Those of you who have been following the main stream media in India have probably been aware of two programs that have invited much controversy: the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016. Both of these have a direct impact on the politics and society of Assam, which is where most of the opposition to these activities has come from.
The left parties and the Congress have jumped on the opportunistic bandwagon to criticize the BJP and Mr. Modi, but there is little substance in their protests, as I shall demonstrate.
To understand both of these issues, we must first understand Assam in the context of the partition of India and the subsequent creation of Bangladesh (formerly east Pakistan). Without delving into the details of how Pakistan came into being (you can read my article on it here), it is important to note that the country was partitioned on religious grounds, specifically on the demands of Muslims who wanted nothing to do with the Hindus. Leading up to 1971, India was witnessing a genocide unfolding in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) because the Bengalis (Muslim Bengalis) had rejected the core notions of Pakistan’s identity and therefore dented the two nation theory.
Having said this, its worth remembering that the Muslims of Bengal were instrumental in demanding and creating Pakistan, along with their brethren in UP, Hyderabad, Bombay, and Delhi. During the genocide unleashed by the Pakistani army in East Pakistan, Hindus were specifically targeted as they were deemed to be ‘Indians’ or ‘Indian agents’. The Hindus of East Pakistan, though more numerous that their brethren in the West, were unorganised and marginalized, and were in no position to instigate nationalist sentiments in East Pakistan. In peaceful times, they could remain behind the scenes, and in more turbulent, seek refuge in India.
Before and during the 1971 war, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, around 1 million Hindus were killed and another million sought refuge in India (many of which entered into what is now Assam). However, they were not alone in seeking refuge; a significant, if not equal, number of Muslims also emigrated illegally to India, to escape the violence. Given that the border with Bangladesh (both in West Bengal and Assam) was virtually non-existent from an enforcement perspective, and that the immigrants were virtually indistinguishable, it was fairly easy for them to move to India and continue living there like locals.
However, the demography of Assam, Mizoram, and West Bengal, but Assam in particular, changed rapidly due to the influx of these migrants. This continued well into the 80s, with millions more entering India (now more Muslims in proportion to their population in Bangladesh) and settling in the border states. West Bengalese found it hard to protest the influx of other Bengalis, but in Assam, there was widespread resentment that led to the Assam Movement, which demanded the identification and expulsion of illegal immigrants.
In 1985, after years of struggle against the illegal migrants, the Assamese parties/unions (later became the Asom Gana Parishad) signed an agreement with the central govt. (under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi) that made it incumbent on the central govt. to identify and deport all illegal immigrants in Assam, with 1966 being the cut-off year; i.e., if you were not living in Assam or a different part of India before 1966, you were an illegal entrant. Later, the Indira-Mujib treaty allowed for a buffer for those who entered between 1966 and 1971 (giving them a pathway to citizenship).
Though deportation was always going to be a tough ask (and the Assam accord isn’t very clear on what it means to expel illegal immigrants), the other objective of this accord was to ensure that these immigrants are not registered as voters, several of whom were, which is why the movement started in the first place. The pact did not make any distinction between the Muslim and the Hindu refugees; both were treated by the Assamese as illegal immigrants who were neither Indian nor Assamese. However, in practice, it is well known that the sentiment was fuelled by Muslim immigrants rather than the Hindu ones. 1
During the partition, only one or two areas of Assam (Sylhet) had a majority Muslim population. The 1946 Sylhet referendum resulted in Sylhet going to East Pakistan (the Assamese leadership welcomed this), with only area, namely Karimganj, remaining in India. For those interested, the referendum results were 56 % Yes – 44% No, which was roughly in line with the Muslim-Hindu population of Sylhet. So pretty much all Muslims in Sylhet asked to merge with Pakistan, and there is no evidence to suggest that it would be any different in a neighbouring district had it been majority Muslim (and therefore would have had the opportunity to participate in a referendum).
Therefore, on the eve of partition, only Karimganj in Assam had a majority of Muslims or a near majority. However, in 2011, there were 9 Muslim majority districts in Assam, all of them Bengali speaking, which attests the fact that illegal immigration from Bangladesh into Assam has changed the demography of the state. Formation of Bengali Muslim parties such as AIUDF led by Badruddin Ajmal are also good indicators of the rising political clout of the Bengali Muslims in Assam.
