the boys?” The AASU boys?
The AASU boys. The Chief Minister was very insecure. He was accused by the Bharatiya Jana Sangh of being too liberal. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh’s position even then was that the Bengali Hindus are refugees and Bengali Muslims are infiltrators. But Assamese people were not agreeable to that, nor was Borbora. Instead, Borbora said look at Centre’s step-motherly attitude.
You also have to go back to the 1962 Chinese aggression. A lot of people feel that the Nehru government left us, he did not fight for us. The army left us. There is still a lot of feeling that we are not looked after by New Delhi. This feeling is still very strong in the northeast. Very strong. People are engaging with India now, but it’s not because they have accepted it. Voting for BJP maybe for other reasons, but not for communal reasons, so far.
“People are engaging with India now, but it’s not because they have accepted it.”
What did Borbora do?
It was a very tactical comment made by Borbora in the Assam Assembly after he was accused of being too liberal by the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. He said — I want everyone to go, even the Nepalis. Borbora wanted to make this an Assamese cause, not a Bharatiya Jana Sangh cause. This was seeking support of AASU, which was by then considered a voice of the Assamese community. He was saying — come and back me.
When the Assam agitation started, there was a demand to send back the Nepalis also. There was a huge agitation against the Nepalis. So the Nepalis, during the Indira Gandhi government, gave a memorandum saying not to make the cut off date 1971, but 1975, otherwise a lot of Nepalis will be out. That’s why they went and supported the BJP, but the BJP is not protecting them now. That is why they are angry.
What did ‘Borbora used the boys’ mean?
In 1978, the Janata Party MP from Mangaldoi Lok Sabha constituency, Hiralal Patwari, died. Indira Gandhi was out of power and her own coterie was thinking how to give her a safe seat to contest. That rumour was looked at very seriously by the Janata Party, by Morarji Desai — ki ye to aa jayeegi dobara Assam se. By then, she had actually contested from Chikmagalur, another friendly seat in Karnataka, and got into Parliament. But the rumours continued to spread on the ground. Janata was determined that no Congress person should be able to win this seat. This is where Gill said — “Borbora used the boys” — to say that there are illegal immigrants in the electoral rolls. There are also accusations that some top police officers were used by Borbora to ensure that this happens. This triggered the Assam agitation.
The Assam Accord was signed in 1985.
The Assam Accord was signed but never implemented. That led to a lot of issues. Sometimes, I feel that if the Congress had implemented some important clauses, a lot of politicisation, a lot of people suffering on the ground, would have been over. But Congress only played politics. You cannot absolve Congress in this. They kept playing this game.
“But Congress only played politics. You cannot absolve Congress in this.”
Manmohan Singh years
What happened during UPA 1 and 2?
The decision to update the NRC was taken by the Manmohan Singh government in 2005. There was a tripartite agreement between the Manmohan Singh government, the Assam government and ASSU to update the NRC 1951 on the basis of the Assam Accord, which set the cut off date as 24 March, 1974. All the stakeholders came together and agreed there has to be closure. There has to be an end to this. There was a social consensus that allowed the NRC to be updated.
Was there a trigger for the Manmohan Singh government?
I start a chapter of my book with this. They were holding this ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) car rally. Manmohan Singh, Natwar Singh, who was the External Affairs Minister at the time, were in Guwahati to flag it off. It was a big thing. The ASEAN leaders would later meet the car rally in Vientiane. This was a dream of the Vajpayee government. The Vajpayee government had committed and the Manmohan Singh government did it.
But AASU saw that as an opportunity to pin down the Manmohan Singh government. They said we will not allow this to happen here and we will resort to agitation unless you implement the Assam Accord. The Tarun Gogoi government convinced the Manmohan Singh government that we have to do something. The green light was given. But even after that, the government did nothing to update the NRC. So, again the feeling that Congress will never do anything, New Delhi doesn’t care for us, came around. The RSS said, ‘Congress ne kutch diya kya? Kutch nahin diya.’ And they could say this because the Congress did not nothing. The Congress should have realised that there is another force that is building up, and it is going to be very communal in nature. Particularly in a society that is not communal.
“The Congress should have realised that there is another force that is building up, and it is going to be very communal in nature.”
In 2009, the Supreme Court is evoked by Assam Public Works.
There was a serial blast in 2008 in Guwahati. The general peddling by the media was that this was done by HUJI, an Islamic force from Bangladesh. People asked who are these Bangladeshi coming in and killing us. This NGO asked the Supreme Court for help to revise the electoral roll and weed out foreigners from Assam. The Supreme Court asked the Centre, and the Centre said the process is going on by updating the NRC. The Supreme Court asked for the modalities. The modalities were worked out and submitted to the Registrar General of India, who submitted it to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court approved the modalities, which are basically the documents you can show to prove that you were residing in Assam before 24 March, 1971. With the Supreme Court entering, the Congress realised that we have to do something. It was the end of UPA 2 and they passed an executive order to update the NRC. And then they lose the election. So, it becomes the baby of the BJP.
Enter BJP and Amit Shah
The BJP communalises the NRC.
The BJP was very intimately involved with the Assam agitation led by Vajpayee and other leaders. Their worry was that Bengali Hindus will get thrown out. They were okay with the Bengali Muslims getting thrown out. But the Assamese were saying that whoever came after this date has to go. They now have the opportunity to implement what the RSS has been thinking about for a long time.
Amit Shah is saying that non-Muslims who do not find themselves in the NRC can stay. Is this possible?
