There could not have been a better gift for Assamese public than the release of the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) on the midnight of December 31, 2017. After all, they had been desiring it for decades. Contrary to the widespread apprehensions of an unpleasant situation arising after the release of the first NRC draft, no major untoward incidents were reported from any part of the state. The authority along with various political parties, civil society advocacy group representatives and the media have played a pragmatic role in maintaining peace across the region.
However, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee claimed in a public meeting recently that the NRC updating process in Assam was a “conspiracy to drive away Bengalis”; but she failed to get support of Assam’s Bengali-speaking people, many of whose names were missing in the draft. They rather considered it as an error and have sought necessary correction in the final NRC draft.
The much-awaited update of NRC of 1951 is undergoing in Assam following the directive of the Supreme Court of India; the process is also being monitored by the apex court. Its first draft comprised names of 1.9 crore people out of around 3.29 crore total applicants. The process of updating began in 2013. About 6.5 crore supporting documents pertaining to 68.27 lakh families residing in the state were received. The second and final part of the draft is expected to be published early this year.
It is follow-up action to the Assam Accord, signed by leaders of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and Gana Sangram Parishad with the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985. The historic memorandum of understanding puts responsibility on the Union government to detect and deport all migrants (read East Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals) who entered Assam after the midnight of March 24, 1971.
In other words, the agreement accepted all residents prior to the dateline as Indian nationals in Assam even though the movement was run with the spirit of 1951 as the base year to detect illegal migrants like in other parts of India. It, however, mentioned about constitutional safeguards to the indigenous communities of Assam to be facilitated by the Centre.
Illegal Bangladeshi migrants remain a vital socio-political issue for the northeastern region of India even today. The Assam movement had erupted in the eighties and culminated with the agreement. The development finally empowered the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which came to power in Dispur for two terms. However, the regional party leaders allegedly betrayed the people on the issue.
Meanwhile, the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, both in New Delhi and Dispur, and its main opposition party, the Congress, have engaged in verbal confrontations claiming credit for the NRC updating process. The BJP criticised Congress and other parties for not showing interest in the updation of NRC in Assam, whereas the Congress leaders claimed that it was their initiative to update the NRC in Assam under the leadership of former prime minister Manmohan Singh.
Assam’s former chief minister and veteran Congress leader Tarun Gogoi said that the NRC updation would be a futile exercise if the Centre gets the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 passed in the Parliament. The year 2017 witnessed enormous discussions and apprehensions in Assam about the initiative to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 with the provisions to grant citizenship to persecuted religious minorities (read non-Muslims) from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh after due processes. The citizenship amendment bill is expected to get passed soon in both Houses of Parliament.
Assam, in particular, witnessed huge protests against the initiative arguing that the amendment would jeopardize the historic Assam Accord as well as it would harm the social fabric of the state where various communities irrespective of their caste, creed and religions had been living in harmony.
In the meantime, a forum urged intellectuals and civil society groups to debate the issue in the right perspectives. The Patriotic People’s Front of Assam (PPFA) also pointed out that few ill-motivated Assamese elements were claiming that the concerned bill was Assam-centric. “Those biased individuals keep pronouncing that once the bill turns into a law, millions of Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh would be dumped in Assam. They cleverly concealed that the asylum seekers were not merely Bengali Hindus, but a mix of Rajbongshi, Hajong, Jayantiya, Bishnupriya, Chakma, Garo, Khasi, Adivasi, etc. with different religious faiths,” said the forum. It also added that those asylum seekers had already taken shelter in India and there is no provision in the amendments to bring more Bangladeshi (or Pakistani and Afghan) nationals after December 31, 2014.
Finally, the PPFA stated that Indians should not forget that all these people became the victims of the India-Pakistan partition game plan and had to live in a foreign land for the creation of which they were not responsible at all. The forum slammed Mamata Banerjee for finding fault in the NRC updating process going on in Assam and requested her to exercise restraint while making any public statement. It alleged that Banerjee had communalised the issue with queer logic. “The Trinamool Congress chief has simply tried to play a cunning game as a few Bengali politicians of yesteryears, including her predecessor Communist leader Jyoti Basu, along with a bunch of intellectuals, had done the same during the Assam movement to deport illegal Bangladeshi migrants,” said the PPFA.
The forum pointed out that the appeasement policies of Mamata Banerjee towards a particular community in West Bengal have seemingly compelled her to make such comments. Earlier, Assam government spokesperson Chandra Mohan Patowary, state minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam Public Works chief Abhijit Sarma, AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya, AGP president Atul Bora, KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi, eminent scholar Nirode K. Barooah with many others had criticised her for her “irrational statements”. Even the Bengali-speaking people in the State slammed Banerjee for her comment on NRC updating process and said it might spread misinformation and confusion across the nation. At least three FIRs were lodged in various police stations against the Bengal chief minister for her derogatory comments targeting the apex court of the country.