On the morning of 7 April, 2019, 68-year-old Shaukat Ali was at his small eatery near Tezpur. The ‘hotel’ was known for its home-cooked beef, as well as fish and poultry. This was an inherited family business which had been running successfully for forty-odd years.
By the end of that afternoon, Shaukat was left half-dead by a mob for selling beef; on a day he hadn’t even sold any meat.
Mobile phones captured the assault on Shaukat. No one intervened. He was seen kneeling down in the mud, petrified, surrounded by a mob that thought – or believed – it had the right to attack him because he sold beef.
“Who gave you the permission to sell beef in Biswanath Chariali?”
“Are you a Bangladeshi?”
“Do you have your name in the NRC (National Register of Citizens)?”
While he was kneeling down, the mob forced Shaukat to eat pork.
Four months after the assault on Shaukat, a final list of Assam’s NRC was published: 1.9 million people had been left out and made potentially stateless. Within a few months, details emerged that a large majority of those excluded were Hindus. Not Muslims. In a petition to the Supreme Court of India, the Assam government sought a 20 percent reverification of the names in the bordering districts. The process – and motive – of the reverification of who is a legal citizen and who is not in the bordering areas with a predominantly Muslim population is self-explanatory.
Almost a year after the attack on Shaukat, on 11 February, 2020, the Assam government put forward the idea of a socio-economic census of indigenous Muslims of Assam, except that it decided to drop the term Khilonjiya (indigenous) from the census. It is now called the “Goriya, Moriya, Deshi and Julha” census. It includes just four Muslim communities and leaves out others. The Muslims from Barak Valley are not there. The Miyah Muslims, who have been fighting against their marginalisation through poetry and mobilisation, are also absent. That’s where the fear of being marked starts. It’s an exercise that will separate ethnic Assamese Muslims from settler Muslims. This process will put under the scanner the ancestry of Muslims who are outside the four declared communities. Those Muslims left out live in the fear of being branded lesser citizens. This revealed itself to be a targeted survey and less of a census that by definition should include everyone.
According to Edward Gait’s History of Assam (1905), Garias (Gorias) are Muslims from the Gaur province of Bengal. According to “A Statistical Account of Assam” (1879)—another colonial account by WW Hunter, Garias are tailors and Marias are “braziers” — who specialised in bell-metal work. Bell-metal occupies an important place in Assamese culture. Some accounts say that Goria-Morias are Muslims who lived in Assam during the Ahom Period. Deshis are descendants of people who were residing in Dhubri-Goalpara-Cooch Behar area of Lower Assam that were part of the Bengal Presidency at the time of annexation of Assam through the treaty of Yandabo in 1826. Julhas are Muslims within Assam’s tea tribes and also weavers.
Subir Dey, history scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, underlines the fact that Goria-Moria-Deshi-Jhula are just a few strands of migration of Muslims in the Brahmaputra valley and over the course of the last century have hardly remained static. During the same period there are complex histories of circulation, intermarriage, wilful conversions, he adds. ” The intermingling has not been confined within these ethnicities but has also extended to the more recent and controversial migrants from East Bengal in late colonial Assam. The old district of Nagaon is a huge melting pot of such complex histories of migration and cohabitation. The presence and participation of Muslims in Assam can be found in some of the most iconic historic moments of its past. During the battle of Saraighat against Mughals in 1671, the Ahom commander Lachit Borphukan was flanked by lsmail Siddique, more popularly known as Bagh Hazarika. The legendary tiger slayer played a key role in the army in inflicting a crushing defeat on the Mughal army. Thus, this census which is premised on ahistorical assumptions seeks to reverse the course and flow of pluralistic history of Assam”.
Monirul Hussain from the Centre for Northeast Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Milia Islamia also doesn’t agree with the proposed census. “It is a very divisive kind of move. Bangladesh is only recent history. Prior to that Assam and Bengal have had a long history. This is a land of migrants. There has been migration and intermixing for years. We cannot have watertight compartments,” he said.
I spoke to Oliullah Lashkar, a lawyer at the Gauhati High Court. Oliullah is a Bengali Muslim from Silchar. His wife is an Assamese Muslim.
