WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
History has not been very kind to people who found themselves the residents of colonies ruled by foreign powers. [The use of the word residents—rather than citizens—is perhaps appropriate because colonial rule invariably destroys the qualities of citizenship In fact, there could be a legitimate charge about the people of such countries having brought foreign rule to their country by failing to ensure the kind of leadership that made colonial rule an impossible proposition. If anything, the kind of fierce patriotism that precludes colonial rule was so rare that the number of colonies ruled by foreign powers was more the norm rather than the exception for quite a few centuries. At some point, great foreign powers that had colonies in different parts of the world began to realize the futility of having colonies for which they would have to take responsibilities for decades if not centuries, and decided that fading memories of colonial status and the relationship with ‘subjects’ that this evoked were better than having to accept responsibility for colonies for an indefinite duration. Most European powers that had colonies (especially in the East) had amassed great wealth from their colonies in a matter of decades, and deemed it pointless to continue to rule their colonies. The urge for freedom in these colonies had become a major force to reckon with, and ‘civilized’ countries found it increasingly difficult to justify their having colonies populated by people totally unwilling to have some foreign power ruling their country. By the middle of the 20th century, many Asian countries that had been ruled as colonies of European powers demanded and secured freedom from their colonial rulers. India had a major role in this, as is evident from the number of Asian countries that attained independence soon after India became free in 1947.
One of the major problems with citizens of countries that attained independence a few decades ago is that having remained ‘loyal’ subjects of some colonial power or the other ever since their birth, they had no idea of the rights and privileges that citizens of an independent country were born with or the responsibilities to their motherland as citizens. People living in colonies ruled by foreign powers were taught their duties and responsibilities as loyal subjects. None of this might be in the school textbooks, but message got across to everyone. People knew the fear of any kind of action that could even remotely be regarded as being anti-establishment Having been born as a ‘subject’ in British-ruled India, I have had a taste of colonial rule (albeit during the fag end of it) in addition to the responsibilities of being the citizen of an independent country. At the same time, in all fairness, I must admit that the feeling of having been born a slave to some foreign power was not very pronounced in our school days. And India became independent when I was a schoolboy.
As a citizen of an independent country, there are far too many issues for which I must feel responsible even though I may not be required to take any responsibility for all of them. For someone who belongs to Assam and lives in the State, there is now the major issue of having to distinguish the Indian citizen living in Assam from the foreigner who has migrated from some other country. The problem has been exacerbated by two major factors. One is the factor of huge numbers. The other is the intense desire of people who have migrated from Bangladesh to Assam and lived here for some years to be regarded as Indian citizens and not as migrants from Bangladesh living illegally in Assam. Both factors have a major impact on the future of Assam and the Assamese people.
There is no denying that migration on differing scales has been a common human phenomenon for centuries. One of the best examples of what large-scale migration can do to a country or continent is what has happened to the United States of America, Canada or Australia. The indigenous populations of these countries have been outstripped by migrants from different countries. Massive migrations from European countries (and lately also Asian countries) accounts for the very remarkable change in the demographic composition of the United States. This is also true of what has happened to the demographic composition of Canada. The indigenous populations of these two countries have ceased to matter any more. The migrant populations have taken over almost completely. In fact, any attempt on the part of the indigenous people of the United States to claim to be the real Americans is likely to be treated as a joke.
The issues relating to demography of Assam and the Northeast are far more serious. One of the problems is that there is no marked difference in physical appearance or the language spoken by the illegal migrants from Bangladesh and what is spoken in certain parts of Assam. It is thus virtually impossible to identify an illegal migrant from Bangladesh. He looks and speaks precisely like someone from the Goalpara district of Assam. Identifying the illegal migrant from Bangladesh on the basis of skin colour or speech has become a far more difficult task than it used to be. But what has made a difficult task an almost impossible one is the years of neglect of the important tasks of identifying and deporting the illegal migrant from Bangladesh (and elsewhere). Much of the responsibility for this must be accepted by our bureaucrats. Over the years, our bureaucrats did nothing at all to deal with the problem when it was possible to do so. Now that we have reached a stage when solving this problem is a Herculean task, there are ritualistic attempts to do so.
Unfortunately, the entire business of dealing with the problem has got reduced to the ritual of whether someone’s name figures on the updated version of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) or not. If it does, one is deemed to be an Indian citizen living in Assam. If it does not, probably even the most obvious Indian citizen living in Assam will cease to be regarded as an Indian citizen.