A Response to Hiren Gohain: The NRC is a Product of Xenophobia in Assam

The voices of opposition against the excesses towards minorites in present-day Assam are surprisingly silent.

The following article is a rejoinder to Hiren Gohain's article "Discussion: 'Linking Excesses in NRC Process to Assamese Xenophobia Is Unwarranted,'" which was written as a response to the author's original article on detention camps in Assam. Read the article here.

I am obliged to Hiren Gohain for writing the critique.

At the outset, it is unclear what historical example Gohain is referring to regarding the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC, in its current form, is a unique mechanism and does not have any known historical precedence in known human history. Though it was first implemented in Assam in 1951, it was directly copied from the slips of the 1951 census (Roychoudhury 1981), and is not the exhaustive process that we see today. 

I agree with Gohain when he says that there have been several instances of cruelty in human history, with perhaps none more cruel than the horrors unleashed by the Nazis in their concentration camps (See Malik 2020, Berendt 2020). The treatment meted out to the Jews in these camps is a scar on the human race. Why were the Jews persecuted in Germany? Simple—they were hated. Similarly, the presence of multiple detention camps in Assam, the targeted violence, and the longstanding persecution of East Bengal-origin Muslims of Assam across the decades (See Hussain 1995, Pathak 2012, Siddique 2014, 2017, Azad 2018)  strongly indicates the presence of hatred in Assam. 

The present-day NRC cannot—and must not—be comprehended in isolation. It is deeply embedded within what Gohain acknowledges to be the “horrors of the Assam movement in the 1980s.” However, there are questions that need to be further elucidated upon: Why did these horrors take place? Who was responsible for them? Why, barring a few, did no one from the Asomiya intelligentsia demand justice for the victims of the most horrific bloodbaths that Assam has ever witnessed, the Nellie massacre,[1] which is a product of the Assam movement?  

In Assam, the NRC has chiefly evoked two viewpoints:  For the Asomiyas, the experience of the NRC is one of indifference, thanks to the “Original Inhabitant” category created by the government to safeguard the “indigenous” people. For most Muslims and Bengali Hindus, however, the experience of the NRC is unquestionably chilling.

While some local media outlets have reported on the atrocities meted out to the marginalised people of Assam through the NRC exercise, most of this reportage has been grossly inadequate. The NRC has unleashed intense suffering on various social groups, especially the Miyas,[2] who have been degraded and persecuted for many decades in Assam. This fear that has been released through the NRC apparatus has forced scores to commit suicide[3] in the state. Will there ever be any justice for them? It must also be mentioned that at the time of the NRC updation, voices opposing the process were barely carried in these newspapers. Additionally, not many dared to write against the NRC. It was only when the result was about to be published that the chauvinists and the Hindutvabadis started opposing it because the number of excluded Muslims did not meet their irrational expectations. The number of excluded people is extraordinarily high, but those who belong to these right-wing groups want even more Muslims to be excluded.

I do not deny the existence of cross-border migration, but the presence of the undocumented migrants in the state has been, time and again, completely  blown out of proportion. Deshi Muslims, Muslims of the Barak Valley, and especially East Bengal-origin Muslims are regularly termed as and bullied as Bangladeshis, Bideshis, “illegal immigrants,” Miyas, and Gedas by chauvinists in Assam in an almost quotidian manner. In districts of Upper Assam, labourers belonging to these marginalised communities are regularly harassed not only by those affliated to the ruling party but also by miscreants who claim to represent the Asomiya nationalist groups. What Gohain has either forgotten or has deliberately hidden is that xenophobic Assamese people have harassed and targeted Muslims and non-Asomiyas from as early as 1960 (Guha 1980). To use derogatory language against them is the new normal in Assam. Whenever the local press requires an image or a video of an undocumented Bangladeshi foreigner, they use an unverified image of any Bengali-origin Assamese Muslim. The media, together with the chauvinists, have made East Bengali-origin Muslims and “illegal immigrants” synonymous with each other. Moreover, the discourse about the persecution of this oppressed social group has been relegated to the sidelines. 

