NRC muddle: a vigilante student union and India’s borderlands

NRC Row In Assam

Society cannot escape human influences, wrote philosopher and revolutionary Frantz Fanon. Student unions have played a significant role in shaping the contours of regional politics in Northeast India. The All Assam Students’ Union, All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union, and Khasi Students’ Union, among others, have often defined the measurements and boundaries of all spheres of life in the region.

As expected, nationalists in Assam have credited the All Assam Students’ Union for successful completion of the draft for the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Poor people are caught in a labyrinth of social relations and ethnic politics that constantly dehumanizes them. The NRC has skillfully injected fear, trepidation, and abasement.

The border areas of Assam became a zone of surveillance and the student unions in contiguous states, most notably in Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, beefed up their vigilante acts. Various state governments also put the borders on high alert and deployed extra force to monitor the border districts neighboring Assam closely.

The notorious Khasi Students’ Union, after the publication of the draft NRC, erected its own checkpoints in different parts of the border areas. They called them “Khasi Students’ Union infiltration gates.” This created quite a ruckus as anyone going into Meghalaya was checked. If they didn’t have proper documents, they were sent back.

Khasi Students’ Union president Lambokstarwell Marngar claimed to have “detected” 1,000 persons in the districts of East Jaintia Hills, West Khasi Hills and Ri Bhoi without proper documents. He added that the measures taken by the Meghalaya Police was inadequate, so the union decided to jump in.

Anyone who has travelled to Shillong or to any other parts of Meghalaya would know that no such documents are required to go into the state. There is no Inner Line Permit in place. Such vigilante checking and marking of boundaries in the absence of Inner Line Permits by a non-governmental organization is unlawful and shocking. It is a serious case of harassment and against free movement of people.

The current convener of the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union, Tatung Taga, in an order dated August 2, 2018, issued to the District Students’ Union, said a joint effort should be “launched” to weed out “illegal” immigrants in the state. It gave a period of 15 days from August 2-16, and from August 17 “Operation Clean Drive” would be “launched.” The union seeks to carry out Inner Line Permit checking strictly and the District Students’ Union is asked to comply and “launch” the order.

On August 14, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union reached out to the All Assam Students’ Union on the eve of Operation Clean Drive. A meeting was held between the two student unions under the chairmanship of North East Students’ Organization coordinator Pritam Wai Sonam. The Assam Union members requested that All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union members not harass indigenous Assamese people living in their state but at the same time extended their solidarity.

These two cases give a sense of how powerful these student unions are, which questions the legitimate security infrastructure of the state as they take matters into their own hands. This is no less than a parallel government that perpetually ignores labor history, restricts movement of people and dehumanizes them.

Arunachal is a historically labor-deficit state. Many wage laborers and sharecroppers belonging to multiple communities work in the state. They are there to work and not to own any property. Anyone not belonging to minority Schedule Tribe communities in Arunachal is not allowed to buy or “capture” any property.

There are millions of workers who are engaged in various state infrastructure projects, primarily roads, bridges and dams. There are even cases of workers not receiving their due or being intimidated by owners and contractors, among others. Many have left the state because of the tyranny of India’s permit-license raj (rule).

Writing about Meghalaya, Obadiah Lamshwa Lamare in a mimeograph recalls the harassment of workers from Bihar, employed in the expansion of Mawlai Nongkwar Presbyterian Church, by local youth despite carrying valid documents proving their Indian citizenship. In that powerful essay, “Democratic Decline,” he contextualizes the formation of class in Meghalaya and how a myth of tribal purity is propagated by the Khasi elite, an indigenous ethnic group of Meghalaya.

For him, it is also a mechanism to stop polarization of social class by projecting tribal unity. He reminds us that the Jaintia Hills also have a history of “cultural assimilation, symbiotic and resembling proto-cosmopolitanism” suggesting co-existence.

Lamare also rightly points out that the term “illegal” being attributed to a human body is demeaning and dehumanizing, for illegality is attributed to actions, not persons.

Fanon wrote that “all forms of exploitation are identical because all of them are applied against the same ‘object’: man…. Colonial racism is no different from any other racism.” The reduction of people into non-citizens or doubtful citizens questions the very being of a person – of being human. It objectifies individuals by converting them into illegal bodies. The National Register of Citizens has shown that we are indeed a racist structure.

This devaluation of human beings is at the core of the National Register of Citizens, and the joint actions carried out by the student unions in various states are but its extension. “Operation Clean Drive” and “infiltration gates” internalize such a philosophy by locating “illegal” bodies and restricting movement.

It is extremely shameful that such student bodies and organizations target the working class, and send them into cycles of poverty and destitution under various pretexts.

Suraj is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at National University of Singapore. He tweets at char_chapori.

This article was first published in Asia Times.


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