Register of Conflict: NRC and Ethnic Politics in Assam

This essay is the work of Gaurav Rajkhowa, Ankur Tamuliphukan, Bidyut Sagar Boruah and Anshuman Gogoi of Uki Research Collective

The last few days have seen a wave of protest and resistance all across the north-east against the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment ) Bill in Parliament. The inchoate protests of the masses have nevertheless expressed in the clearest terms their indignation against a House of representatives who have paid no heed to every appeal, petition and protest against CAB over the last couple of years. The government, likewise, has made its intentions abundantly clear, airlifting in additional paramilitary forces and escalating the situation by deploying Army columns in some areas of Assam.

The tenor of the anti-CAB mobilization in Assam has been somewhat different from elsewhere in the country—here, the CAB debate is inseparable from the debate on the National Register of Citizens (NRC). With an eye on how the terrain of the CAB-NRC debate has shifted in the last few months, it would be the right time to turn our attention to the second half of this notorious CAB-NRC combine. In fact, the way in which CAB has been pushed through reveals much about how the NRC process may be expected to play out, and how Hindutva fascism actually intends to deal with the demands and aspirations of the many nationalities that fall within the borders of its imagined Hindu empire.

There were many in Assam who were cautiously optimistic about the NRC process—they had hoped this would end, once and for all, the discrimination against Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims as Bangladeshis. But not anymore. Over the last few months, as the deadline for the publication of the final list came ever closer, many instances of the misuse and manipulation of the process came to light. Key procedures for document verification were changed after the process had begun. And even as the State has completed the updating process with much vigour, it has not yet clarified its position on the fate of those who have been excluded from the process. Lawyers, constitutional experts and civil society groups around the country have presently expressed their doubts about the composition and mode of functioning of the Foreigners’ Tribunals set up for the purpose of detecting illegally-resident foreigners; they have voiced their opposition to the idea of setting up detention camps and the slew of human rights violations occurring within them. All in all, it is clear that the NRC has turned into a process of targeted disenfranchisement.

In a sense, the NRC is attempting the impossible—to capture social identities within legal identities. And as with any such effort, it is accompanied by its unforeseen fallout. In the present case, the procedural ambiguities and widely reported instances of harassment/wrongful detention as well as forging of documents have created an atmosphere of suspicion on all sides, which no amount of documentary evidence can dispel. Such is the dense web of relationships within which these social-political identities interact that the legal apparatus finds its scope, authority and effectiveness to be quite restricted. Consequently, across the broader field of social power, a Miya Muslim or Hindu Bengali continues to be branded a foreigner, never mind the inclusion of their names in the NRC; all ‘indigenous’ communities are branded xenophobic, never mind the exclusion of many of them from the list; and the voices of so many others are drowned out in public discourse, their inclusion or exclusion notwithstanding. In such a situation, the process has done more harm than good to all those involved—whether they have been ‘included’ in the final NRC or not.

The questions of migration and indigeneity have a long and contentious history in Assam’s colonial and post-colonial past. Over the years there has emerged a political discourse of ethnicity and cultural nationalism around these questions that produces and perpetuates social domination. At the same time, this long history also shows may instances when these structures have been resisted, challenges and forced through radical reconstitution. Against the Brahminical articulations of Assamese nationalism there have also been others that have sought to refigure relations between the communities that constitute the Assamese nationality. And the latter strain, we suggest, harbours the possibility of engaging productively with the questions of migration and indigeneity. Against this approach, the NRC effort tries to force the contested popular vocabulary of political discourse into the immutability of legal-bureaucratic categories. In the process, it has precipitated a polarization of the political space—there is an escalation (rather than easing) of inter-community antagonisms. Far from resolving the ‘immigrant question’ once and for all, the NRC process has only contributed to intensifying simmering ethnic tensions and conflict amongst the various communities in the state. To be sure, this “side effect” is all too familiar to anyone acquainted with politics in Assam over the last three decades. As we have always maintained, the NRC traces its lineage not to the Assam Movement but the peculiar state strategy of channeling political demands towards ethnic violence. To this extent, the liberals as well as the Assamese nationalists are wrong in tracing the NRC back to the Assam Movement.

A hallmark of fascist politics is the transfiguring of political questions into cultural ones. In the present context, this has taken different forms. On the one hand, it is impossible to ignore the concerted effort to dismantle and depoliticize the unresolved questions of ethnicity and the right of nationalities to self-determination, which had until recently shaped political articulation in Assam. The fascist appropriation of the idea of ‘citizen’ is well underway, and is now being executed in the name of protecting the rights of the indigenous people of Assam. On the other hand, at the level of everyday politics and struggles, ethnic conflict is increasingly tending towards fascist forms of social domination. One fears that even more than its cultural-ideological premises it is the Hindutva style of politics that will have a transformative effect on struggles in the future. From setting up shakhas to the Sanskritisation of non-Brahminical religious sects—the faces of Hindutva are many. And CAB-NRC reveals one of its more cynical and calculated dimensions. No doubt this is only a sign of things to come, as fascist politics, social domination and neoliberal political-economy begin to lock step with each other.

These new developments cannot be wished away as the unintended consequences of a massive project of social engineering such as the NRC, coupled with its unfortunate coincidence with BJP rule. They cannot be attributed merely to the opportunism of the present political leadership, for these are actually symptoms of an endemic problem in the relation between the Indian state and society, expressed in sharp relief by the present conjuncture. Consequently, the questions at hand cannot be resolved in a piecemeal manner, through discussions and compromises behind closed doors. In fact, it requires a simultaneous rethinking of the questions of citizenship and the rights of nationalities. This can happen only if the government and the court-mandated bodies cease all CAB- and NRC-related activities until the questions of citizenship, migration, and regional disparity are discussed substantively, with adequate representation of all affected communities. All detention camps must be closed immediately and there must be an end to harassment of citizens in the name of ‘D-voters.’ The composition and procedures of the Foreigners’ Tribunals must be reviewed. Structural measures must be taken against the political disenfranchisement and economic exploitation of indigenous and migrant communities alike. Alongside these measures, there must also be a discussion to remedy the disproportionate burden of accepting immigrants that is being borne by only some states of India. Finally, a Parliamentary Committee must be formed to look into a broad restructuring of Centre-state federal relations and acknowledging the rights of nationalities within the Indian state.

However, it is doubtful whether the ruling dispensation and even most civil society commentators are capable of undertaking this task at the present moment. The creative forces to accomplish this will become available only in the midst of struggle against Hindutva fascism; and must develop out of a united front across communities, brought together in a spirit of equality, dignity, and justice for all. The blackboots are trudging through the burning streets again. And as the khaki uniforms begin turning olive green, one cannot feel that the old times have returned. But this time we will be stronger and wiser—this time we shall be victorious. Let no one mistake the moment we are living through, for we shall look back on this as the beginning of the end of the Hindu empire.

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