Gohain, in his response, has repeatedly used the term “migrants” and it becomes obvious that he has used the term to refer to these East Bengal-origin Muslims. The migration of this peasant community commenced at least in the late 19th century and largely continued till the mid-20th century from erstwhile East Bengal to Assam—both parts of undivided colonial India (Fazal 2018, Guha 1977). Since then, they have called Assam their home and put their children in Assamese-medium schools. In successive censuses, they have largely declared Assamese their mother tongue. It is because of this social group that Assamese is still the language spoken by the majority in Assam. Does Gohain hold this subordinated social group as “migrants” even though this “migration” happened at least three generations ago? If we go by the sociological definition of migration, many of us are migrants in this modern age, irrespective of our ethnicity, identity, and social background. Thus, the use of the term “migrants” is deeply flawed to refer to a particular social group when  the migration in question took place in the colonial period.     

Gohain has rightly pointed out that the misery of the people in the detention camps of Assam are “largely due to the targeted policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),” but one must understand that these detention camps were established by the Congress government that preceded the BJP.  The abusive treatment of the linguistic, religious, and, in some cases, ethnic minorities[4] in Assam is not new and has been occurring for decades across different governments.  Gohain can easily lay the blame for the detention camps on the BJP, but one must ask how many protest marches did the Asomiya elite take part in against the horrifying violation of human rights in these detention centres? There were none.[5] Among the public documents, only one letter, which was signed by 31 Assamese intellectuals, demanded the closure of the detention camps in the state. It is, however,  noteworthy to mention that Gohain was one of the signatories of this letter.[6]

More than 19 lakh people have been excluded from the NRC (Ahmed 2019). These excluded people will now have to move the controversial foreigners tribunals (FTs) to lay claim to  their citizenship—a costly and often unaffordable affair for these poor and hapless subalterns. Seeking justice from these FTs is extraordinarily challenging. As Gohain (2019) himself says, “foreigners tribunals are short of mature and judicially trained members” .  Mander (2019) further delineates the working of the FTs,

“the FTs have operated in openly hostile and arbitrary ways. The presiding officers of FTs are often lawyers with no judicial experience and appointed with no security of tenure by [the] State Government, follow no due process, and are reportedly driven by informal targets to maximize the numbers of persons who they deem to be ‘foreigners.’” 

It is widely reported and known that FTs function as per government diktat and it is extremely painful for the excluded masses to face these FTs, let alone get justice (Verghese and Naik 2020). People have lost their lands, livestock, and all other possessions to prove their citizenship in proving their claim to citizenship. Who pays for these resources even if their citizenship claim is successful? Gohain’s opinion in this context demonstrates a complete lack of empathy and he willfully elides the agony of millions.                     

Gohain’s mention of how Muslim groups from East Pakistan drove out entire tribes “like Chakmas, Hajongs, and Garos from their ancestral lands in the North East” is indeed a sad episode, but how are the Muslims of Assam now responsible for an incident that essentially occurred in a different country? Lastly, Gohain writes that “there has been a perception among the natives in the region that migrants are a threat to their way of life and demography, a fact that cannot be ignored as well.” This sentence underscores the xenophobia I refer to. Shamefully enough, xenophobia exists in Assam, and the denial of the same will only further deteriorate society and the social fabric of the state.  The NRC is an exemplar of how the practice of discrimination and hate has shifted from peripheries of the society to the very centre of the government and its policies. Doubtful voters, widely known as D-voters, and reference cases are some more examples of how minorities are being disenfranchised. These oppressive apparatuses have created mass-distress conditions on an unprecedented scale among the subordinate vulnerable groups, especially women. 

If Gohain is unwilling to acknowledge this crisis and still wishes to legitimise and celebrate this inhuman, exclusionary process, then history will definitely take note of it.  


Ed: If you would like to respond to this article, or to Nazimuddin Siddique's original article “Inside Assam's Detention Camps: How the Current Citizenship Crisis Disenfranchises Indians," please e-mail edit@epw.in. 

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