National Register of Citizens
To implement the Assam Accord, a list of people who were in Assam or other parts of India before 1966 has to be prepared. The most recent exercise is in progress thanks to a Supreme Court order given in 2013 to weed our illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Given the red tape in India, this is a mammoth exercise, but one that needs to be done, legally and morally. Details about how one can prove their bonafide status as available on the NRC website (there is a host of documents and proofs that are admissible). Add to this that several of the illegal immigrants must have got their hands on official documents by now, making it even harder for the official to compile the list. In fact, KPS Gill, who was on duty in Assam during turbulent times, told to the authorities that the corrupt land revenue officials would doctor land records for illegal immigrants (for a price of course). These records are far more important than having a passport or a voters ID, which by themselves are not proof of citizenship.
The first draft of the NRC contains names of around 29 million people and leaves around 4 million out (Assam has roughly 33 million people). All the melodramatic stories on NDTV about the one family which has some members on the list and others not on it is an attention diverting technique. There is no doubt that such an exercise will omit some genuine people (and admit many more dubious ones), but it is clear that there are 3-4 million 2 illegal people in Assam (and perhaps even a larger number in West Bengal but the locals haven’t agitated against them so there is no West Bengal Accord).
The NRC is being prepared under the supervision of the Supreme Court and to implement an agreement signed by Rajiv Gandhi. Therefore, attributing it to BJP and the RSS is opportunistic and untrue. Moreover, the list is not final. I expect the number of omitted people to drop to around 3.5 million.
What happens to these 3.5 million people? Are Nidhi Razdan’s fears of Modi sending them to a concentration camp true? Unfortunately for her, they aren’t. It is not that we’ll identify 3.5 million people and Sheikh Hasina (PM of Bangladesh) will send a train (or few thousand) to get them home. They will remain here, and we have legal obligations on how to deal with stateless persons (Rohingyas are another example). So what will the NRC achieve? Its main objective was never deportation (that’s a pipe dream); it was always about identifying these people to make sure they cannot influence the political and judicial system. That certainly explains why the Congress and Trinamool Congress don’t want this exercise to succeed; after all, the 4 million don’t vote for the BJP!
Citizenship Amendment Bill (2016)
There is a fundamental problem with identifying and expelling the illegal residents of Assam (loosely, Bangladeshis). A number of them are Hindus, who were forced to emigrate because they were being killed and raped by the millions in 1971, and continue to decline as a community in Bangladesh. In 1971, Bangladesh was 30% Hindu. Today is is around 11%. Where are the others? Zakir Naik would have you believed that they embraced Islam (some might have given the coercion we know exists in Islamic lands), but most ran away to India, while others were killed.
Do we treat them in the same way as the Muslim immigrants (many of which have entered India in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s)? We can’t, and shouldn’t, for a number of fundamental reasons. As noted earlier, India was partitioned on the demand of the Muslims. Only the constituencies with a Muslim majority were given a choice to join Pakistan or stay and India, and most of them joined Pakistan (which also means that they subscribed to the two nation theory).
The Hindus of Pakistan, on the other hand, were faced with three prospects:
- Running away to India, like most of the Hindus (and Sikhs) did from West Punjab, Sindh and other parts of what is now Pakistan.
- Convert to Islam or another religion to which Islam was less hostile, such as Christianity (which is what poorest of the poor Hindus did in Pakistan).
- Lead lives of third class citizens with limited political and social freedom and the constant fear of persecution (which is what has been happening to the remaining Hindus (and Sikhs + Buddhists) in both Pakistan and Bangladesh and hence, they have been seeking refuge into India in such numbers that current Pakistan now has less than 2% Hindus and Bangladesh as around 11%.
So, as a nation, we are (have been) at this crossroad where we don’t quite know what to do with the Hindus of erstwhile India. Since the Hindu immigrants into modern India are religiously persecuted, we ought to treat them differently to economic immigrants from Bangladesh (Muslims), who come to India solely for a better lifestyle.
