India has known its fair share of incidents of mass violence with a communal tinge in the period since it gained independence in 1947. Even so, the Nellie massacre of 1983, named after a village in Assam, stands out for the sheer scale and intensity of the killings. It occurred at the height of the Assam Movement, a six-year campaign led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) from 1979-1985 to press for the detection and deportation of migrants who had blended into the population of the state. Also known as the Assam Agitation, it paralysed the state for months and led to the massacre on February 18, 1983.
In one day, over 1,800 Muslims of Bengali origin were slaughtered largely by Lalung (or Tiwa) tribespeople, allegedly incited by the leaders of the movement, in Nellie and surrounding villages. The police filed 688 criminal cases, of which 378 cases were closed due to "lack of evidence" and 310 cases were slated to be charged. However, all the cases were dropped by the Government of India as a part of the 1985 Assam Accord, that brought an end to the agitation. As a result, not a single person received punishment.
The AASU and others signed the accord with Indian federal authorities, accepting those who came to Assam before March 24, 1971 (the day before the Bangladesh Liberation War began) as legal immigrants, eligible for citizenship. An updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam was one of the conditions of the accord. Thirty-four years later when it was delivered this week,the final list left out over 19 lakh (1.9 million) people in the state, effectively rendering them “stateless", as reported by various sections of the Indian media.
Addressing the media in Guwahati, state coordinator of the NRC, Prateek Hajela said that a total of 3.11 crore (31.1 million, out of a population of around 33 million) people were found eligible for inclusion in the final NRC list, meaning around 6 percent of the population of the state had been excluded.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs, however, was quick to put out a statement that said: “Exclusion from the NRC has no implication on the rights of an individual resident in Assam. For those who are not in the final list will not be detained and will continue to enjoy all the rights as before till they have exhausted all the remedies available under the law. It does not make the excluded person "Stateless”. It also does not make him or her "a Foreigner”, within the legal meaning of the term. They will not be deprived of any rights or entitlements which they have enjoyed before.”
The statement also detailed the legal options now available to those left off the list. Over the next 120 days, those left out from the final NRC list will have to approach the Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT). Over 200 new FTs have been set up across the state for this purpose. Also, if a person is dissatisfied with the FT’s decision, he/ she can appeal against it. Cases may go all the way up to the Supreme Court. The statement was silent on what it would mean for individuals who fail to make the cut at that stage. That is what fuels much of the sense of apprehension in Bangladesh, that there may be a move to push them into Bangladesh. After all, it can hardly be denied that most of the flames surrounding the issue have been fanned by talk of expelling supposedly ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh.
The Grapes of Wrath
According to Assamese author Indibor Deori, the Nellie Massacre had been triggered by the gradual expulsion of Tiwas from the land they had cultivated for generations, a fact that the leaders of the Assam Movement had played to their advantage. Migration into Assam from Bengal actually dates back to the early decades of the 19th century, thanks to the British. In the 1820s, Bengalis - on account of their superior knowledge of English at the time - were employed in great numbers in Assam's bureaucracy. Another wave of migration occurred in the early decades of the 20th century, prompting the British superintendent of the census to note the threat to Assamese culture and way of life as far back as 1931, under assault from the arrival of the hardier, more industrious farming folk of Mymensingh.
“The migrant population was allowed to settle in Nellie. Since the migrants knew better cultivation practices, they prospered and a few rich among them started buying land from the Tiwas, who lagged behind,” according to Deori.
Another Assamese, the late historian Amalendu Guha, asserted that from a purely economic point of view, the immigration was a “welcome phenomenon for labour-short, land-abundant Assam.” But tribal groups in Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland are often reminded of Tripura, once a tribal state ruled by a Tripuri king. Tripura’s tribes lost their majority share of the population as long ago as 1960, when Bengalis took their place. Tripura’s Bengalis are Hindus however, not Muslims, many of whom came to India as refugees, after Partition in 1947. Politicians have never been shy to stoke the fear of the “illegal”, “invasive”, Bangladeshi (a by-word for Muslim) immigrant in the Indian psyche, particularly in its bordering states.
Finalising the NRC brings to bear one of the most strident campaign promises of the ruling BJP prior to its assumption of power in 2014. On its way to re-election earlier this year - with the Asom Gano Parishad that grew out of the AASU as its ally in the state - it campaigned to finish the job in Assam. The NRC has been described as “the biggest exercise India has undertaken to weed out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, as well as their descendants, settled illegally in India, even as there is still no clear plan on deportation of those excluded from the final list.”
The Supreme Court of India had sanctioned this update of the NRC in what is known as the 2014 Sanmilita judgment, thereby endorsing the long-standing concerns voiced by Assamese nationalist groups involved in anti-immigrant agitation. The Court in Sanmilita had directed the Indian government to work out a repatriation arrangement with Bangladesh; however there has been no progress on this, creating a precarious situation that could involve protracted detentions of those branded ‘foreigners’.
To accommodate disenfranchised persons, detention camps have been set up across the state. At present, there are six existing detention centres in Assam's Goalpara, Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Silchar, Kokrajhar and Tezpur, where district jails have been converted to camps. Plus the Assam government has requisitioned the setting up of 10 new detention camps at Barpeta, Dima Hasao, Goalpara, Kamrup, Karimganj, Lakhimpur, Nagaon, Nalbari, Shiv Sagar and Sonitpur.
