Have you seen a minister rowing a boat across flooded lands to rescue those affected by a deluge? The political brass seems all too happy in its comfort zone. Those ruined by furious floods in different parts of the country are grappling with disaster, often quite alone.
The aftermath of a flood always drags on; leaving its lasting imprint on people and places. Hollow political assurances only compound the misery of those marked by a flood. Badly managed development, run by our technocrats and guided by our netas (political leaders), means that even an hour’s downpour melts the roads. The roads cave in and the flood-affected are left seeking refuge in caves.
Poets once wrote romantic verses about the rainy season. No poet will have the nerve to combine the two in these times.
Double the Flood in Assam
In flood-wrecked Assam, the sheer anxiety of being struck off the list of citizens is enough to kill. People surviving in the flood-affected parts of Assam are often left with no belongings, forget how they can preserve the documents, records and proofs of heir citizenship. No research has been formally conducted on the residents of Assam to study how many perished because of the sinister shadow of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) hanging over them. But it could be a very important finding. The government may then consider appointing healers and doctors to help people deal with the sheer stress of the drive to identify citizenship.
VK Tripathi, who until recently taught physics at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and runs the Sadbhav Mission that counters hate and communal propaganda, has been travelling to Assam regularly. Here is what he told me in the context of the NRC: “Be they Hindus or Muslims; Assamese, Bangla, Bodo or Hindi-speakers, the entire working class is a true son of the soil and children of India. According to him, each of these groups have fallen prey, over and over again, to exploiters and oppressors.
“They have a fundamental right to live in their motherland with freedom and dignity, much more than those who rule, dictate and exploit them,” Tripathi says.
The Muslim share in the total population in Assam, according to the Census of 1871, was 28.7%. In 1941, the share of Muslims declined to 25.72% and fell further in 1971 to 24.56%. More recently, in 1991, the Muslim population approximated the 1871 position, to touch 28.43% of the total.
By 2001, the share of Muslims rose to 30.92% and by 2011, it was 34.2% of the state’s total population of 32 million (3.2 crore).
Yet, consider the share of Muslims in the land and assets of Assam. Only 7.9% Muslims in cities and 5.8% in rural areas are employed in the formal or organised sector. For Hindus, these figures are 23.1% and 12.3%.
What do we Learn From This?
Only a fraction of Assamese people has the means for a dignified and sustainable life. And, therefore, it should come as no surprise that a large number (36%) of Assamese people of all faiths are poor. This figure compares unfavourably with the national average of people living below the poverty line, which, at 26% is far lower (though still very high).
In districts of Assam where the Muslim population is above 45% (with the exception of Dhubri), the poverty is even higher than the average for Assam. In Goalpara, 60.3% of the population is poor. In Barpeta, over 50% are below the poverty line. In Kaila Kandi, 43.79%, Karimganj 48.23%, Nagaon 38.96% and Marigaon 80.14%.
Assam’s overall per capita income is just 60% of the national average and its growth rate half the national average. Wages in the state actually fell between 1991 and 2000 (by -0.12%) while they grew 3.36% in India as a whole.
Now add fear and insecurity, heightened by massive riots, such as the Nellie massacre of 1983 that killed 2,800 people, to this mix. The reality of Assam does not paint a lucrative picture for working classes from anywhere. That is why over the last two decades a sizeable number of Assamese have migrated to work in Kerala, where lower-paid jobs are available on account of local migration to West Asia in search of work.
Tripathi firmly believes that the Partition cannot be used as an excuse to attack citizenship, which is what is unfolding in Assam and its neighbourhood. “Justice demands that the working classes born in India be treated as Indian citizens,” he says. This truth should appear obvious but as it often does not to a section of the population, an explanation of the legal backing for this is as follows: The 2003 Amendment (Section 3) of the Citizenship Act of 1955 says that anybody born between 1950 and 1987, irrespective of their parent’s citizenship, is Indian by birth. It also says that those born between 1987 and 2003 are Indian citizens if one of their parents is a citizen. Also, a person born after 2003 would be a citizen of India if his parents are citizens too.
Therefore, Tripathi explains, the NRC needs to look afresh at its exclusions on account of people’s inability to prove their citizenship. In particular, the government must strive to make the India-Pakistan-Bangladesh borders porous for the working classes, who never got their due in previous divisions, he feels. “Not in British India and not in the new-born nations of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, they never got their due,” says Tripathi.
NRI Hypocrisy and Indian Neglect
Indians who go abroad are able to get citizenship of the nation they choose to live in after a few years. In many countries, full citizenship (by birth) is given to the children of illegal migrants. In Assam, India is dealing with people whose forefathers have lived here for generations. “They deserve at least the rights we demand for NRIs in other nations,” Tripathi says.
‘We are all Indian’
In a recently published anthology, Insider Outsider: Belonging And Unbelonging in North-East India, Preeti Gill asks, “Who is an Indian, really? Why are we made to wear our nationality, our identity, on our sleeve? Why are we required to constantly prove ourselves as Indian nationalists, as patriotic citizens? Can we not just be human; people who live together as neighbours, very different, very distinct, but still inhabiting the same space in a peaceable, gracious way?”
Another writer in the same anthology, Samrat, elaborates on the insider-outsider factor in the preface: “Among the stories from North-East India, a compelling and untold bunch revolves around the experiences of the ‘outsiders’ in the region. This is a fascinating case of role reversal; people from communities that are majorities in India or the countries around its North-East live in the region as oft-persecuted minorities.
“Theirs is a story that begins, typically, with the partition of India in 1947. It is a story of those who suddenly, with the drawing of new international borders, found themselves as nowhere people in hostile lands. These people and their descendants are still, seventy two years on, victims of Partition...
“In the hills of the region, in towns such as Shillong for instance, the clash was often seen as one between tribal insiders and non-tribal outsiders. However, the Chakma tribals, the Chin tribals and the tea tribes of Assam have all faced the outsider tag in the North-East, and the discrimination that goes with it.”
Nation-Builders and Turbulence
Never before as in these ‘developed’ times have we witnessed such turbulence. Chaos and confusion reign over the insider-outsider issue. Will we deport people just because they cannot prove that they belong to this land? What if all their identity papers and relevant proofs and documents are washed away in these floods?
Perhaps this verse of Devi Prasad Mishra, translated from Hindi, tucked within the pages of Kavita 93, brought out by Virgo Publications, says it best:
Remains of me
Here I was born
On this stone
On a face like
My own face
I put my face and
Wept for days
Here I sat holding my head
And there flowed my blood/
On this part of the earth
I was threatened to vacate the earth
And here perhaps
In the neighbourhood of me
Remains of me.
Humra Quraishi is a freelance journalist and commentator in Delhi. Views are personal