This is the third of a three-part series tracing the key events in Assam’s politics of language, religion, ethno-nationalism and citizenship from the nineteenth century to the present day. Read the first part here and the second, here.
1985: The Assam Accord is signed in New Delhi on August 15. The leaders of the Assam Movement agree to accept migrants who arrived in the state prior to January 1, 1966. Those who arrived between 1966 and March 25, 1971, will “be detected” under the terms of the Foreigners Act 1946, and of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order 1964. They will have to register themselves as foreigners with the foreigners’ registration regional officer (FRRO) – in accordance with the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939 – and stand to lose voting rights for ten years after the date of their detection or declaration. The government undertakes to identify and deport all migrants who arrived after March 25, 1971. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) is formed by the AASU shortly after the Accord, and formally launched in October.
1985–89: The AGP forms the state government, led by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta – at 32 the youngest chief minister of India till then. Following an increase in violent attacks by the ULFA, and widespread reports of corruption, the AGP government loses popularity; it is dismissed by the centre in 1990 and loses the subsequent election.
1986: The Citizenship (Amendment) Act narrows the terms on which Indian citizenship may be claimed. Birth in India no longer automatically confers citizenship. At least one parent of the applicant must be Indian as well. People whose grandparents were Indian will no longer qualify for citizenship on the strength of this fact. The period of stay in the country in order to qualify for citizenship by naturalisation, marriage and registration is also increased. Criticised as a violation of human rights and of Article 14 (equality before law), the new law receives the full support of the AGP in parliament. Section 6A derives from the terms of the Assam Accord with its three categories of people based on dates: pre-1966, 1966–71, and post–1971. In effect, a separate domain of citizenship for Assam. The Act commences from July 1, 1987.
1996, March: Chief election commissioner, T.N. Seshan, assures a delegation from AASU that an intensive revision of electoral rolls will take place shortly. In state elections the following month, the AGP returns to power in Assam.
1998, January: The Election Commission bars “D-voters” (doubtful voters), some 3.7 lakh in number, from contesting or voting in the coming general elections. K.C. Gill is the chief election commissioner, and I.K. Gujral the prime minister. D-voters are also excluded from the benefits of the public distribution system till their names are cleared by a Foreigners Tribunal.
1998, November: Srinivas Kumar Sinha, governor of Assam and former vice chief of army staff, sends his “Report on Illegal Migration in Assam” to President K.R. Narayanan. Riddled with inaccuracies, contradictions and undigested raw data, the report is notable for conspiracy thinking, its use of anecdotal and xenophobic sources, and poor literacy. Sinha spots a “Labansraum” project afoot in the community of migrants: a “demographic invasion”. (His reference is to the Nazi Lebensraum, or territorial expansionism to create living space for “pure Aryans”.) He also holds illegal migration responsible for the rise of militancy in Assam. In fact, the ULFA had released a booklet in 1992, titled “The People of Assam of East Bengal Origin” in which it distanced itself from the Assam Movement and expressed appreciation for migrant workers. The ULFA addressed itself to the Axombaxi (Assam-dwelling), rather than Axomiya people. Sinha quotes the 1932 census superintendent C.S. Mullan (S.C. Mullan, according to Sinha) and his dire prediction for Assam (quoted in Part I). He makes claims based on census data from 1971–81, whereas the 1981 census could not be conducted in Assam on account of the Agitation. Sinha’s report would have been forgettable but for two reasons: he recommends a restart of the NRC process in Assam, and the Supreme Court uses his report uncritically in its 2005 judgement of the Sarbananda Sonowal case (see below).
1999: The NDA government takes a formal decision to update the NRC as per the Assam Accord.
2003: The Intelligence Bureau issues a report based on inputs coordinated by Special Director Ajit Doval, stating that the number of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India stands at 16 million, as of January 1, 2003. L.K. Advani, deputy prime minister, takes immediate note. He warns state governments to be on the lookout for infiltrators, speaks of an identity-card scheme to be implemented in the border states, and suggests the possibility of repealing the IMDT Act of 1983, so that the burden of proving citizenship is placed on the individual – under the terms of the Foreigners Act 1946.
