By Bikash Sarmah
The first draft of the updated tiol Register of Citizens (NRC) is out in Assam, the only State in the country where the mammoth exercise has taken place for the only reason that it is this State of the Indian Union that has borne – or, rather, has been forced to bear – the debilitating brunt of having to shelter hordes of illegal Bangladeshi tiols, both of Hindu and Islamic faiths. The very beginning of the NRC update exercise was controversial with a ‘minority’ group out to sabotage the whole exercise, choosing to gloss over its imperative because it did not suit their political agenda of having to be able to get the illegal tiols settled in the State, expand their base to fulfil their sinister agenda of reducing the sons of the soil to a minority in the latter’s very land of birth, and thus rule the roost here as first-rate citizens, even going to the extent of ravaging the prized xatra lands that epitomize the most glorious strands of Assamese culture and tradition. But the first question is who is really this so-called ‘minority’. However, this question must be preceded by the question as to whether one has any right at all to talk of any majority or minority in a secular democratic republic if we are really one. Let us debate. And without any prejudice.
The first fact of the characteristic pseudo-secular Indian political life is that by ‘majority’ one means the vast Hindu population of this country, and by ‘minority’ one essentially means just one population, those practising Islam here, regardless of whether they are Indian citizens or whether they have enrolled themselves as Indian citizens at the behest of their masters of whom there is no deficit. The latter socio-economic and political calamity has happened in Assam ever since when migrants from the erstwhile East Bengal began to migrate to what then was undivided Assam (except the princely states of Manipur and Tripura) in search of better economic opportunities – the fertile plains of the Brahmaputra being their chief attraction, which they would eventually make their best living, working and breeding space. But India had yet to attain freedom from the yoke of British imperialism. When it did happen in 1947 after the tragic Partition, and when East Bengal became East Pakistan until its liberation from the tyrannical West Pakistan in the 1971 War and its mutation to what now is Bangladesh, there was no respite at all to the unhindered illegal flow of foreigners from that part of the volatile Indian subcontinent. The untrammelled flow of aliens continued to Assam as if this region must have some sacred duty of sorts to host them for all times and as if, if this was not done, it must face the consequences; the latter would mean that this region, Assam, home to diverse ethnic tribes apart from what is called the mainstream Assamese society, must be forcibly invaded to make as large a room as possible for the aliens from East Pakistan to deluge it with an alien socio-economic, political, cultural and religious configuration. And when the 1971 War happened, the flow of such aliens only multiplied, so much so that a mass agitation hitherto witnessed in independent India had to take solid shape and sustain itself for as long as six violent years – the Assam Movement from 1979 to 1985 – just in order to free the State from the clutches of Bangladeshi tiols illegally settled, and made to illegally settle, here as uncompromised vote banks for the very political formation that helped us win independence from British imperialism, the Congress Party, then and still the self-styled torchbearer of a peculiar variety of secularism. This secularism would brand any advocate of the genuine Hindu cause and tive tiolism as ‘commul’ and hail its antithesis votaries as ‘secularists’ and ‘inclusivists’. True, the whole of the country has paid a very heavy cost for this grave aberration in our tiol discourse. But the cost Assam has paid is far heavier, far more disastrous.
