Nine months after Assam’s decades-old wound was painfully and bloodily reopened — with the final list of the National Register of Citizens that left out about 19 lakh people — it remains as exposed, perhaps even festering with time, and India has forgotten all about it.
The 19.07 lakh people have been left anxious, hanging and unsure of their future. The rest of Assam is as affected, with unnecessary schisms emerging and a whole new generation of Assamese people being exposed to an old conflict they had never witnessed first-hand.
India, meanwhile, has moved on — to animated rage about the threat of a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), the deep discomfort with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and now, the biggest threat of them all — the coronavirus pandemic.
All stakeholders who pushed for Assam’s trauma to be re-lived — the Supreme Court, political parties, the All Assam Students’ Union — have moved on, while Assam continues to remain in suspended animation. Assam should know by now that the NRC was a wound that was politically opened, and forgotten, and while time heals much, this could leave an irreparable scar on the state.
And with Covid-19 taking over everything we think or do, the ethnic Assamese, who have for long resented the ‘outsider’, should learn their lesson that there are far greater worries and threats than the elusive ‘bidexi’ (foreigner).
Fate hanging fire
The purpose of the NRC was essentially to identify those who immigrated illegally from Bangladesh post-1971, a long-standing demand of the indigenous Assamese.
This, however, was a conflict best left behind, and Assam had, in fact, moved on. The new generation of the state had never witnessed this tension, and the older lot had also learnt to keep their ire aside.
Reopening the wound, therefore, was illogical and unnecessary. But worse still is what has happened since — nothing. Those excluded need to appeal to the Foreigners’ Tribunal, but before that, they must obtain an ‘exclusion certificate’ from their local NRC office.
None of that has happened yet. Yes, the coronavirus has now overtaken everything and this process can hardly be immune to that, but the virus struck us in the true sense only in the middle of March. That still meant for six months, since the final list was published on 31 August, things remained stuck — first, because of the confusion over the transfer of NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela, and then because, frankly, no one had a plan and no one wanted to own the NRC.
This has essentially meant that 19.07 lakh people spend each day, and perhaps sleepless nights, worrying about their future. This has also meant there has been no closure for Assam, something that many had promised NRC will bring. Effectively, not only was the wound opened and not stitched, it hasn’t quite even got a Band-Aid.
I have travelled through Assam many times since the NRC first draft was published in December 2017, and I found confusion, chaos, uncertainty and anxiety on the ground.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s cynical politics, only made matters worse by dragging in the Citizenship Act — which led to unrest and protests on the streets of Assam not witnessed in a long, long time.
How India moved on
For the rest of India, meanwhile, Assam barely mattered. The solidarity with NRC or the mood against it was more a factor of the now fashionable need to outrage and drag in communal politics, without understanding the socio-ethnic context of the conflict.
And sure enough, it took no time for everyone to forget Assam. As Modi-Shah kept increasing their nationwide NRC pitch and as CAA was brought in, the focus shifted away from the northeastern state to the Hindu-versus-Muslim question, a pro or anti-BJP fight, Jamia Millia Islamia, JNU, liberals, Hindutva brigade and other such issues that were frankly irrelevant to Assam, the state most impacted by the dual blow of NRC and CAA.
NRC was a process best not touched. The ethnic strife was a lesion that had nearly healed when it was teased again. Assam had left behind its violence-laden, militancy-filled years. The state does not deserve more past trauma, and it certainly does not deserve to be forgotten as mercilessly as it has been.
Even more importantly, the coronavirus pandemic — which Assam is tackling quite well — should give its people some perspective on the need to focus on actual battles and let go of some old, obstinate dislike for whom they think are ‘foreigners’. The state’s NRC and such idea of a register must be scrapped entirely.
Views are personal.