“The protection extended by this policy is clearly meant for the Assamese people. The Assamese people are the most dominant community in Assam. But at the same time, they claim to be indigenous people.”
He said that the term indigenous people is used in international law and in many domestic jurisdiction for providing protection to the most marginalised and vulnerable communities. It is obvious, according to Oliullah, that this claim is made to get legitimacy to their demand to maintain their supremacy over all other communities including the real indigenous people.
“Given the arbitrary and racist nature of the exercise, I will not count myself as an indigenous Muslim, even if I qualify. But it is highly unlikely, for I am Bengali. However, my partner is Assamese speaking and they identify themselves as Assamese people. She might get counted as indigenous. It is another matter, if a choice is given, I am not sure, how she would exercise it. But we have a son. How would they count him? Is he Assamese or Bengali? Is he indigenous or a settler?”
His apprehension probably echoes the views many Muslims in Assam hold.
There could be answers that settle such queries on the surface. But this is about what lies beneath: The ruptures that the NRC has set in motion are widening every day. The ruptures aren’t new ones either.
Clause 6 of Assam Accord: Extending Safeguards to those who belong
This anxiety dates back to pre-Partition times and more recently to the violent anti-foreigner Assam agitation between 1979 and 1985, which led to the Assam Accord being signed in 1985 and a new government being sworn in. However, there were several rounds of talks before the final shape of the Accord was arrived at. Going through the initial rounds of talks, one gets a sense of predisposed notions and mutual suspicion with which communities held each other. On the receiving end were the Bengalis. In the spotlight was their migration within an undivided India –physical movement within one country and being branded as illegals. In one such meeting before the Accord was signed, a proposal was given to control migration by building a wall and keeping the area around the wall clear of forest land and houses. The specific idea was that if a migrant managed to escape the wall, he or she could be easily spotted and shot at.
The Accord formalised extension of preemptive steps to check migration and to protect the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people. Clause 6 of the Accord promises constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to do so. From July 2019, this is what a 13-member committee appointed by the home ministry and headed by Justice (retd) Biplab Kumar Sharma was entrusted to carry out. Assam’s chief minister is supposed to receive the report on behalf of the home ministry. What is important to note is that not one of those in the committee is from the Barak Valley region of Assam.
“This entire classification is undemocratic and outside the Constitutional mandate. It doesn’t extend protection to all minorities. Where are the Sylheti Muslims from Barak Valley in this? This is happening by design and in a calculated manner”, Taniya Lashkar, a lawyer who comes from Barak Valley, told me.
According to some reports, the Sharma committee wants to use 1951 as a cut-off year to determine indigenous people of Assam. It also wants implementation of an Inner Line Permit to control movement of outsiders into Assam.
Extension of safeguards under Clause 6 will divide people between settlers and indigenous communities. Indigenous people will be given first claim over natural resources and government employment. They will also be favoured in many other ways. It also suggests a reservation of 67 percent of seats in Assembly for indigenous people. Safeguards will translate into jobs, land and other benefits. Three members were of the opinion that there should be 100 percent reservation. So while the Indian Constitution says all Indians are equal, some are more equal than others. It reminds one of Myanmer’s 1982 Citizenship Law that provides a hierarchical structure of citizenship where only some ethnic communities have full citizenship. In fact it brings into sharp focus the domicile requirements that are constitutionally allowed. Individuals holding land for twenty years with their parents or forefathers being residents of Assam for a minimum of fifty years are eligible for domicile certificate. Clause 6, gets into the picture and creates categories between groups that fulfil domicile requirements. It leaves no stone unturned to spell out who is undesired in Assam.
Earlier, on Republic Day this year, Assam governor Jagdish Mukhi showered praise on the Sharma Committee. He shared a vision for Assam with this group leading the charge. The governor stated that the Assam government has requested New Delhi to declare Assamese as the permanent state language. There is also a new land policy on the anvil. It is important to note that land has historically been at the centre of many conflicts in Assam. According to Mukhi, “The land rights of indigenous people will be secured.” In the same breath, he said, “The government is determined to make Assam extremist-free.”
