Beyond Assam

The BJP is playing a dangerous game over citizenship

By Manini Chatterjee
  • Published 6.08.18
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On July 29, the day before the National Register of Citizens in Assam was to be published, the state's chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, appealed for calm. Asking people not to panic if their names did not appear in the NRC, his statement said, "We have made repeated requests in the past to all sections of the society to desist from making any inflammatory or communal remarks regarding the NRC. Some disruptive elements of the society are trying to create conflict among various sections by circulating rumours and misinformation about the NRC. I urge the people to stay united to defeat all such evil designs."

That a chief minister belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party should make such a sober appeal was remarkable enough. But what was even more remarkable is that the people of Assam heeded it.

The next day, when the final draft of the NRC became public and a staggering four million people - 40,07,707 to be exact - did not figure in it, the collective gasp of shock and disbelief echoed far beyond Assam's borders.

For those unfamiliar with the complex history of Assam, ignorant of its tangled skein of ethnic, linguistic and religious fault lines, it seemed astounding that so many lakhs of people should be suddenly confronted with the spectre of a stateless existence.

Many of us who are rootless by destiny - born far away from our ancestral lands, growing up in teeming metropolises, negotiating differences on a daily basis, drawing sustenance from a myriad diversities - find the very idea of the "native" versus the "outsider" bewildering.

Conversely, for those who see everything through the "Hindu nationalist" prism and look for every opportunity to deny India's pluralist essence, the NRC provided the perfect pretext to conflate the Muslim with the "intruder".

It is to the enormous credit of the people of Assam that in spite of being caught in the pincer grip of conflicting narratives - one decrying the exclusions wrought by the NRC and the other loudly hailing it - they have chosen not to pander to either.

Instead, Assam has shown exemplary restraint over the last difficult week. The festering fissures in Assam's psyche, after all, go back many decades, even centuries. The Ahoms, who were the ruling elite, themselves came from Thailand a few hundred years ago and settled among the existing indigenous tribes. Under British rule, when Assam became part of the Bengal Presidency, migrant workers from other parts of India were brought in to labour in the tea plantations.

After Partition in 1947, when artificial borders were drawn on a map that never quite translated on to the natural terrain undulating between the verdant fields of Assam and the newly created East Pakistan, another wave of migrants entered the state. Nearly a quarter of a century later, it happened once again - during the turbulent transition of East Pakistan into Bangladesh.

Yet, in spite of the anxieties and resentments caused by these successive inflows from outside; the many mass movements against "foreigners", the truth is that in its own tortuous way, the state has learned to live with its many differences.

That perhaps explains why the long-awaited draft NRC has been accepted with so much equanimity within Assam itself. Those who have long waged a political war against "illegal migrants" did not start dancing on the streets to celebrate the exclusion of four million people. And the men, women and children who did not find their names in the NRC have not resorted to violence or hysteria.

The sanest voices in the aftermath of the NRC draft, too, have come from people belonging to the state. The Supreme Court-mandated coordinator of the NRC, Prateek Hajela, for instance, has given repeated reassurances that those who have been excluded will get another chance to prove their credentials. Refusing to speculate on the final tally of "illegal migrants" - that is those proven to have entered Assam after the cut-off date of March 24, 1971 - Hajela has said, "It would not be appropriate... to make speculative estimates... The sensitivities involved are high and we have to ensure that the public are able to freely participate in the process... Because this is an exercise that touches the lives and souls of each and every individual in the state."

But what will happen to those who find no place in the final NRC? Even here, the most humane solution has come from an Assamese scholar. Asked whether the possibility of reconciliation between the Assamese and perceived immigrants exist, Sanjib Baruah - who currently is professor of political studies at Bard College, New York - told this newspaper, "Not only does the possibility exist, it is important to remember that historically the acceptance of immigrants has been the main story of Assam." Elsewhere, he has written of the possibility of "amnesty", of extending "the humanitarian umbrella" to those who are denied citizenship.

It is in this backdrop of grace and maturity shown by Assam that the national level response of the BJP - led from the front by a vituperative Amit Shah - has been particularly reprehensible.

Completely unmindful of the specificity of the NRC to Assam in view of the state's peculiar history and geography, the BJP has launched a vicious campaign against "Bangladeshi infiltrators" - a thinly veiled attempt at communal polarization across the country ahead of the next general elections.

But the BJP's campaign is not linked to election prospects alone. An essential element of its ideological armoury is to cast all Muslims as suspect citizens, and build a "Hindu rashtra" on the debris of a secular republic. The anti-immigrant movement in Assam made no distinction on religious lines. But the BJP has always distinguished between the Muslim "infiltrator" and the Hindu "refugee". The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 seeks to give a legal seal to this distinction. It aims to relax the norms to grant citizenship to "religious minorities" from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who have taken shelter in India. It is an undisguised attempt to replace India's secular and territorial nationalism with a Zionist-style Hindu homeland.

The NRC draft has given a handle to the BJP to further this objective. In an astounding instance of hate speech, the BJP MLA from Telangana, T. Raja Singh Lodh, said illegal Bangladeshi settlers and Rohingyas in India should be "shot" if they did not go back. In any civilized country, he would be put behind bars. But within the BJP helmed by Amit Shah, he may well get a promotion.

After Amit Shah hailed the NRC draft and railed against "infiltrators", there has been a spate of BJP voices taking up his refrain. BJP legislators have called for setting up NRCs across India in order to identify and then deport "illegal migrants", knowing full well that no such deportation is possible and that India has never broached the issue with Bangladesh.

Over the last few days, BJP leaders have tried to paint "infiltrators" as enemies of the nation who pose a grave threat to national security and are a drain on national resources. But in actual fact, there is no record to show that immigrants have contributed to any rise in crime or terror related incidents in the country.

As for resources, most migrants - whether they come from across an international or an inter-state border - are desperately poor people who work at the very bottom of a nation's economy. The "evil infiltrator" is often the rickshaw puller, the ragpicker, the maid who sweeps your floor for a pittance. They contribute much more to the economy than they take away - unlike such illustrious Indians as Mehul Choksi and Nirav Modi.

Like any other country, India must certainly protect its sovereignty. But there is something sad and pathetic when a country of over a billion people, a country with the largest diaspora in the world, starts getting paranoid about dirt-poor immigrants eking out a peaceful living.

And there is something diabolical in the way the BJP has started to demonize so-called Bangladeshi immigrants, as though they were some form of vermin that needs to be crushed and "weeded out", using language and imagery that is often a precursor to pogroms and ethnic cleansing.

With the BJP determined to misread the signals from Assam and misuse the NRC to open new cleavages and inflict new wounds on India's fabric, it is time for us to assert a simple truth. Yes, citizenship is important. But to be human, and humane, matters much more...

manini.chatterjee@abp.in