Understanding the Assam conflict : The NRC final draft is out and the rhetoric is not helping

People, in general, are averse to drastic changes. Depending on the implications of the concerned changes, reactions to them can be wide-ranging. However, we can agree that when such drastic changes affect the very way of life of a people, they can and will resort to drastic measures to preserve their culture and their traditions and the ways of their ancestors. The events unfolding in Assam perfectly encapsulates the predicament that a rapidly changing society experiences. Over the past few decades, Assam has undergone a tectonic demographic shift that has the natives suffering an existential crisis. And with the publication of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens, the entire North Eastern region of the country is on the verge of turmoil.

One could perhaps blame the long years of the Congress regime for the current crisis in Assam. But the trouble really began with the mismanaged partition of the country in 1947 itself. A farsighted Prime Minister would have struggled hard to ensure a complete exchange of population involving the Hindu and Muslim residents of the newly created states of India and Pakistan. However, not pursuing such a path set in motion a long series of events that has culminated into a festering wound which threatens to consume the whole of North East India.

The organized genocide of the Bengali Hindu population by the Pakistani Army in present-day Bangladesh forced many to migrate to India and live as refugees, most of whom were Bengali Hindus. Since the Indo-Pak war in 1971, however, the religious denomination of those seeking residence in India has changed vastly. The influx of immigrants into Assam from Bangladesh resulted in huge protests, which often turned violent, that culminated with the signing of the Assam Accord between the Government of India and the leaders of the movement in 1985. The NRC exercise is in concordance with the spirit of the accord that was signed in the presence of the then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi.

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In some circles, it might be politically incorrect to say such a thing but it remains a fact that the Muslim population has grown at a disproportionate rate in Assam over the past few decades. Such a stark rise in the Muslim population has made the native population wary and fearful of the consequences of becoming a minority community in their own state. Many districts in Assam have witnessed a mushrooming growth of mosques and the expansionist nature of Islam has made many wary of the potential loss of their culture and traditions. It was discovered that many of the accused in the recent spate of rapes in the state were committed by members of the minority community and certain politicians claim that illegal immigration is to be blamed for the rising crimes against women in the state.

In recent years, illegal immigration has been the cause of much violence in the state. In 2012, the Bodoland riots ravaged the state which left 77 dead and hundreds and thousands of others displaced. Sansuma Khunggur Bwiswmuthiary, MP from Bodoland, put the blame on illegal immigration for the violence. Violence erupted after 4 Bodo youths were shot at by unidentified miscreants. Hundreds of villages were destroyed through arson and most of those affected were Bengali Muslims. In response to the riots, Muslim mobs in other parts of India resorted to widespread violence and people from the Northeast were fearful of their lives. Thus, what happens in Assam won’t be confined to Assam alone. It has direct implications for the entire North East and the nation at large.

The conflict is incorrectly viewed through the prism of Hindu-Muslim tensions alone. The ethnic aspect of the matter cannot be ignored as well. A significant chunk of people in Assam is averse to granting citizenship to Bengali Hindus who fled Bangladesh as refugees as well. According to them, the BJP is attempting to make Assam the dumping ground for Bengali Hindus through an amendment of the Citizenship Act which seeks to grant citizenship to minority communities in neighbouring countries, a view that is subscribed to by the state unit of the Congress as well. As the Joint Parliamentary Commission (JPC) on the Citizenship (Amendments) Bill, 2006 began its hearing in Assam, the state was rocked by protests by groups who opposed citizenship being offered to Bengali Hindu refugees from Bangladesh. Hence, there is a significant possibility of the state witnessing a three-way communal strife between the Assamese, the Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims. However, there is another section of Assamese people, a much larger section presumably although not as loud as the other, who are of the opinion that Bengali Hindus do not pose a threat to their way of life contrary to Bengali Muslims and that those primarily responsible for the ongoing influx of illegal immigrants into Assam are Bengali Muslims. Therefore, depending on the demography of the concerned regions, riots may well have a religious angle in some and an ethnic angle in others.

The NRC has opened a whole can of worms as no one appears to have any clue as to what fate awaits the 40 lakh people whose names haven’t featured in the NRC. Although the government, on various occasions, has affirmed its commitment to deport all illegal immigrants, there is much doubt whether deportation on such a scale is even possible. R Jagannathan, Editorial Director at Swarajya, has proposed that the illegals be allowed to stay as residents, the only penalty being that they will be struck off the electoral rolls for 10 years after which they will be eligible for citizenship. The only problem with this solution is that it’s not really a solution at all, it is a cop-out. Basically, we are telling people across the border that they can come to India illegally without any consequences and become eligible for citizenship 10 years later. More importantly, such a deal will not pacify the Assamese people. Mr Jagannathan also says, “Moreover, by merely implying that so many people may face deportation, we are asking for communal trouble here.” But we are also asking for communal strife here if we assert that deportation is not an option on the table.

We have to be realistic about current circumstances. There doesn’t appear to be a solution to the problem that would please everybody. And the entire North East appears to be on the verge of imminent turmoil that it cannot escape. Illegal immigration is cancer and sometimes, the only solution to cancer is chemo. And many times, even chemo may not help. A forced deportation of 40 lakh people (the numbers might reduce considering they still have time to appeal and prove their citizenship) might be that chemo although I must admit such an exercise appears impossible to carry out. The situation isn’t helped by politicians like Mamata Banerjee either who are willing to sacrifice the interests of the nation for their own petty politics.

Average in every department

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