When I spoke to Suhas Chakma, the director of Rights and Risks Analysis Group, he unequivocally termed the socio-economic census of Muslims as “intellectual hogwash”. In addition, Chakma claims, “To term every original inhabitant group or Bhumiputra of an area as “indigenous” is nothing but the perversion of the term ‘indigenous peoples’. By this logic, Englishmen would be indigenous peoples of England and Germans would be indigenous peoples of Germany. This is not what is the meaning and purpose of defining the indigenous peoples including under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as the ILO Conventions No.107 and No 169 relating to indigenous and tribal peoples.”
Assam’s fear of “land-hungry migrants”
These policies make a cultural, racial and linguistic distinction between Assamese and non-Assamese. Naturally it throws up some questions. Who is the original Bhumiputra or son of the soil in Assam? Are East Bengali Muslims not original inhabitants? Is there a bias acting against such Muslims?
Most of these migrants are treated as “land hungry migrants” even if historically they were part of the same country when they moved from East Bengal of undivided India to Assam. In the judgment in Assam Sanhmilita Mahasangha v Union of India, where the Supreme Court decides the supervision of an NRC update, the Court reproduced census superintendent CS Mullan’s voice from 1931: “Probably the most important event in the province during the last 25 years – an event, moreover, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole feature of Assam and to destroy the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilization – has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry immigrants mostly Muslims, from the districts of East Bengal. […] Wheresoever the carcass, there the vultures will gathered together “
Mullan’s voice re-emerged in 1998 in the words of Lt Gen SK Sinha, the then Governor of Assam who sounded alarm bells about a changing Assam: “The silent and invidious demographic invasion of Assam may result in the loss of the geo-strategically vital districts of lower Assam. The influx of illegal migrants is turning these districts into Muslim majority regions. It will then only be a matter of time when a demand for their merger with Bangladesh may be made. The rapid growth of international Islamic fundamentalism may provide the driving force for this demand. In this context, it is pertinent that Bangladesh has long discarded secularism and has chosen to become an Islamic State. Loss of lower Assam will severe the entire land mass of the North East, from the rest of India and the rich natural resources of that region will be lost to the Nation (sic).”
That Sinha’s report is a biased document and is riddled with inaccuracies is well-known. It finds mention in the 2014 Supreme Court judgment on NRC. As Amnesty International mentions in its report on Foreigners’ Tribunals, “the highest court in India legitimised the one-dimensional equation of migration with national security as endorsed by the report and justified the use of repressive laws.”
Land Rights Committee
Things don’t end with the formation of the committee to look into Clause 6 of Assam Accord or with the selective census of just four communities of Muslims. A day before the first draft of the NRC was published in December 2017, another report was submitted. It was the Final Report of the Committee for Protection of Land Rights of Indigenous People of Assam. The Bramha Committee at the very outset underlined that “the pristine people of this beautiful land called Assam have reached a turning point in history at which they shockingly discovered that they have reached a crisis of their identity”. That crisis, according to the report, is because of “perennial infiltration and organised encroachment of their land by ceaseless swarms of a land-hungry people from across the Indo-Bangladesh borders”. The report used Mullan and similar voices to justify anti-immigration policies. It wants strict measures to reverse the situation. The report also expressed fears that it is mostly in the border districts the demographic pattern has changed. These are the same districts where the Assam government wants a reverification of NRC process in the absence of a pan-India NRC. “Illegal migrants” must be detained and deported and the borders sealed off to prevent indigenous people being reduced to a landless class of people and foreigners in their home, the report warned.
There is an uncanny similarity in the language used in various reports, all of which try and hammer home the point about “illegal migration”.
The NRC, the land policy, and now the selective census—they feed off each other. The socio-economic census that excludes many Muslim communities increases fears of isolation. It is also not a question of how easy or difficult it would be to implement this survey (not census). The issue is how it adds another layer to an ecosystem that is biased against a certain group of Muslims or ones who might have roots in pre-partition East Bengal. For many Indians, the many layers in such a system hold the dangerous promise of a free fall into statelessness. It also steadily pushes towards the idea of a so-called purely Assamese, hermetically-sealed Assam, often at odds with basic constitutional guarantees.
Arijit Sen is an independent journalist. His Twitter handle is @senarijit
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