I’m Assamese & Here’s Why NRC is Critical to Our Identity

Amlan Das, an Assamese, explains the roots of the furore over the NRC’s final draft that has excluded 4 million.

6 min read
People wait to check their names on the final draft of the Assam NRC after it was released, at an NRC Seva Kendra in Nagaon on 30 July. Image used for representational purposes.
I’m Assamese & Here’s Why NRC is Critical to Our Identity

In recent days, Assam has seen an uproar over the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was published on 30 July. Political parties have attempted to make the issue a linguistic and cultural battle. Several overnight cultural ‘experts’ came out to talk about the demography of Assamese society, and how the NRC is an attempt to take away citizenship from a certain linguistic minority.

But as an Assamese, what does NRC mean to us? Simply put, it’s a process which fulfils our long-term demand of identifying illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the state.

But decoding the composition of Assamese society and figuring out who are illegal immigrants and who are not, isn’t that simple.


Roots of Assam Immigrant Row

Anyone living in Assam would know that the equation between ‘Assamese’ people and ‘Bangladeshi immigrants’ does not really go hand-in-hand. Children born in Assam are conditioned by narratives in the public discourse in such a way, that they look at every illegal immigrant from Bangladesh as a threat to Assamese culture.

In an introductory letter in a Report on Illegal Immigration in Assam by the then Governor of Assam (Lt Gen (Retd) S K Sinha to the then President of India, Shri K R Narayan in 1998, the Governor wrote:

Large scale illegal migration from East Pakistan/Bangladesh over several decades has been altering the demographic complexion of this state. It poses a grave threat both to the identity of the Assamese people and to our national security. Successive governments at the Centre and in the state have not adequately met this challenge.

There are tons of arguments behind why we look at them as a threat — both reasonable and unreasonable ones. The situation has devolved to the extent that today, the term ‘illegal Bangladeshi’ is racist shorthand for ‘Bengali speaking Muslims’ in Assam.

But before getting into details of the issues related to ‘illegal immigrants’ of Bangladesh, and Assamese culture, we must first understand Assamese society. Therefore, an ethnic sketch of Assam is imperative before we engage in any discussion or debate on this sensitive issue.

A Brief History of Assamese Ethnicity

According to the 2011 Census of India, Assam has a population of over 31 million with an area of 78,438 square kilometres (48,739 miles). It is home to several indigenous tribes, including the Bodos, who are numerically the largest tribe in the state, comprising just over 5 percent of the total population.

The official website of the Government of Assam lists about 20 tribes residing in the state, which are:

  1. Bodo Kachari,
  2. Mishing (Miri),
  3. Deori, Rabha,
  4. Tiwa or Lalung,
  5. Khamti,
  6. Sonowal Kachari,
  7. Tai Phake or Phakial,
  8. Dimasa Kachari,
  9. Karbi,
  10. Barmans,
  11. Hmar,
  12. Kuki,
  13. Rengma Naga,
  14. Zeme Nagas,
  15. Hajong,
  16. Garo,
  17. Khasi,
  18. Jaintia,
  19. Mech

Apart from them, we have some people who call themselves Axamiya, or ‘true’ Assamese. These are the communities which traditionally spoke Assamese as their mother-tongue. All tribes residing in the state fall under the greater Assamese community, but as Dr Uddipana Goswami in her book Conflict and Reconciliation —The Politics of Ethnicity in Assam writes:

“I would use Axamiya to mean the community of people who spoke the language astheir mother tongue, and Assamese to denote the people ‘of or belonging to the geo-political entity called Assam’. Assamese would thus include the Axamiya, but not be equivalent to it.” (Goswami, 2013)

These Assamese-speaking clans include the Ahoms, who ruled Assam for 400 years, Koch Rajbongshis, Sutis and many more. In short, aboriginal residents of the state can be distinguished on the basis of the language they speak.


Conflict in Post-Colonial Assam

Conflict in Assam’s post-colonial history can be categorised into linguistic, political and economic. Compelling Assam to share the burden of refugees after the formation of East Pakistan, to denying it economic growth while using its rich oil and coal reserves and tea plantations, laid the foundation for a conflict. The grievances peaked after the formation of Bangladesh in the 1970s, as the Indian Government failed to stop the influx of ‘illegal Bangladeshi’ immigrants into the state.

The Assam Agitation of 1979 was trigged off as a mass civil disobedience movement, when the greater Assamese community felt culturally threatened due to the illegal influx of people from across the border.

It wasn’t long before this fear turned into hatred. The people of Assam started detesting the Bangladeshis immigrants.

I was born in 1993. By then, the socio-political demography of Assam changed drastically. By the time I matured, the insurgency had gripped the state. By 1994, various ethnic groups within the state were fighting, with some like the Bodos demanding their own state, ie a ‘Bodoland’. The focus by then, tilted from illegal immigrants to questioning the identity of an Assamese. Assam continues to battle the huge influx of Bangladeshis from across the border, but we also have bigger issues to deal with right now.

There is this area called Hatigaon in Guwahati. Situated right next to the state capital Dispur, the area was infamous within the city for being the hub of illegal Bangladeshis. These immigrants engaged in daily-wage labour, or worked as rickshaw-pullers. Residents often complained about these new faces growing in the area.

More recently, there have been raids by the Border Security Force (BSF) in Hatigaon, in order to identify ‘illegal immigrants’.

The Sentinel, one of the leading English dailies of the state, reported one such raid on 18 September 2013, “An undercurrent of tension is palpable at Hatigaon in Guwahati, following the Border Police’s move to collect fingerprints and palm prints of tenants living in the area, in a bid to identify suspected illegal immigrants. Three days ago, the Border Police started collecting fingerprints and palm prints of all tenants living in the Sijubari and Mazaar areas of Hatigaon...”

I was a resident of Hatigaon. As kids, we acquired this ‘visual coding’ which enabled us to ‘identify’ a Bangadeshi immigrant. But to differentiate between a Bengali-speaking Muslim of the state, and someone who had crossed the porous border that we share with Bangladesh, was way beyond our comprehension. But there were numerous other aspects which led us to believe that this influx from Bangladesh was real.


‘Intuitive’ Racial Profiling

As kids, when we used to visit my maternal place in Barpeta, a district some 80 kms west of Guwahati, one could visibly see settlements coming up in barren lands. Go further west, towards Dhubri, and there were villages emerging along dry river beds. Who were these people? How could a population multiply overnight? Our concerned elders had no doubts that they were illegal immigrants, and thus by extension, we believed in it.

It did not take us very long to ‘identify’ every Bengali-speaking Muslim as a Bangladeshi.

Assam continues to host a large number of ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi migrants. In reality however, it is hard to ascertain the so-called illegality of this group, as there are a large number of Bengali-speaking Muslims in this region who are, to use the government’s language, ‘legally Indian’.

It still remains impossible to realistically ascertain the number of Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam and/or India for a variety of complicated reasons related to the violent history of the creation of states and their associated borders on the sub-continent and the practices through which enumeration and identification work in South Asia.

The NRC thus remains the first attempt to legally determine who these illegal immigrants are.

It’s a big, complicated process and considering we are in India, anomalies are bound to happen. The names which did not make it to the final draft doesn’t necessarily mean that they are immigrants. They have every right to challenge the exclusion and prove their identity. We all did that to have our names there, despite having an Indian passport and an Aadhar card.

The state of Assam has faced problems for a long time due to the influx of immigrants from the neighbouring country, and the NRC surely seems to be a first step towards a plausible solution. But to paint this process as an event of linguistic rivalry and cultural supremacy, is just wrong.

(The author has grown up in Assam and observed the conflict from close quarters. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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