2003, February: The Bodoland Territorial Council, or Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BDAT) is formed. It includes four contiguous districts, Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri. An autonomous unit within the state of Assam, it is formed against a backdrop of increasing ethnic tension in the region. There are Bodo-Santhal clashes in 1996, Karbi against Kuki and Dimasa against Hmar in 2003, Karbi against Dimasa in 2005, Garo against Rabha in 2011. (In 2020, there are three such “states within the state” in Assam; besides the BDAT, there is the Dima Hasao (Dimasa Hills) District Council, and the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council.)
Also read | Part I: Assam and the CAA: A Pre-Independence Timeline
2003: The Citizenship Act is amended yet again. The 1986 amendment required that at least one parent of a candidate for Indian citizenship had to be an Indian citizen. Now, a stipulation is added for candidates born after 2004, that neither of the parents should be an “illegal immigrant”.
Also, The Citizenship (Registration of Citizenship and National identity Card) Rules are issued by the central government. An exception is made for Assam where people “originally inhabitants of the state and their children and descendants” do not need to go through the entire process. They may be included at the discretion of local officials without showing documents. On the ground, the Ahom community, whose presence in Assam is dated back to 1228, are treated as inhabitants with such a sterling claim, while the Muslims, present in Assam since 1206, are not.
2004: The BJP loses national elections, but breaks through electorally in the North-East for the first time, winning both Lok Sabha seats from Arunachal Pradesh.
2005, May: The Manmohan Singh UPA government decides, after holding a meeting with the Assam government and the AASU, to update the NRC. The details are to be settled by the cabinet, in consultation with the Assam government.
2005, July: A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court gives its judgement in the Sarbananda Sonowal case. The bench finds the central government in violation of Article 355 of the Constitution, having failed to protect Assam against the “external aggression” and “internal disturbance” caused by an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants to India. The judgement quotes from S.K. Sinha’s report of 1998, calling it “long and comprehensive… prepared after thorough inspection of border areas, discussion with the Indian ambassador in Bangladesh and talks with political leaders”. The court also strikes down the IMDT Act of 1983.
2005, October: The Assam United Democratic Front (ADUF), later altered to All India (AIDUF), is founded by Badruddin Ajmal, as a “third front” against the Congress and BJP, while the AGP seen as drawing closer to the BJP. The days of an all-inclusive Axomiya identity appear to be over.
2009, July: The Supreme Court admits a petition from an NGO called Assam Public Works, which claims that 4.1 million illegal immigrants are on the voters list of 2006, and wants their names removed from the electoral rolls before the 2011 elections. According to the petitioner, this vast encroachment occurred because vote bank politics had prevented the NRC of 1951 from being updated. The President of the Assam Public Works, Abhijeet Sarma (who remains its president till date), in his early thirties at the time and a businessman with a housekeeping and catering concern, drafts the petition with the help of Guwahati-based educationist Pradip Kumar Bhuyan and his wife Bonti Bhuyan. The immediate prompt to their petition are the October 2008 serial blasts in Guwahati, attributed to the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HUJI). The blasts later turn out to be the doing of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), led by Ranjan Daimary.
CJI K.G. Balakrishnan issues a notice to the centre and the state government of Assam (both under the Congress) for the upgradation of the NRC. The Congress government at the centre notifies rules to update the NRC.
2010: The All Assam Muslim Students Union organises protests against the pilot project of the NRC at Barpeta. Four AAMSU members are shot dead in police firing and many others injured. The AASU’s Samujjal Bhattacharya – who, in 2005, also founded the Asom Sena (modelled upon the Shiva Sena) at Barpeta – claims the violence was committed “by the Bangladesh lobby”, a reference to the AAMSU. The pilot project is dropped.
