The subject of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants has always been in the headline, and it played an influential role in determining the polity of Assam. With the publication of the first part of the National Registry of Citizens, we witnessed politicians like Badruddin Ajmal and Radheshyam Biswas of All India United Democratic Front along with Sushmita Dev of India National Congress coming out with criticism about the way the NRC is being implemented in the state. But the real perplexity erupted when the honourable Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, alleged that the NRC update process has led to a re-run of the “Bongal Kheda” movement in Assam.
Before we start exploring the pros and cons of the NRC, it is necessary to determine why Assam needs an NRC. The reason goes back to the Partition of Bengal. When Bengal was a part of the “undivided India”, a significant part of Barak Valley came under Sylhet province. Even after independence, there were people from East Pakistan who used to cross the border at dawn, come to India in search of odd jobs, and go back home with their wages along with kerosene and salt because, in those days, these two commodities were expensive in East Pakistan.
And then came the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War which left many Bangladeshis as refugees. Those refugees came to India. Their Government forgot about them. Assam witnessed an influx of refugees but the flow never ended there. Even after the war ended and a new nation was born, poverty never ended in that nation. There was rampant corruption and people died due to hunger. Due to this, many Bangladeshis immigrated illegally to Assam and the numbers proliferated with the passage of time.
How do they come to Assam? According to reports, there are agents waiting at the border who help them cross the country. All the immigrants have to do is give some bribe in the form of cash or kind. They get their ration cards, voter ID cards and other documents through forgery, which give them property rights and the right to vote just like any other bonafide citizen of India. After that, politicians take care of them and convert these illegal immigrants into their vote-bank. This illegal immigrant vote-bank has its significance in Lower Assam, which shares its international border with Bangladesh.
Are they actually refugees? No, because these illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are not victims of war or persecution or natural disaster; rather, they are victims of poverty. Although there are numerous Hindus, who are considered minorities in Bangladesh, who are victims of persecution and faced the wrath of communal hatred in their land thereby coming to India as refugees.
Assam witnessed the massive movement called ‘Assam Movement’ which ended with the signing of Assam Accord and a group of energetic student leaders became the legislators of Assam. But what is the Assam Accord? The Assam Accord clearly states that any foreigner who comes to Assam after 1971 will be deported. At that time, this step was crucial for Assam in order to safeguard the cultural, social and linguistic identity of the indigenous people of Assam.
Assam’s politics found a new agenda. We now have Congress, which is sympathetic towards the minority vote-bank. We have AIUDF, which dominates the minority vote-bank of Lower Assam. We have BJP, which is more inclined to Hindu refugees and the sentiments of the indigenous population of Assam. We have AGP, who came into existence with the agenda of safeguarding the indigenous Assamese population of Upper Assam.
Congress implemented the National Registry of Citizens in the state while rest of the nation was busy with Aadhar Cards. A hue and cry erupted and in this turmoil, politicians came to stir a wave and gain brownie points by instilling fear among the people. Amidst the anti-incumbency, Congress faced the wrath in the results of the state elections, witnessing their vote-bank sinking like never before. Thus BJP came into power and brought along new amendments – and the most significant one is giving asylum to the persecuted Hindu refugees in Assam as mentioned in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.
NRC is a medium through which these illegal Bangladeshi immigrants can be identified. These immigrants can speak Bengali just like me, but this does not change the fact that they are foreigners and do not belong here. Even if they are deported back to their land, this won’t, at all, affect the rights of the Bengali speaking indigenous people of Assam who have been living here much before 1971. But instilling fear just because I speak Bengali and saying that the population of Bengali speakers will be affected after NRC’s final list is published, is troubling. NRC is a step forward for national interest. Only, it becomes our duty to make sure that not a single person who is living in Assam “before 1971” must get dropped from the final list.
The people of Assam have always been empathetic towards the persecuted refugees who were victims of communal hatred and violence. But why Assam should be a sanctuary for illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, remains the burning question of the hour.
Note: I am a Bengali from Assam and my name did not make it to the first part of the NRC list, and I know there are many like me. I don’t find a reason to panic. And I don’t find a reason to get influenced by the provocative statements made by politicians who just want a social unrest for their political gains.