When numbers betray reality in Assam

The Assamese rightly believe that there are around four to seven million foreigners in Assam, not just two million as the list suggests.

By Mayur Bora (Core Issue)

Published: Wed 4 Sep 2019, 10:01 PM

Last updated: Thu 5 Sep 2019, 12:03 AM

The publication of the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) on August 31 in the eastern state of Assam in India has opened a pandora's box. The indigenous Assamese feel let down as the excercise excludes only about two million people from the list.
When the first draft of the NRC was published on July 30 last year, around four million people didn't make the cut. It brought relief to a section of indigenous people of Assam, who feel Bengali-speaking interlopers have intruded into their lives and land. This respite, however, turned into disbelief and then to anger as the media outside Assam began denouncing them without understanding ground realities.
Some human rights groups compared the 'crisis' with the Rohingiya issue in Myanmar and continued vilifying the indigenous people. However, they didn't care to mention that no Assamese has ever demanded suspension of basic human rights for the people excluded from the list. They just want to protect their homeland.
The figure of two million has brought discontentment not just to the Assamese but also to major political parties - the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress. Although a margin of error is inevitable in a massive exercise like this, one should not lose sight of the fact that the whole process has been undertaken under the supervision of the Supreme Court of India since 2013.
In the run-up to the publication of the final NRC list, the Assamese watched helplessly as several contesting narratives were built around the illegal influx from Bangladesh. The BJP has been sympathetic to the Hindus coming from Bangladesh as they feel India is the natural homeland for them. The Congress, on the other hand, has never taken the problem seriously as the Bengali-speaking
Muslims have voted for them for decades.
The most robust template of the indigenous people is the student body, the All Assam Students' Union (AASU), which has never really been drawn into this Hindu-Muslim or refugee-infiltrator binary.
A peep into history will reveal how people migrated from East Bengal to Assam before India's independence as the colonial rulers wanted to increase the revenue of thinly populated Assam. After a few decades of uncontrolled migration, the demographics of Assam, especially its middle and western regions, changed. In 1931, TS Mulan, the then census commissioner of Assam, said that if the trend continued, the indigenous people would be reduced to a minority in most districts.
Migration continued due to a porous border and the Congress party consistently ignored the demands of the indigenous people as the political leaders reaped electoral victories because of migrants.
For Assam, March 24, 1971, was declared as the cut-off date for the expulsion of foreigners, whereas for the rest of India, the cut-off year was 1951. Increasing apathy of the government towards continued migration led to the Assam Movement under the leadership of the AASU in 1979. More than 850 people laid down their lives during the agitation which ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985.
The AASU demanded a fresh NRC in 1980 as the NRC of 1951 had lost some of its utility.
Assam was the only state in India to have an NRC way back in 1951, substantiating the fact that the state's problems are different from that of other states.
Former chief minister Hiteswar Saikia once admitted that there were three million foreigners in Assam, but he later retracted because of pressure from the immigrant lobby. Two former home ministers of India have also mentioned about the presence of four million foreigners in Assam on different occasions.
This and ground realities have made the indigenous Assamese rightly believe that there are around four to seven million foreigners in Assam, and that the two million figure isn't correct.
But as Nitumoni Saikia, editor-in-chief of Guwahati-based Assamese television channel Protidin Time, said: "As the NRC numbers have been arrived at after a rigorous process, every sensible Assamese should accept it and now concentrate on development of the state."
The writer is an author and a social commentator based in India

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