In a truly secular tion-state, there cannot be any question of any religious majority or minorities. In India, it is obviously the Hindus who form the religious majority, and the fact of life that most ‘secularists’ hesitate to admit is that it is Hinduism, with its offshoots in the forms of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, that forms the tive or indigenous faith of this country. However, since relatively smaller faiths like Buddhism, Jainism and Buddhism have diverged out of the pristine way of life that Hinduism fundamentally is, they are bracketed as ‘religious minorities’ for the sake of formal segregation for various welfare schemes distribution purposes. But it is not these groups along with Christianity that concern the typical Indian ‘secularists’, including of course a whole lot of ‘liberal’ intellectuals, not just the vast political brigade led by the Congress. The only religious minority that concerns them is the Muslim population, the largest religious minority in the country. It is this population, with its proven potential to be allowed to be exploited as a vote bank for cheap electoral gains to be earned by ‘secular’ politicians, that has remained the ‘minorities’ concern in our pseudo-secular political discourse. Therefore, we do not hear of the singular word minority, but of its plural, minorities. And therefore, when we hear the word minorities, we are asked to accept it as people who practise and profess Islam alone– the Muslims – and not as people who practise and profess faiths other than Islam such as Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity (how can we forget that Christianity forms such an overwhelming faith as in Northeast India?) etc. This is a very serious aberration fraught with the danger of creating a sharp and irreparably divisive polarity in our tiol discourse. In fact this has already happened. And Assam is a classic case, accept it or not.
Now, that said, it is imperative to visit history in a very concise form since 1971. Though undivided Assam had shrunken with the creation of galand (formerly ga Hills), Mizoram (formerly Lushai Hills), Meghalaya (formerly Jaintia, Garo and Khasi Hills) and Aruchal Pradesh (formerly NEFA), illegal Bangladeshis, acting as a solid vote bank for the Congress Party, had to be sheltered in the State and given solid patroge to thrive here by living, working and breeding illegally to the huge detriment of the indigenous Assamese culture and tradition as well as its economic space. As the celebrated jourlist Bertil Lintner has written in his classic book Great Game East (“Assam and Bangladesh: Foreigners? What Foreigners?”, Chapter 5) while referring to the cover story titled “Fire in Assam: South Asia’s Arc of Crisis” carried by Asiaweek in its 4 March 1983 edition, even though Assam had shrunken in size, it “still held some of the most fertile agricultural lands in India, and therefore attracted hordes of migrants from poorer parts of the subcontinent – especially Bangladesh. To them, Assam remained a land of opportunity and an estimated five million Muslim Bengalis fled to Assam (emphasis added) in the wake of the liberation war (of Bangladesh in 1971). Assam already had a population density of 254 per square kilometre. So there was really no abundance of land, and jobs were not necessarily to come by. A group of militant students began a campaign to expel the state’s millions of ‘foreigners’, claiming that they had indeed stolen jobs in paper, tea and oil industries. Worse, they argued, (it) was the political threat to the Assamese. Local politicians, eager to build up pools of loyal voters for elections, had helped the ‘foreigners’ get ration cards and other documents which made it possible for them to register as voters. The student radicals claimed that illegal immigrants… formed nearly 45 per cent of the electorate. Many Assamese feared that they would lose political control of their tive land.”
Well, that was when the Assam Movement began in 1979 with the sole intent to give Assam freedom from the illegitimate and totalitarian grip of illegal Bangladeshi tiols dressed up as Indian ‘minorities’ – Indian citizens, that is, forming a component of the largest Indian religious minority group! And that Assamese fear has now come true, with the sons of the soil losing political control in districts such as Barpeta, Hailakandi, Dhubri, Goalpara, Karimganj and gaon where it is, as stated by the judiciary of the land too, the illegal Bangladeshi tiols and their anti-tiol patrons who are kingmakers, and not the ones who are its tives and must be kingmakers. But to say this is not ‘secularism’ but blatant ‘commulism’ in our parochial, vote-bank-centric political discourse. But, then, it does not matter at all when Assam faces a demographic doom.
Therefore, it is for that precise reason that an updated NRC, with all genuine Indian citizens in Assam in the new version, is the crying need of the hour. So no panic button please. Those who are illegally residing and expanding their progenies to Bangladesh-ize Assam have reasons to worry – and worry they must. But those who are genuine Indian citizens are here to stay and help this beautiful land flourish further – minus the invading and totalitarian mindset of aliens. We can debate further.
(Bikash Sarmah is a strategic affairs jourlist with focus on Chi, Northeast India and Southeast Asia, and may be reached at email@example.com)