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Assam – The foreigner issue: NRC row: it is no more about law and legality

Not much is known outside the affected north-eastern state of Assam about the raging ‘NRC controversy.’

The controversy pertains to the identification and elimination of ‘foreigners,’ mostly of Bangladesh origin, from the National Register of Citizenship or NRC. With the draft proposal now excluding 40 lakh persons, the issue could be heart-wrenching for those who are suddenly being told that they cannot stay on in India – and may not have anywhere else to go.

We already have news reports about former President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed’s nephew not being able to find his name in the draft NRC, prepared on the orders of the Supreme Court. Other reports have spoken about the state’s only woman Chief Minister, Syeda Anwara Taimur, away in Australia with her son following age-related health issues, too, not being recognised as an Indian citizen. There are also reports that close relatives of some incumbent legislators belonging to the ruling BJP face the same fate.

It is most likely that many of such VIP ‘misses’ would find their names back on the NRC, after some trials and tribulations. However, the story is about all those who have been left out, not confined to Bangladeshi nationals or Muslim migrants from that country; but even Hindus and other religious denominations living in the state for longer than the state’s merger in the British Raj first and in the Indian Union, post-Independence.

Assam Accord and after

The issue can be traced to the ‘anti-foreigners’ Assam agitation of the 1980s, the most peaceful and most prolonged of all post-Independence protests. It was led by student leaders under the banner of All Assam Students Union (AASU), which went on to take a political avatar as Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). The AGP formed the first non-Congress government in the state in 1989, following a massive victory in the Assembly polls.

All of it became possible after the protests led to the ‘Assam Accord’ between the Centre and AASU. The key element of the Accord was to identify ‘foreigners’ of Bangladeshi origin who had infiltrated into the state during and after the ‘Bangladesh War’ of 1971. Much water has flowed down the Brahmaputra since and today the AGP is a junior partner in the BJP-led state government. The AGP is also a partner in the BJP-NDA ruling the Centre but does not have a Parliament member.

The irony of the NRC crisis is such that even AGP leaders in the state are now known to have expressed reservations over the process. Some party leaders are also on record that they may have to reconsider tying up with the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls if the anomalies were not removed in time.
It is also true that the AGP, among other political parties, is seeing in the NRC initiative, attempts by the BJP to ‘hijack’ the state’s electorate after dividing them across religious and linguistic lines. As is known, Assam has a substantial population of Bengali-speaking people, not all of them Muslims, from neighbouring West Bengal. This is apart from native Muslims. There are mutual acceptance and camaraderie among the people, independent of constitutional concerns about ‘security’ threat, infiltration and the like.

Time for a relook?

Given that much time has passed since the Assam Accord was signed, the fervour may have cooled down, but the issues remain. The fear is that the NRC in its present avatar may stir up another upsurge.

The apprehension even among the eliminated non-foreigner population now is that in the absence of a more scientific way of identifying ‘foreigners’ and an effective means to send them back to whichever country they came from, there is a likelihood of the social strife flagged by the current problem blowing up into something unimaginable and unmanageable.

Accompanying such fears is also the sudden clamour now from ruling BJP governments and chief ministers in states like Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Nagaland for extending the NRC process of the Assam kind to their own states. There was also the case of the BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra, in 1998, sending off Bangladeshi-nationals in busloads towards the international border, only to be off-loaded and accommodated by the then Marxist-led government in West Bengal.

Under the circumstances, the solution could end up becoming worse than the problem.

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