An updated document called the National Register of Citizens of India (NRC) has declared 1.9 million Assamese foreigners and will deport them.
A state in northeast India Assam situated south of the eastern Himalayas. It is bordered by Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh to the north; Nagaland and Manipur to the east; Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and Bangladesh to the south; and West Bengal to the west. The Siliguri Corridor, a 22 kilometers (14 miles) strip of land connects the state to the rest of India.
Assam has a population of about 35,5 million, 34% of its population are Muslims, 62% are Hindus and there is a Christian minority of about 4%. The population has grown sharply since the middle decades of the 20th century. It increased from 6.7 million in 1941 to 14.63 million in 1971 and 22.41 million in 1991.
Assam’s economy is mainly agricultural but the high population growth in the western and southern districts was high caused mainly by an influx of people from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh led to overpopulation and strain on the agricultural land. Apart from agriculture Assam has rich natural resources including large reserves of oil and gas, it supplies up to 25% of India’s petroleum needs, Assam’s growth rate has not kept pace with that of India; the difference has increased rapidly since the 1970s. The region is landlocked and situated in the eastern most periphery of India and is linked to the mainland of India only by a flood and cyclone prone narrow corridor with weak transportation infrastructure. It development is inhibited by its physical and political isolation from neighboring countries such as Myanmar, China and Bangladesh and from the other growing South East Asian economies. Gauhati airport not penny accessed by any major international airline underscores the isolation of Assam that prevents economic development. The result is not enough jobs available to provide a living for the growing population.
This has led to a strengthening of anti-immigrant feelings especially against Bengalis who after partition relocated from East Pakistan and later from Bangladesh to India, mainly to West Bengal and Assam. The mistrust and clashes between indigenous Assamese people and Bengalis started in the 1950s but is rooted in even older anti-Bengali sentiments from colonial times. A tribal society; Assam is the home of a number of different tribes and tribal way of life has characterized Assam for centuries. Change started when during British times tea plantations came up that attracted workers from surrounding Bengal. The newcomers brought different culture and traditions and they looked differently. While Bengalis are of Indo-Aryan descent the Assamese tribes are of Mongoloid stock. The Bengali influx brought with it a process of Sanskritization meaning the caste system and its rules intruded into tribal society. Many tribals accepted Hinduism or Islam or Christianity and the traditional religions they had professed and the connected culture slowly died. This caused an identity crisis and fears that the indigenous culture may get lost. With the advantage of an English education, Bengalis monopolized clerical jobs in the railways and the administration.
This created the Bongal Kheda (oust the Bengalis) movement, the organized campaign of anti-Bengali riots in undivided Assam that originated in the Brahmaputra Valley in the late 1940s and continued into the 1960s. Bengali households were looted and set on fire, the families were driven out. During its peak in 1960, around 50,000 Bengalis were expelled from Assam, who took shelter in West Bengal. In 1972, large scale ethnic riots erupted in Assam again when Assamese groups demanded to make Assamese the sole examination language in Gauhati University. The reason for this protest was that Bengali was about to dislodge Assamese from the university education as well as the official language. In 1979 a new wave of anti-Bengali agitation was started by the Assamese Students Union that lasted for six years and was settled in 1985 through the ‘Assam Accord’ signed between representatives of the Government of India and the leaders of the Assam Movement. According to the Assam Accord, any foreigner who came to India after December 24, 1971, would be considered an illegal migrant, and would be liable to be deported. Those who had entered India between January 1966 and December 1971 were to be provided citizenship after having lived in India for 10 years. Those who entered India before 1966, mostly as a result of the Partition in 1947, would get citizenship automatically.
After the coming into power of the BJP in 2014 the new government decided to solve the problem with the help of the National Register of Citizens of India (NRC). NRC is a document that contains the names of genuine citizens of India; it was prepared for the first time in 1955. The new and updated NRC released on August 31, 2019, has said 1.9 million of Assam’s residents are not citizens of India. That is less than the official estimate of five million, but it still a sizable number that is feared to divide families. The government is expanded the number of special Foreigners Tribunals where those left off the NRC have 120 days to appeal. With tribunal members often under-qualified and subject to “performance” targets, activists say that the process has been riddled with inconsistencies and errors. On the other hand include large numbers of Bengali-speaking Hindus were expected to be left off the NRC has also turned some in the BJP against the process. Having lost hope in the present form of the NRC,” Himanta Biswa Sarma, a local BJP minister, said that “The party was already mulling a “fresh strategy on how we can drive out the illegal migrants”. According to the state government the camps currently hold 1,135 people. Those who have been rejected by the tribunals and have exhausted all other legal avenues can be declared foreigners and — in theory — be placed in one of ten detention centers with a view to possible deportation.
On publication of the NRC results the Assamese Students Union voiced its disappointment about the low number of excluded from citizenship and they announced to challenge the findings in the SC. The option of concentration camps is already being exercised. This reminds us of the policy of Hitler’s Germany where Jews born in Germany and having lived there for generations were declared non-German and deported to concentration camps where many of the died of deprivation or were killed. Is that the way India wants to go? Deportation could only be to Bangladesh and that would hardly be possible without the agreement and cooperation of the Bangladesh government. So far no such statement has been made.
The situation in Assam may be only the beginning of a new disturbing policy of the BJP government. Modi’s Home Minister Amit Shah has called for the ejection of “termites” promising to expel “infiltrators” from the rest of India, using Assam as a testing ground. “We will implement National Register of Citizens in the entire country,” Shah said when the BJP returned to power for another five years in May his year. “We will remove every single infiltrator.” This is a sure a recipe for disaster for the India’s image as the largest democracy of the world.
Germany went to war against the Soviet Union mainly for “Lebensraum” (living room), territory needed for its national development. Modi is creating Lebensraum in reverse, pushing the minority population mainly Muslims, out to create space for the Hindu population. It will be interesting to see how Hasina Wajid deals with this, after all the deportees will have nowhere to go but Bangladesh.
The writer is a defense and security analyst.