While the government points out that those excluded have the right to file objections, it has not put out any official policy on the consequences of remaining excluded at the end of this process, and of thereby becoming stateless. According to Ishita Kumar and Hamsa Vijayaraghavan of the Migration & Asylum Project, in the absence of any legislative framework that addresses statelessness in India, the affected people would fall within the ambit of the Foreigners Act, 1946, which gives wide discretionary powers to the state to detain and deport foreigners.
‘Let sanity prevail’
"The issue has not been raised at the official level by the Government of India with the Bangladesh government at any stage," High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India Syed Muazzem Ali said in 2018, in comments to the Indian media.
"So, as of now this is an internal matter and I have seen conflicting positions of different Indian states on this particular issue and I will not interfere in an internal matter," he told reporters.
The high commissioner said the issue can only become "bilateral" only after the Indian government takes it up with the Bangladesh government.
The high commissioner was asked whether Bangladesh had made any decision in the backdrop of the then-expected publication of the draft NRC in July 2018 leading to a possibility of people moving across the border. In the draft NRC published in 2018, 40.07 lakh applicants had been left out of the list.
"As of now I do not want to get into the details. We all have gone through the newspapers and we all know the origin of this crisis. My only request to everybody is let sanity prevail," he said.
More recently, on the day the NRC list was published, Foreign Minister A. K. Momen, in an interview with an Indian television station, said: “Indian Foreign Minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told me that this [NRC] is purely an internal issue of India, and Bangladesh doesn’t have to worry about it. Under no circumstances, Bangladesh would be affected, he said. We leave it that way.”
Asked whether those left out of the list were from Bangladesh, the minister said, “I don’t think so. There is no reason why Bangladeshis should move to India. Bangladesh is doing much better and therefore it does not look like there is any interest in any Bangladeshi to go to India. In Bangladesh, even the per capita income is higher than the cost of living. There is no possibility of [their] moving to India.”
Jaishankar visited Dhaka last month and held a joint press briefing after a meeting with Momen on August 20. Asked about concerns that some four million Bangla-speaking people were at risk of losing Indian citizenship for failing to be in the draft NRC, Jaishankar had said, “This is an internal matter of India.”
On that day, Momen told reporters that India asked Bangladesh not to worry about the NRC issue. “We said we are already in serious trouble with 1.1 million Rohingyas … They [Jaishankar] said ‘Don’t worry at all about it’.”
More tellingly perhaps, earlier in August, Bangladesh and India failed to issue a joint statement at the conclusion of the seventh home minister level meeting in New Delhi, reportedly as their disagreement over the ‘infiltration’ issue remained unresolved. Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan and his Indian counterpart Amit Shah held a one-hour meeting, but it was unclear whether the two countries discussed the issue of NRC. Prior to the meeting, there had been some speculation in Indian media that Amit Shah was keen to broach the topic.
Bangladesh issued its statement on the night of the meeting but hardly mentioned the matter of ‘infiltration’ in the northeastern states of India. The Indian statement given to PTI (Press Trust of India) and released the next morning mentioned the matter of ‘infiltration’ in its northeastern states and placed emphasis on its resolution.
Indian Home Ministry sources told Prothom Alo that Amit Shah, who is increasingly calling the shots in the BJP government, is “very serious about ‘infiltration’ and NRC”. They also said India is likely to raise the issue formally during the impending visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India in October.
Despite the assurances, Bangladesh’s concerns will refuse to die away as long as the fate of those who fail to make the list after exhausting their legal options remains unclear. And they are unlikely to be helped by comments made by the likes of the finance minister of the state government in Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who said Assam would “ask Bangladesh to take their people back”.
“The government of Bangladesh is a friend to India and they are cooperating with us… They are frequently taking back their people when we have presented cases of illegal immigration,” he added. With friends like him….
Reading the tea leaves
Although India has not ratified the two key instruments on statelessness – the 1954 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness – the U.N.’s top refugee official urged the country to ensure no one is left stateless by the exclusion of nearly 2 million people from the citizenship list in Assam state.
“Any process that could leave large numbers of people without a nationality would be an enormous blow to global efforts to eradicate statelessness,” Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement issued on September 1 in Geneva.
He urged India to ensure no one ends up stateless, “including by ensuring adequate access to information, legal aid, and legal recourse in accordance with the highest standards of due process.”
Admittedly though, the final list has served to disappoint everyone, including the BJP and its allies. While opposition parties and human rights activists have expressed deep concern over those left out of the NRC, the BJP is caught in a ‘bind’. Its promise of identifying about 40 lakh outsiders and deporting them looks hollow. Some senior leaders have said that deportation of those left out of NRC is not a feasible option for the government.
Dr Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, believes both India and Bangladesh have to be careful in the days ahead, but puts the onus squarely on Indian politicians to play a more responsible role.
“India must consider the matter carefully,” Dr Ahmed says. “They will never want any incitement of anti-Indian politics in Bangladesh. So they would do their best to resolve the issue internally. India must find some way to solve the existing crisis.”
According to Dr Ahmed, it is unlikely that those struck off the list will be granted citizenship, but granting them work permits “is already being discussed”.
Besides, Dr Ahmed adds “India's large civil society, human rights organizations, and army of activists would not give in so easily. They too can be expected to play a strong role in solving the crisis.” To that extent, the issue is indeed internal.