After the release of the draft National Register of Citizens in Assam on July 30, there have been disturbing reports of student activism and vigilantism in some states of the Northeast bordering Assam. Other than the distress and insecurity it has created by leaving out more than 40 lakh persons from its roll of citizens, one of the negative fallouts of the NRC has been that inter-state movement of ordinary people from Assam to the neighbouring states is being put under undue scrutiny by non-governmental agencies. The residents of the Barak Valley, which shares borders with Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura, are facing harassment and are not being able to travel across states unless they can furnish NRC documents to prove their citizenship. Going by newspaper reports, this is happening in other parts of Assam as well, in the areas bordering Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh in particular. A report published in a national newspaper dated August 24, 2018 claims as many as 210 people travelling from Assam to Mizoram have been “pushed back” as they did not have the draft NRC documents. The “push back” drive against “foreigners” was initiated by Mizo Zirlai Pawl, the main student body in Mizoram, and continued despite the orders of the concerned district administrations. Similarly, three days after the release of the NRC draft, AAPSU, the apex students’ body in Arunachal Pradesh, had asked “undocumented migrants” to leave the state within 15 days. They have also reportedly set up vigilante groups at checkpoints to examine the documents of inter-state travellers. These actions are not only completely beyond the jurisdiction of any students’ body, but the greater concern is that they were being allowed to do so by the administration that itself is not allowed to check NRC documents as per the Supreme Court’s orders. The Supreme Court has categorically said that no coercive action will be taken against people left out of the NRC.
Given the volatile state of the northeastern states that suffered intense ethnic conflicts and insurgencies from the 1970s to the early 1990s; and the fragile peace that followed, there is an imminent danger of the eruption of ethnic violence and retaliation if the situation is not handled with immense sensitivity both by the state administrations and political parties. The NRC exercise itself is flawed with innumerable cases of haphazard and arbitrary inclusions and exclusions coming into view. Some members of extended families claiming the same “legacy” have been included, and others left out. Within one family, one sibling has been included, another excluded. Some former servicemen have also been left out. While Union home minister Rajnath Singh had said this was not the final draft, and that people who are left out will have a chance to appeal, the reckless statement of BJP president Amit Shah terming all the people who have been left out of the NRC as “ghuspetiya” (infiltrators) is not a sensitive and politically mature statement, to say the least.
As commonly perceived, the NRC issue is not merely a problem of illegal migrants. While illegal migration from Bangladesh is definitely a concern that needs to be tackled efficiently, the ethnic conflicts and migration of “outsiders” in the Northeast, especially Assam, is a complex subject that has its historical roots from the British times. In 1874, Assam was carved out of the Bengal Presidency as a new province. Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi in the Barak Valley, and Dhubri and Goalpara districts in west Assam, were “transferred” from Bengal. Thus Bengalis as an ethnic group — both Hindus and Muslims — have been part of the Assam story since more than a century. Other than the residents of these districts which now became a part of Assam, a large influx of migration followed that included tea garden labourers, Nepalese who came for agriculture and also to work as soldiers, Bengali Hindu office clerks and professionals, Hindi-speaking people from the central provinces and Marwaris as traders. In 1905, during the partition of Bengal, the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, divided Bengal into east and west, amalgamating Assam with the Muslim-majority division of East Bengal. This further encouraged Muslim labourers and farmers to move into Assam. The ethnic demography of Assam was challenged ever since then. During the 1947 Partition, Sylhet, an almost 100 per cent Bengali-speaking district in the Barak Valley, decided to join Pakistan through a referendum despite a large proportion of its 43.3 per cent Hindu population voting to remain with India. Sir Cyril Radcliffe, chairman of the Boundary Commission, awarded a small Hindu pocket consisting of Ratabari, Patharkandi, Hailakandi and half of Karimganj from Sylhet to remain with Assam, thus making a large number of Bengali-speaking people legitimate citizens of Assam. At the same time, there has been an influx of Chakma and Hajong tribes, primarily Buddhist and Hindus respectively from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. During Partition, when Chittagong fell under Pakistan, they migrated to Assam and other northeastern states in large numbers. There had been another inflow of these tribes when they lost their lands due to development of the Kapati Dam on the Karnaphuli river in 1964-65. During the Bangladesh war of independence, there was another influx of refugees, many of whom did not return to Bangladesh. As per the Indira-Mujib pact of 1972, all refugees who entered India before March 25, 1971, the day Sheikh Mujibur Rehman called for an independent Bangladesh, were allowed to stay in India. That’s why the cutoff date is the midnight of March 25, 1971.
The NRC issue calls for deft handling with a sense of history and a sensitivity to legitimate concerns of all ethnic communities. Assam, like India, is a multi-ethnic, multilingual, multi-religious and multicultural state. The Northeast is a volatile region with its precarious peace earned at the cost of extreme violence and bloodshed. Assam, the largest state and a gateway to the Northeast, is the key to stability and development of the entire region. Any mishandling in dealing with an issue as sensitive as the NRC that could potentially create a large number of stateless people within the boundaries of India could lead to an explosive situation that might destroy decades of efforts to establish the hard-earned peace and stability in the region.