Nalbari/Rangia/Baksa/Guwahati: They were born at least two decades after the 1979 anti-immigrant Assam agitation. They did not witness the peak of the Assamese anger against ‘outsiders’ in the 1980s and early 1990s. And yet, the words ‘bidexi‘ (foreigner) and ‘Bangladeshi’ remain as prominent a part of the vocabulary of Assam’s millennials as that of its older generations. The ‘Assamese’ fear of being overrun by ‘foreigners’ is equally prominent among these young individuals.
The final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), released on 31 August, have left out around 19 lakh people — less than 6 per cent of those who had applied. But even this minuscule proportion has been enough to ensure that the ‘legacy’ of trepidation towards the Bangladeshi foreigner — passed on for generations in Assam — percolate to the young, who decisively support the idea of an NRC.
ThePrint visited several colleges in Assam to get a sense of the youth’s disposition towards NRC, the citizenship issue and the age-old indigenous Assamese versus outsider debate, only to find that ethnic fault lines still continue to run deep.
‘Crucial to identify bidexis’
The demographics maybe different and their underlying logic may also vary to a degree but the common thread across Assam’s college students is how the NRC is an important exercise since it helps identify ‘Bangladeshis’. Many of them fall in the age group of 18-21 and constitute the crucial first-time voter.
“Foreigners shouldn’t stay here. We have suffered a lot because of them. NRC was needed to be able to identify them and ensure that the Assamese people get their due,” says Prabal Jyoti Sarma, a student of Nalbari College in Nalbari town.
Utpola Das, a law student at Gauhati University, says it was crucial to “identify those who are genuine Indian citizens” to put an end to the decades-long debate.
Sarma and Das echo the sentiments of many in their generation even though several do not even know the historical context of the Assam movement or find any resonance with it.
The support for NRC among students and the continuing resentment towards immigrants is significant given that the Assam movement was fuelled and led by a students’ union.
Authorities had noticed a sharp rise in the number of voters during the 1978 Lok Sabha by-election in Mangaldoi, leading to a suspicion that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh post-1971 had made their way to the list. This became the immediate trigger for the agitation, led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). It finally ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 that had framed the rules for updating the 1951 NRC.
The nature of expression may have changed — from an overt, violent reaction to a more subdued one — but the sentiment continues to ring loud. Paradoxically, several of these millennials have little or no idea of the Assam movement or details about it.
“We support NRC since Bangladeshis must be identified and sent back. But we don’t know much about the andolan (agitation),” says Hitesh Das of Rangia college, when asked about the movement.
His friend Chintu Ali also appears vague when asked the same question, but turns fairly decisive when it comes to backing the NRC.
Many say they’ve “heard” about Bangladeshis swarming to their state from their family members, news channels and the internet.
The unflinching support for the process of identifying Indian citizens against ‘foreigners’ and the ease with which these young students drop the words ‘bidexi‘ and ‘Bangladeshi’ reflects how deeply entrenched this sentiment is in Assam’s socio-political landscape.
The new element
There, however, is one fresh facet that has made its way into this strangely complex, yet linear, emotion and that is religion. With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power in the state in 2016 and gradually attempting to change the discourse from a purely ethnic to a more communal debate targeting Muslim immigrants, the Assamese millennial has also made it a part of their lexicon.
Several students are quick to say that “all illegal immigrants whether Muslim or Hindu” should be outed. The fact that they feel a need to clarify this point indicates how this divide has entered into their sub-conscious — a new phenomenon considering how the divide was always a religion-agnostic fault line.
For some others, this has seeped in far more overtly.
“I think this issue is more about the Muslim intruders. Hindus are fewer in numbers. NRC should focus on identifying the Muslim ones,” says Mriganko Chaudhury of Nalbari College, adding that he “fully supports the BJP’s efforts to push the Citizenship Amendment Bill”.
For Sheikh Sayed Ahmed, a law student at Gauhati University, NRC is critical to ensure a vindication of the ethnic Assamese Muslim.
“One, NRC will help identify who really is a foreigner. Two, it will ensure the Assamese Muslim is not targeted and viewed with suspicion purely because of his/her religion. It is important not to view this from a communal angle. This is purely a question of who is an Assamese and who isn’t,” he says.
With religion slowly making its way into this discourse, particularly for the young Assamese, politics of the state seems poised to change — a fact that is reflected in the BJP’s massive popularity in the state, more so among the youth.