2011, January: A fifteen-year-old girl is shot dead by a BSF constable as she is crossing the border into India. Her body remains hanging on the barbed wire fence for hours till the Bangladesh border force removes it. The constable is acquitted by a special court in September 2012. The Indian government calls off its “pushback strategy” of border policing. However, the Tarun Gogoi government opens more detention centres within district jails to accommodate people declared foreigners by the Foreigners Tribunals.
2012, July: Attacks on Bengali-speaking Muslims by groups of Bodos. By the end of the first week of August, 77 people are known to have died and close to half a million Muslims are in 270 relief camps. They are required to prove their identity with documents before being released.
2013: CJI Altamas Kabir names justices H.L. Gokhale and Ranjan Gogoi to hear the Assam Public Works case. It comes up for hearing in August. In December, the court directs that the NRC exercise should begin.
With Gokhale’s retirement the following year, Gogoi becomes the senior judge on the bench, where he is joined by R.F. Nariman. The Supreme Court increasingly exerts pressure on government officials to expedite the process. It sets deadlines, demands undertakings, and receives feedback from them in sealed covers, bypassing the central and state governments. The process grows opaque.
2013, December 6: The Manmohan Singh government assigns the task of updating NRC 1951 to the Registrar General of India. Before this, the ministry of home affairs brings in the Citizenship (Amendment) Rules 2013, stating that a person declared a foreigner prior to July 16, 2013, would get two months to reclaim citizenship by submitting a form to the registering authority in the district where she/he resides.
2014: The BJP comes to power at the centre. It wins seven of the fourteen seats in Assam.
2015, February: The NRC process begins.
2015, September 7: The Modi government issues a notification to the government of Assam, asking it to exempt Hindu Bangladeshis who had entered Assam till December 31, 2014, from being considered foreigners. They are to be granted long-term visas even if they have no valid documents. The RSS’s distinction of Hindu asylum seekers (sharanarthi) and Muslim infiltrators (anupraveshkari) becomes executive policy.
2016, May 19: The BJP, along with its alliance partners the AGP and the BPF, wins eighty-six out of the 126 seats in the Assam assembly. During the campaign, the BJP had termed the election “the last battle of Saraighat” – the reference being to Lachit Borphukan’s stand against the Mughal army in 1671, at Saraighat, Guwahati. Its implication, stressed by the BJP’s star campaigner Yogi Adityanath, was that the unfinished business of that event would now be brought to closure. Sarbananda Sonowal becomes chief minister.
Following the win in Assam, the BJP rapidly comes to power in all the states of the North-East: Arunachal Pradesh (2016), Manipur (2017), Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya, and Mizoram (2018). The RSS’s groundwork is buttressed by money power. In Mizoram, the BJP joins government with a single MLA; in Meghalaya with two.
Also read | Part II: Assam and the CAA: A Timeline from 1947 to the Assam Accord
2017, June: The Sarbananda Sonowal government issues a warning to fifteen Foreigners Tribunal members and terminates the contracts of nineteen others for not declaring enough people foreigners from the D-voter and suspected foreigner category. (The suspected foreigner category is the contribution of the Assam Border Police Organisation, which exists in every district and rounds up suspects.) The Gauhati High Court sets aside the termination orders in December 2017, but the two-year contract of the tribunal members has lapsed. It is the government’s prerogative to re-appoint them or not, and it doesn’t. The government also starts challenging orders of the tribunals, in the high court. While 5,096 persons had been declared foreigners by the tribunals in 2016, the number jumps up to 15,541 in 2017, and 22,189 in 2018.
2017: After ruling in November that panchayat certificates do not constitute proof of citizenship, but are at best a supporting document, the Supreme Court bench of Ranjan Gogoi and R.F. Nariman says in December that they may be considered as proof, provided the certifying authority appears in person to verify the authenticity of the document.
2017, December 31: First draft NRC list is published.