The amendment to the citizenship law lays out a pathway for Hindus from undivided India (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh) to become Indian citizens, subject to certain conditions. To add a sprinkle of secularism to it, they’ve included Sikhs, Buddhists and other minorities to the list; everyone but Muslims.
Isn’t it immoral and unethical to differentiate between refugees? No; not in our case. As mentioned earlier, Muslims chose to create Pakistan & Bangladesh, and where given a choice (the referendum of Sylhet being one example), opted to merge with Pakistan. Therefore, if they now change their mind, it has to be viewed differently than those Hindus who had no role in deciding the partition of India or the accession of certain regions into Pakistan. India was and is their home.
India is not alone in making this differentiation. Australia, a secular country, had a specific policy to offer asylum to Arab Christians from Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, who were being persecuted there. Israel has a repatriation policy for Jews anywhere in the world, as do the Chinese. Myanmar refuses to accept Rohingyas as its people because they maintain that there is nothing called a Bengali-speaking, Muslim Myanmarese.
The growth of the Muslim population in Assam and Bengal has been phenomenal. Higher fertility rates3 cannot alone explain the increase. Assam has around 34% Muslims today and West Bengal is at around 27.1%.
However, if you compare it to Indian Punjab or Haryana, which were also divided along religious lines, the number is around 2%. Why are there 25-30% Muslims in Bengal and Assam, whereas merely 2% in Punjab? Were Bengalis more secular? The fact that given the opportunity, Muslims chose Pakistan runs contrary to that belief. Some of them might have not chosen or wanted to move to Pakistan (that too, we don’t know for what reason, for I suspect the reasons were economic and not ideological), but unfortunately, their coreligionists cast the dye for them and they elected their leaders (there were separate electorates for Muslims in Bengal so the leaders who campaigned for Pakistan were chosen by Bengali Muslims). It wouldn’t be hard to argue that by default, all Bengali Muslims are Bangladeshis.
Why the protests against the amendment?
Contrary to what people might think about the protests in Assam against this bill, the protests are against the dilution of the Assam Accord. So, it is not that the Assamese are protesting the differentiation between Hindus and Muslims from Bangladesh; they are protesting the fact that any such law will allow Hindus (and other minorities) to bypass the accord under which they would not have been treated as Indians (and therefore would have no right to live in Assam).
The amendment to the law supersedes the Assam accord. The accord states that the illegal immigrants will be ‘expelled according to the law’, and with the amendment, the law is changing. What isn’t being talked about is the rationale behind this change to the citizenship law (which I’ve explained above) for the fear of being labelled ‘communal’. This law is not just about Assam. Thousands of refugees from Sindh have been living refugee camps in Rajasthan and are waiting to be regularised. How can a person, born on the banks of the Sindhu, not be an Indian? Moreover, the actual number of Hindus and other minorities are a small number of the 4 million potential illegal residents of Assam (as identified by the first draft of the NRC). After all, there have been no protests against the ‘Hinduization’ of Assam; it has always been about the changing demography (implying the Islamicization).
Protests amongst the intellectual or pseudo-intellectuals range from being purely opportunistic to naive. This article by Yogendra Yadav, for example, says that BJP, with the amendment, will be making Jinnah proud. The BJP did not create Pakistan or divide India or start the protests in Assam against the Bangladeshis (it wasn’t even a party when that happened). The BJP is merely protecting the rights of the Hindus, who have been at the losing end of the deal (called partition). As far as the Congress is concerned, most people don’t know that Nehru and Patel agreed to Jinnah’s demand that Assam should belong to Pakistan (to expedite independence for India). We have G Bordoloi to thank for making sure that Assam remained in India. 4
Providing a pathway to Indian citizenship to persecuted Hindus who have emigrated from Pakistan (east and west) is a national and moral responsibility for India. We owe it to those who are loyal to India. As far as Muslims of Pakistan and Bangladesh are concerned, they are economic migrants and should only be allowed to enter India through the usual work visa/economic entry route. And even for them, I recommend asking them to sign an affidavit distancing themselves from racist & condescending the two-nation theory and pledging their allegiance to India.
- These numbers are match those presented by Lt Gen SK Sinha in his report to the Indian President on the subject of illegal immigration into Assam.