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Many in Assam look back and wonder: how & when ‘illegal foreigner’ issue turned religious

My father, an AASU general secretary during 1972 agitation, wouldn't approve of this NRC. To him, NRC didn’t mean dehumanising non-indigenous.

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On the evening of 20 May 2016, the rains in Guwahati had stopped and the skies cleared, almost as if in consonance with Assam’s triumphant mood. It was a day after the results of the assembly elections were announced. Chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal – with a gamusa around his neck – rode an open jeep, flanked by supporters on both sides, as he made his way to the BJP office in Hengrabari.

People had rushed out of their houses or come out to their balconies to celebrate the saffron party’s historic win. The BJP and its allies had won an absolute majority, with the saffron party alone winning 60 seats in the 126-member House. It had dethroned the Congress from its 15-year rule.

Deutar aji bhaal lagile hoi (your father would have been happy),” an aunt had whispered in my ear that evening, as we stood watching the spectacle from the balcony of our house in Guwahati. She was right. He was, after all, the general secretary of a district unit of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) during the 1972 language agitation, which finally evolved into the popular movement against ‘illegal infiltration’ in 1979.

Three years after the BJP’s election triumph, the final National Register of Citizens (NRC), it appears, has done the unthinkable – make all sides unhappy with the entire process.

“The government is silent on NRC,” my father had said, sometime in 2005, as protests raged against the decision to update the register, taken at a tripartite meeting involving the Centre, the Assam government, and the AASU. Tarun Gogoi of the Congress was the chief minister then, running the state along with his blue-eyed boy Himanta Biswa Sarma, now finance minister in the BJP dispensation.

Like many AASU veterans, my father felt Tarun Gogoi was not coming clean on the festering issue. In his quieter moments, alone at home with family or close friends, he would talk about jatimati and bheti (identity, land and home).

But would my father have supported the NRC in its present form, where religion has taken over the process to identify foreigners? Where detention camps are being built to imprison stateless individuals? From the little that I know, his ideas of an NRC did not mean dehumanising the non-indigenous.

Also read: With Assam NRC, the truth is also out — it was a pointless exercise all along

The ‘foreigner’ and I

For many of us born after the Assam agitation, the answer to who is a foreigner and what has it really meant to be called one, can be fraught. Like the ‘miyah’ (a derogatory term used for ‘illegal Muslim’ immigrants from Bangladesh) who used to come every Sunday to cut the overgrown grass in our lawn. Was he the uninvited infiltrator who presided over our precious land? All I could see was a dirt-poor man meticulously cutting the grass, at rates less than what an ‘Assamese’ worker would demand.

He was despised for many things – for being ‘different’, not having a good education, being able to toil way more in the fields, ply the rickshaw that a khilonjiya (indigenous) wouldn’t, and for producing many children. Today, he is also disliked for his religion.

My friend Shalim M Hussain, a miyah poet, has turned the slur on its head in poems that are written in his native dialect – an act for which several FIRs were lodged against him and nine others in July. Hussain and I were born around the same time. We studied together, discussed and debated literature, and grew similarly attached to the land that gave us birth. How does being a miyah then make him a less of an Assamese than I am? Who is ready to discuss this with a sane head?

Also read: Assam wanted an end to its ethnic conflict. In the end, it got an NRC that nobody accepts

Of legacies

No community in India has perhaps cared so much to preserve their legacy – inside musty offices full of files and documents – as much as the Assamese have.

After numerous protests and petitions against illegal Bangladeshis, the Supreme Court in 2013 directed that the process to update the NRC should begin. Two years later, in 2015, it finally did.

Everyone in Assam got down to proving that they or their ancestors were born or settled in the state before 25 March 1971 – the cut-off date set by the Assam Accord signed in 1985. This basically involved the labyrinthine process of digging out one’s roots, knowing the names of grandparents one would otherwise never have bothered to remember, or find out if one’s parents had voted before that date.

For the unwanted ‘foreigner’, legacy was the only thing that could save them from being deported to the country they had allegedly escaped from, crossing porous borders that successive governments have claimed were manned well.

No wonder then that when the floods arrived this year – washing away houses and killing people – it is the legacy data that the suspected foreigners carried on their head. Those papers, after all, were the most precious thing they owned.

The fallout of the legacy library that the state has apparently been maintaining so zealously is ironic. The final, ‘error-free’ NRC has left out not only military veterans, an MLA, a former chief minister of Assam but also relatives of former President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.

For the better part of 29 years of my life, I had never bothered to know which year my parents got married or the names of villages their relatives populated – until it became a contest between me and the ‘miyah’ man who toiled over our garden.

Also read: Assam passes on tradition of fearing the ‘foreigner’, millennials staunchly back NRC

No country to call their own

That evening in Guwahati, it was hope that drew people out of their homes. Sarbananda Sonowal, the ideal jatiya nayak (leader of the community), rode on the promise that he and his party, unlike the Congress, would throw the ‘foreigners’ out lest they overran the state – a perennially emotive issue in this north-eastern state.

There has been illegal infiltration, true. But how have the governments tried to plug it for more than four decades? Why was it that they never succeeded? Did they not try too hard for obvious reasons?

Keeping lakhs of people in detention centres, and dividing families and societies is certainly not the way forward. It would be a gross violation of human rights. What needs to be done – and this is obvious – is to stop corruption at the borders and police the lines effectively. But let those who have settled here stay.

Neither the governments at the Centre nor those in Assam ever tried to understand or solve this vexed issue earnestly and honestly. In all this, the foreigner, without food in their original land and without dignity here, remained unwanted on either side of the border.

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