Angshuman Choudhury and Suraj Gogoi**
On 5 September, prominent Assamese intellectual and civil society figure, Dr Hiren Gohain, published a piece in The Hindu where he argued that “errors aside, the [National Register of Citizens (NRC)] process was rigorous, methodical and did not target any particular community.” The NRC final list was released in Assam on 31 August.
Nothing can be more myopic and misleading a view than this. By supporting the NRC process, Gohain gives currency to the political literacy that the caste Assamese middle class routinely espouse. In many ways, the NRC story that Gohain paints is the co-option of his own criticism against Assamese chauvinism, which turned him into an intellectual in the backdrop of the Assam Movement.
Gohain, oddly enough, first admits that “such a massive and complex exercise in a country where official documentation is still at a rudimentary stage is not likely to be foolproof”, but then goes on to defend the exercise. In fact, not only does he argue that “there may have been errors and lapses”, but also notes that the Foreigner Tribunals are “short of mature and judicially trained members” and follow-up appeals to the higher judiciary are “likely to be expensive and sometimes unaffordable.”
But, Gohain doesn’t seem to be convinced that these are serious follies that can have very real consequences on the lives, bodies and fate of millions of real human beings, instead concluding that the NRC is a “strict machine-like operation.” What is a machine with faults, but not a beast?
Evidence of the NRC causing a humanitarian crisis is aplenty. Only last month, four people died as a direct result of the NRC authority issuing sudden mass summons, in violation of Supreme Court orders and the authority’s own Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), for long distance inter-district hearings to poor Bengal-origin Muslims based in Lower Assam’s Kamrup district. The frenzy of attending hearings hundreds of kilometres away at severely short notice led to at least three separate road accidents.
According to data put out by Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), 57 people have reportedly killed themselves since the NRC process began in 2016. According to India Today, one 60-year old woman killed herself on the date of the final NRC’s release after being told that she could not make it to the register (her name was there). Several children failed to make it to the final list, effectively delinking them from their own parents. Add to these the great financial and social stress that people, especially the marginalised, had to go through to produce legacy data and attend hearings. These don’t find any mention in Gohain’s discourse.
In defending the NRC and discrediting its critics, Gohain hides behind the thick walls of selective history and erases the experiences of the victim. He gives a lesson on the violent churning of 1980s Assam, but only after assuming that “people outside Assam” know little about its history – a much-favoured tactic amongst Assamese ethno-nationalists to shut down criticism from the outside. Gohain then talks about “underground saffron brigades” that incited violence during the Assam Movement (1979-85), resulting in “some grim incidents”.
But, he does not mention the Nellie massacre of 1983, when members of the Lalung tribe and caste Hindu Assamese butchered close to 2000 Bengal-origin Muslims under six hours. Gohain’s intent here is to exonerate the “native Assamese” of all wrongdoing by putting the blame squarely on Hindutva provocateurs, as if the latter operated unilaterally without an active audience. As a corollary to this, Gohain believes that the NRC is a necessaryprogression from the 1980s that can correct the wrongs of the past in one fell swoop.
Gohain is essentially being a talkative mute where he hides the real contradictions and passes polemical statements as sermons to be consumed as historical facts and facts of history.
What is perhaps most startling is his thoughts on the fate of the NRC rejects. He does agree that most of them are “poor and hapless” and deporting them is not an option. But then, Gohain goes on to call upon the central government “to rehabilitate and look after those who are left out after the exercise.” The naivete in this is beyond measure.
This is the same Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government that Gohain condemns day in and day out for vitiating Assam’s atmosphere and communalising the NRC. What is it then that makes him suddenly trust the administration to “take care” of the NRC rejects without discrimination? Why is he not concerned about the detention centres that this same government is building in Assam or the fact that the bulk of the rejects would end up stateless once the appeal process is disposed off? Does he really expect the ruling regime to treat stateless migrants with care?
Further, Gohain accompanies his concerns for the NRC rejects with the assumption that the “Assamese people” are not willing to bear the “burden” of the so-called illegal immigrants when their own resources are under stress and also because they are “scared of losing whatever political power they have enjoyed”. In the simplest terms, this is nothing more than a tacit justification of the xenophobia that lies at the core of foreigner detection regime in Assam.
Gohain’sdefence of the NRC comes from a chauvinist understanding of Assamese society that privileges the Assamese-speaking middle class elite over the “others” within the state’s territorial space. For him, the vaguely-defined “Assamese national culture” and its agents play the role of the large-hearted “hosts” who tolerate and accommodate, while the Bengal-origin Muslims and Hindus are reduced to “guests” who “are tolerated”.
For instance, he says that East Bengali migrants in Assam could thrive because “fortunately, there was also a strand of Assamese national culture that tolerated diversity of faith and promoted peaceful coexistence and fraternal relations.”
A supremacist persuasion that projects the Bengal-origin people of Assam as passive subjects of the largesse of the Assamese middle class was also visible in Gohain’s recent criticism of Miyah poetry. His opposition to both Miya poetry and Sadri language as independent linguistic forms and their use in literary and official discourse in Assam stands testimony to this push towards Assamese hegemony.
Gohain’s version of the NRC is a sanitised version of the exercise that is made to appear reflective of the general will of the people of Assam. He makes it seem like by participating in the exercise, the people of Assam have entered into a social contract of harmony and peace. But, he fails to acknowledge that this is a forced contract where one is “obliged to follow the legitimate order of the state” whether they like it or not.
Finally, by framing the NRC as a “machine”, he not only detracts attention from the exercise’s subjective impact on real human lives but ignores the role of Assamese nationalism in making this machine possible.
Angshuman Choudhury is a senior researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.Suraj Gogoi is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the National University of Singapore.