2018, July 30: The updated draft NRC list is released by the central government. Over four million people find their names missing. 3.6 million of them seek re-verification of their applications. Some 265,000 objection forms are also submitted.
2018, August: The Supreme Court rules that the NRC is a draft and cannot be the basis of action against anyone. The chief election commissioner, O. P. Rawat, says the electoral roll is different from the NRC and the latter will not result in the “automatic removal” of anyone’s name from the list of voters.
2019, April–May: The BJP’s YouTube page in April carries a video of Amit Shah, saying: “First the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill will come, all the refugees will be given citizenship, and after that the NRC will be prepared…. The refugees have nothing to worry about, and the infiltrators certainly need to worry. Aap chronology samajh lijiye.” The NRC “will not be for just Bengal, it will be for the entire nation. Infiltrators are an issue for the entire nation.” Amit Shah campaigns in Assam, terming Bangladeshi migrants “termites” and promising to throw them into the Bay of Bengal. The BJP wins nine of Assam’s fourteen seats in the Lok Sabha. It returns to power at the centre in a landslide. By now the RSS operates seven thousand ekal vidyalayas (single-teacher schools) along with student hostels and other institutions in the region.
2019, May 1: Harsh Mander requests CJI Ranjan Gogoi to recuse himself from the Supreme Court bench hearing his writ petition on the condition of “foreigners” held in Assam’s detention camps. Mander points to “oral remarks made by the honourable chief justice in some hearings” which made him fear that “my petition seeking humane treatment of the foreigners and alleged foreigners… under Article 21… appears to have been turned on its head by the honourable chief justice.” Gogoi’s response the next day is to remove Mander’s name from the petitioner’s list.
2019, May 30: A vacation bench of the Supreme Court, headed by CJI Ranjan Gogoi, orders that 200 more Foreigners Tribunals be set up in Assam, in addition to the 100 already operating. The same day, the union home ministry, under Amit Shah, amends the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order 1964, authorising state governments, union territories and district magistrates to set up such tribunals anywhere in the country.
2019, August 31: The government releases the final NRC list with over 1.9 million people in Assam left out, 1.4 million of them Hindus. The process has engaged 55,000 government employees fulltime for three-and-a-half years, with yet more diverted to it from time to time. It has cost the government an estimated Rs 1,600 crore, and the applicants in multiples of that amount. Government work, from land allotments to road construction, has been set back. Individuals have 120 days to appeal against their exclusion from the NRC list. The period begins once the Registrar General of India officially publishes the list, which is yet to happen.
2019, December: The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill clears both houses of parliament and is signed into law by the President on December 12. It states that Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Parsis who entered India before December 31, 2014, will not be regarded as illegal immigrants. The process for their naturalisation is reduced from eleven to five years. The Muslims are excluded. The bill had been passed in the Lok Sabha in an earlier instance, on January 8, but it could not go through the Rajya Sabha as the term of parliament ended on February 14 and general elections were called. There had been protests in the North-East against the bill at the time, but they did not affect the BJP’s showing in the general election. From December 12, protests against the new act begin in Assam and the rest of the country.
2020, January 10: The CAA is notified and officially comes into operation, but the rules for the Act are yet to be framed.
2020, February 19: Assam Public Works, the NGO that went to the Supreme Court in 2009, files a fresh petition, claiming that the NRC list contains some eight million foreigners, including “jehadis”.
2020, February 28: In Meghalaya, the fear that those excluded by Assam’s NRC will arrive in Shillong leads to protests, still ongoing, which turn violent. Shillong has a long-settled population of Bengali speakers. An additional fear is that the CAA will lead to many Bangladeshi Hindus arriving in Meghalaya – which borders Bangladesh to the south – in order to claim citizenship. In the wake of anti-CAA protests, the state assembly passes a unanimous resolution demanding that Meghalaya be brought under the “Inner Line” permit scheme, restricting access to all outsiders.