The NRC Issue: The Forces of History

With the recent political and social unrest in Assam bordering almost on a trend of ethnic cleansing where the Bengali populace is clearly victimized, there has been a mammoth socio-political controversy and turmoil both in the states of Assam, Bengal as well as in the center. This has drawn criticism both nationally as well as internationally This trend in the recent days started when The National Registrars of Citizens also known as the NRC by the government in Assam was conducted and a significant population of the Bengalis residing in Assam were declared as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and hence not citizens of India. As of 2018, what the NRC survey started as a move into the game of identity politics by the saffron brigade had culminated in the suspected resurgence of the extremist group United Liberation Front of Assam or ULFA terrorists in upper Assam’s Tinsukia district resulting in the death of five people (needless to say, Bengali) on the evening of 1st November, 2018.

This phenomenon in India that is of grave concern in the global atmosphere of the refugee problem, immigrant hatred and xenophobia, is not a new one but goes deep down in history and has its roots starting 1950s. Throughout the period of colonial era (from regions of undivided Bengal) and continuing after independence, a section of privileged Bengali population migrated and settled in Assam and curbed a major share of opportunities and resources in terms of employment, wealth, land or education both in private and the public sector. This created a resentment among the Assamese youth against the Bengalis. The Assamese even perceived a threat to their language and culture by the growing Bengali numbers and influence. All of these elements slowly culminated and found an outlet resulting into the outburst against the Bengalis in in the decade of the 50’s. The Assamese population, especially the middle class, perceived these Bengalis as ‘outsiders’ and the lack of employment and trade opportunities were blamed on the Bengalis, stemming from the sense of deprivation and being culturally dominated upon.

Since 1871, Bengali and Assamese were both the official languages of the state of Assam, but the then ongoing movement wanted to establish Assamese as the sole official language. This demand increased the hostility between the two linguistic groups and peaked into tragic riots in the 1960’s. The Bengalis were attacked in person, their properties were vandalized and were set on fire in both the rural and the urban areas all over Assam. As a result, the state assembly passed a law making Assamese the sole official language, as well as the sole medium of instruction in colleges affiliated to Guwahati University, thus marginalizing Bengali and other tribal and indigenous languages. The first seeds of the fissure that manifests today were sown.

Another reason that stands as a direct precedent of the NRC issue today, is the classification of citizenship in Assam in the 70’s and the 80’s during the tenure of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Assam’s demographic underwent a dynamic change owing to the various forces of migration at work. During the colonial era, Biharis migrated to Assam to work as manual labourers in the tea plantations, Bengali Muslims or the Miyas migrated during the partition of Bengal for a better bargaining strategy, and there was continuous flow of immigrants from Bangladesh and Nepal. These migrants in the earlier days acquired land from Assamese landlords (who wanted a work force) and settled in sparsely populated Assam. What acted as the saturation event was the 1971 Bangladesh War where the Bengali population fled to India (mainly Assam, Tripura and West Bengal) when persecuted by the Urdu speaking West Pakistanis in then East Pakistan. This led to a drastic demographic changes in the state of Assam, creating a linguistic, cultural, political and identity insecurity and crisis among the Assamese population and fear of land loss by the tribals. The Assamese feared being reduced to a minority in their own land (and very rightly so).

To prevent this from happening a movement platform was created. All Assam Student Union(AASU) and Assam Gana Sangram Parishad, a coalition of student, mass and intellectual forum was created that took the initiative of spearheading an anti-illegal migration movement in the year of 1979. The movement readily won the support of all Assamese people irrespective of their religion and was also supported by the Bengalis. This movement led to a period of political and social turmoil consisting of violent agitations, strikes, and civil disobedience, and the imposition of President’s rule from the period of 1975 to 1985. In 1983, central government’s effort to hold a state assembly election failed miserably and lead to the worst atrocities the state had ever witnessed. The Congress did form a government, but with no legitimacy from the masses.

Finally, in 1983, after serious negotiations a conclusion was reached by the center and the state. An accord was signed by Rajiv Gandhi and the Assamese leaders. It was decided that migrants who entered Assam between 1951 and 1961 were to be given full citizenship including the right to vote while those who entered between 1961 to 1971 were to be recognized as citizens with all their entitled rights except the right to vote for the next ten years. Finally, migrants who entered after 1971 were to be declared illegal and were to be deported.

With other promises of infrastructural development, legislative and administrative safeguards for the Assamese culture and its interests, fresh elections were held after the electoral rolls were revised and the Assam Gana Parishad formed by the leader of the movement was elected to power with Prafulla Mahanto as the Chief Minister. The political turmoil of Assam ended for the time being though the later years saw the rise of the insurgency by the United Liberation Front of Assam(ULFA) claiming independence for the Bodo population.With the stage for the 2018 the great Assam NRC drama set, we need to look deeper in the underlying motives of the present players to completely understand the moves and motives of the game.

Picture Credits : hindustantimes.com

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