Discussion: 'Linking Excesses in NRC Process to Assamese Xenophobia Is Unwarranted'

The false narrative of Assamese "xenophobia" stinks, and today, except the Hindutva camp, no mainstream Assamese organisation propagates racist or communal agenda in the state.

The following article is the response of Assamese literary and social critic Hiren Gohain to Nazimuddin Siddique's article “Inside Assam's Detention Camps: How the Current Citizenship Crisis Disenfranchises Indians” published on EPW Engage on 15 February 2020.  

The views expressed by Siddique in his article have been repeated ad nauseum, and subsequently refuted by those opposed to such views on the issue of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam.  

As regards the excesses in the NRC process, one must acknowledge that there have been several examples of cruelty in the history unleashed against people in the event of such complex bureaucratic exercises. But, two points need to be underscored in this connection. First, much water has flown down the Brahmaputra since the horrors of the Assam movement in the 1980s against migrants, and today, a considerable number of people in the state are willing to listen to the voice of migrants. The regional media has been reporting the excesses in detail only in the spirit of natural justice. 

Second, the argument that there has been no cross-border migration, and there is no such thing as "illegal migrant" is unconvincing. In fact, the term “illegal migrant” has been part of the legal system in the country for decades, and it is not coined by the Assamese. While ordinary citizens may lack the necessary documents, foreign migrants are required by law to be in possession of documents. The Supreme Court has listed as many as 15 documents to facilitate the citizenship claims of people of foreign origin, in addition to their names being on electoral rolls as proof. Thanks to the Congress party's vote-bank politics in the state, names of migrants have made it to voter lists. 

Third, the atrocities in detention centres, as noted by Siddique, have been largely due to the targeted policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and are not a product of any “Assamese xenophobia,” as suggested by some. If there are vocal supporters of BJP policies in Assam, can Siddique point out any state in the country, at present, without BJP vocal adherents? This is a reality which is not specifically linked to Assam. 

In fact, the whole narrative of Assamese xenophobia stinks, and today, except the Hindutva camp, no mainstream Assamese organisation propagates racist or communal agenda in the state. The attempt to delegitimise indigenous people's desperation to hold on to their land, language, and culture is itself a disingenuous and conspiratorial venture. The lack of defence from indigenous peoplewho are accustomed to the pace of a natural economy and not the market-oriented rapacity—has to be acknowledged, and it cannot be brushed aside due to the rhetoric of xenophobia.   

On the issue of 19 lakh people being left out, one needs to understand that these figures are not final. Those who could not make it to the NRC list will have the opportunity to move the courts to establish their credentials. In fact, lakhs of people had used such a recourse before the Assam NRC final list was published in August 2019. So, the number of exclusions will come down eventually. Moreover, the critics overlook the fact that more than three crore people have found themselves on the NRC list, and another nine lakhs left out merely because the West Bengal government has refused to provide information on some of the excluded persons.  

Lastly, it could have been better had the narrative of Muslim victimhood not blown up, the way it is being done currently. It is also true that there were Muslim groups from East Pakistan (now, Bangladesh) that had driven out entire tribes like Chakmas, Hajongs, and Garos from their ancestral lands in the North East. There has been a perception among the natives in the region that migrants are a threat to their way of life and demography, a fact that cannot be ignored as well.            


Ed: If you would like to respond to this article, or to Nazimuddin Siddique's article “Inside Assam's Detention Camps: How the Current Citizenship Crisis Disenfranchises Indians," please e-mail edit@epw.in. 

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