How is it possible? You will have to change the Constitution. In terms of Assam, he has promised Bengali Hindus that I will make you all citizens. But these people had applied to the NRC, saying they came to Assam before 24 March, 1971. They were claiming ki hum phele se the. He is telling the same people that now you say that you came after 1971 and before 31 December 2014. Will someone not file a forgery case against them? He is making Bengali Hindus illegal immigrants, even those who might have come before 1971, but they don’t have the proper documents. The Bengali Hindu community is beginning to realise this and they are angry with the BJP. That is why he is going and saying chun, chun ke nikalenge.
These are people who are going to Foreigners Tribunals.
If you are out of NRC, your only option is to go to the Foreigners Tribunal. You don’t know what is going to happen to you. You might be sent to a detention centre. You might not be. You don’t know. You are looking at a complete black hole. Now, this man (Amit Shah) is saying if this fails then you just say that you came later (than 24 March 1971). How can someone say it? You’ve gone through a legal process. And you’ll say — sorry, sir — main isme fail ho gaya, toh doosra wallah. Can this happen?
Even if there is a way to give citizenship to non-Muslims left out of NRC, how can the government exclude Muslims?
It’s not possible. We have a Constitution that is secular.
There is another thing. These are the dirty games that BJP is playing. There is a concept of illegal immigrants in our Citizenship Act, which was brought in by the Vajpayee government in 2003. It says if one parent is an illegal immigrant then his or her descendent will not be an Indian citizen. The Supreme Court has taken that into consideration. That is the reason so many children are out of the NRC. Now, if you make the head of a family a Muslim, an illegal immigrant, a doubtful, then will the 50 people under him become citizens? My hunch is that something on those lines will also be done by the BJP in Assam.
Rock and a hard place
How do you assess the “liberal” reaction to the NRC?
During the time of the Assam agitation, people from all walks of life, Left, Right, Centre engaged with the Assam issue. We had so many formulas that people gave to sort out the Assam problem. There was a Gandhi Peace Foundation formula. Subramaniam Swamy also came up with a formula. The Indira Gandhi government engaged with most of them. But after the final NRC came out, the liberal lot did not beyond the politics of the day — they said this is a BJP project — and everyone clubbed all binaries together. But the demands of people are different. The largest number of tribes in the northeast stay in Assam. Don’t you have to think about them, how to preserve their culture? When you are clubbing these communities and BJP’s terrible politics into one, BJP is actually the winner. The liberals did not engage at all. They only helped the BJP turn the Assam issue into a Hindu-Muslim issue. What has happened to the Assam issue is tragic. In another couple of years, the Assam issue will be a Hindu-Muslim issue.
“The liberals did not engage at all. They only helped the BJP turn the Assam issue into a Hindu-Muslim issue.”
What’s the difference between Congress and BJP in Assam?
The Congress was never interested in solving the Assam issue, neither is the BJP. They only wanted to milk it. The Congress milked the Assam issue to win elections, but the BJP is also doing it for ideology. That’s why it will be even worse. There is no mercy, no mercy.
Which party has made a worse mess?
Both. Congress was too busy with its petty politics to see what was coming. Vote bank politics is communal politics. But after a point, you cannot compare BJP and Congress. The ideologies are very different. The Congress ideology, even if they are creating communal vote banks, is secularism.
But that’s pretty bad…
Both are terrible, both are communal. They have played nothing but communal and caste politics. But when you look at the bigger trouble, that’s like going from the frying pan into the fire. You can turn to the Congress and say — aapka ideology to aisa nahin hai, toh aap aisaa kaisay kar rahen hain. They have to apologise for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. But the BJP does not feel the need to apologise for the 2002 Gujarat riots.
“The Congress milked the Assam issue to win elections, but the BJP is also doing it for ideology.”
Amit Shah wants NRC for India.
That is them going after Muslims, completely. It is a political tool for the BJP. In the 2019 general election, they really understood that this Hindu-Muslim divide can work. There are so many by-elections and elections coming. They will continue using it. But what is tragic is that the Opposition forces have not been able to create any alternative to it. Congress can raise questions like is the BJP making people vulnerable to forgery cases. Is the BJP taking the courts for granted? They can do so much, but Congress is keeping quiet because they have so many skeletons to hide in Assam. They will be asked — why did you not implement the Assam accord? The intellectuals are also not engaging. They are just reacting to what Modi says and what Shah says. They are not going beyond that.
You are Assamese. How does this make you feel?
As an Assamese, at this moment, the detention centres are my biggest concern. These big detention centres are being built in the name of my community, to protect my community. I feel terrible.They are going to turn this into a terribly inhuman process. My question is why do I carry the moral burden?
Border control is the duty of the Government of India, not the state. Why was a state allowed to make ad hoc arrangements, turning some corners of some districts jails into hell holes. And all in the name of protecting us. Did we get our protection? Do I walk past these detention centre and feel protected? As a human being, how should I feel?
“As an Assamese, at this moment, my biggest concern are the detention centres.”
What is the question before Assam?
The Assamese community will have to decide whether they want to be identified as Hindus first or Assamese first. If you want to be identified as Hindu first then you have to discard your Assamese Muslim brothers. You also have to discard all your social and cultural heritage, the songs of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, Bhupen Hazarika, and Bishnu Prasad Rabha, which we have grown up singing.
I end my book with a song by Bhupen Hazarika, which we all have grown up singing:
“Along with all others, if an Assamese in Assam is not saved, where else will they survive.
If I say that I love my mother, does it follow that I abhor all others.
Every Assamese is an upright Indian, and those who arrive from far away lands to settle down by the Brahmaputra, and call this land their mother, each of those Indians is a new kind of Assamese.
We just need to stay this way. Else the world will sneer at us and say that we don’t have a backbone.”
(This is the English translation of the Assamese song).