Assam undertook the much discussed NRC exercise in September 2015 and published the first draft with names of 19 million people, on December 31 last year. The second draft for the remaining 13.9 million people was scheduled to be published on July 30. As per schedule, it was published in Assam, identifying 2,89,83,677 people as valid citizens of India. A total 3,29,91,384 people had applied to become part of the NRC, officials said today. More than 40 lakh people were found to be invalid citizens of India.
To apply for inclusion in the NRC, one’s name or one’s ancestor’s name must be in the 1951 NRC or in any voter list up to the midnight of March 24, 1971, the cut-off date agreed upon. Exclusion from the final NRC does not mean automatic declaration of anyone as foreigner and once the final document is published, if someone is dissatisfied, he or she can always go to a foreigners’ tribunal in the state to get justice. There are around 300 foreigners’ tribunals in Assam.
Further, the Supreme Court has now directed that there must be no coercion to those not in the register.
The problem of illegal immigration from erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangladesh started from Partition days and still persists over whole of North East including Assam and even West Bengal. Assam has been impacted the most and therefore the current steps towards identification of illegal immigrants are only to be welcomed particularly since it is being monitored by the Supreme Court. Only the implementation process has to be painless. Further, we need a sensible policy that focuses on sending back hardcore illegals, while absorbing the long-resident refugees from East Pakistan/Bangladesh with temporary work permits. These can be converted to citizenship and permanent residency over time.
The competing ethnic nationalism of Assam, which gave rise to armed insurgencies, have always been defined by fears about “demographic change” and indigenous homelands being “swamped” by outsiders. In realty, the Assamese don’t want too many non-Assamese in Assam because they say that their ethnicity originating from the Ahoms is trod upon in the process. However, their claim to hegemony in whole of Assam is contestable, if we examine the issue historically.
The Burmese ceded Assam to the British on 24th February 1826 as per the treaty of Yandabo, thus bringing to an end Ahom rule in Assam which had begun sometime in the 13th century. The British annexed Assam and placed it as an administrative unit of the Bengal Province. At that time Assam valley was only 15248 sq km. The area increased through annexations of some neighbouring areas as given below, to 78440 sq km.
To elaborate, the British annexed Kachari kingdom in 1832. In 1833, the Ahom prince Purandar Singha was made a tributary ruler in Upper Assam. But, the British authorities annexed his kingdom in 1838. With the annexation of the Maran territory in the east in 1839, the annexation of Assam was complete. In 1835, the kingdom of Jaintia was annexed. In 1842, the region of Matak and Sadiya was annexed and in 1854, the North Cachar Hill district was also annexed into British Empire, thereby completing their conquest and consolidation of their rule in Assam.
In 1874, the Assam region was separated from the Bengal Presidency, Sylhet was added to it. Goalpara was annexed to Assam in 1874. The people of Sylhet, Goalpara, Kamrup and the Hills protested the inclusion in Assam and now the Hills have moved out of Assam.
Therefore, it appears that the Assamese whose lineage goes back to Ahoms can’t claim hegemony over the whole of present Assam including the annexed parts or claim it as their exclusive homeland. At the least, Kamrup, Goalpara and Cachar can and may legitimately claim their distinctive identities in their districts; their ethnicity will have to be recognized. They only can determine the rules of citizenship in their areas.
The writer is a commentator and an author.