Last week, members of Assam’s Legislative Assembly released district-wise details of the National Register of Citizens, or NRC, an exercise going on in Assam to identify citizens. The data revealed in the Assembly shows relatively higher inclusion of Muslims in the NRC in districts with a higher proportion of Muslims and fewer exclusions in districts that share a border with Bangladesh. The MLAs have thus purported to ‘prove’ there are ‘inaccuracies’ in the NRC and that Hindus and tribals of the state have not made it into the NRC list of inclusions due to them. Abdul Mannan, a former professor of statistics at Gauhati University, in his 2017 book, Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement, challenges these claims as “political slogans” contrary to Assam’s history. In an interview with Pragya Singh he says, “The main aim of the people is to get their names in the NRC—the Assam government’s main aim is to exclude people in the name of religion." Edited excerpts:
The Assam government recently revealed district-wise data from the NRC. What could be the fallout?
The government’s action violates the Supreme Court’s order to all concerned groups that no district-wise data should be divulged to the public. The court’s reasoning was that this data may create misconceptions and misunderstandings. Yet, the government deliberately released the data in the Assembly.
Why is secrecy important in the NRC process?
The NRC is being processed under the supervision of the Supreme Court, which is bringing it to its legal and logical conclusion. The state and central governments really have nothing to do with it. I am thankful to the Supreme Court that its vigil and supervision have brought the NRC process close to conclusion by the August 31 deadline.
Does the government of Assam gain anything by releasing the district-wise data?
The government is trying its best to mislead people about the NRC in India and in Assam. The Assam government released the data with a mala fide intention. The reason is that they wanted 20% of the inclusions in the NRC so far to be re-verified.
What is the problem with re-verification?
The issue is that the NRC process is not yet complete. Also, a verification has already been done. That is why the Supreme Court has not accepted the government’s demand for 20% re-verification. The NRC has been managed and monitored by officers deputed by the Assam government. Around 90% of the officers supervising it are Assamese. To demand re-verification means that the government does not believe its own officers’ integrity. This would not be acceptable to any rational person.
What could be the intention of seeking re-verification, and failing that, to release the NRC data in defiance of the court?
The intention is to try and ensure that the NRC data is not published in accordance with the process stipulated by the Supreme Court. The present government at the Centre and state is trying to amend the Constitution and bring in so-called repressed minorities from other countries in the name of religion. [The Narendra Modi government wishes to allow illegal immigrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to acquire Indian citizenship; rules for acquiring citizenship will also be relaxed.] The government wants to do this though it violates the basic structure of the Constitution. The legal validity of such an amendment will only be known after the Citizenship Amendment Bill is passed as law. Nevertheless, the government’s intention is very clear – they want Hindus to be included in the NRC as far as possible and for as many Muslims to be excluded as possible.
There is a perception that Muslims in Assam have documents to prove their identity, unlike the other communities. Why is this so?
After Partition, Muslims of then East Pakistan migrated into present-day Assam. They came to this region because they were Indians. It is because of this reason that they have important documents. The Prevention of Infiltration into India of Pakistan Nationals, or PIP, Scheme, ran from 1962 to 1969 and under it several lakh East Bengal Muslims were called “Pakistani infiltrators” and forcibly sent to East Pakistan. In 1950 as well, lakhs of genuine Indians were driven out of Assam using new laws. Therefore, even today, Muslims who are not genuine citizens would not want to come here.
Is economic migration not a good enough reason for Muslims from Bangladesh to migrate to India?
Yes, the Bangladeshi Muslims are poor but in the last 40 years, their economy has changed substantially. The United Nations’ Development Programme (UNDP) data also shows that on some key development indices, Bangladesh is far ahead of Assam. The Infant Mortality Rate, which is an indicator of overall health, is much lower in Bangladesh, at 31 in 2011, than in Assam. [Assam’s IMR is 48, according to the National Family Health Survey, 2015-16, high compared with the national average of 40.] Economic migrants would naturally prefer to go to developed countries where there are more opportunities. Bangladeshis have sought opportunities in Europe, West Asia, Japan, Korea and other places with booming economies.
The data revealed by the government shows that fewer Muslims were excluded from the NRC in Muslim-majority districts of Assam and the reverse is true in Hindu-majority districts. It also shows fewer exclusions in border districts. Why is this so?
You have to go into the history of Assam to understand this. The Goalpara district of Assam had approximately 48% Muslim population even in the late 19th Century. Another area, Sylhet in Bangladesh, was part of Assam. [In a referendum in 1947, Sylhet opted for East Pakistan; the Radcliffe line was drawn so as to give the Barak Valley to India. Karimganj came to India] Karimganj also had a high Muslim population. So, districts with a historically high Muslim population are now also inhabited by more Muslims. These people [the government of Assam] say that because they are Muslim, therefore they are [illegal] immigrants [from Bangladesh]. This is purely a political slogan. Once the NRC data is published, it will become very clear that this is a false rhetoric. Also, a large number of Hindus migrated to Assam after 1971. Many of them do not have records to establish their citizenship. The government wants to include their names while deleting the names of Muslims. They are behaving as if they are bigger nationalists than anyone else. They do not understand Assamese nationalism at all.
You refer in your book to the Sinha Report of 1994, which claimed that everyday 6,000 Bangladeshis enter India from Bangladesh.
The Sinha Report was sent by the Governor Lt Gen SK Sinha to the President in 1994. That report contributed to today’s chaotic situation. The report fanned fears that very large numbers of people were crossing into Assam. Now, the Muslims who migrated [into Assam] from East Bengal have a high fertility rate. From 1950 to 2011, the Muslims had higher growth rates compared with the Hindus as a whole. However, the rate of growth of Muslims is on par with the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Assam. Not just Assam, this is true for the entire country. Therefore, population grows faster in those social groups, regardless of religion or social group, where economic, social and educational backwardness prevails. In 10-15 years, the rate of growth of Muslim population will come on par with the rest of the population.
Is the Sinha Report inaccurate?
If the Sinha report was accurate then between 1994 and 2011, as many as 3.45 crore Bangladeshis would have arrived in Assam. Hence there would have been more than 4 crore Bangladeshis in Assam if the number of existing Bangladeshis is presumed to be correct and added to this figure. The Census report of 2011 puts the total population of Assam at 3.12 crore. So, Sinha’s report would have us believe that there are 4 crore Bangladeshis in a state with a total population of 3.12 crore.
Why are such rumours and misinformation taking root? Why is this being allowed?
The political elite are working to create apprehensions but in fact all groups in Assam, whether supported by the government or not, are ready to accept the findings of the NRC. Most of the misinformation is a propaganda spread by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It spreads rumours that Muslims are increasing at such a rate that they will overwhelm the rest of the population. This is utterly impossible. In Assam they have, to a great extent, convinced people that Muslims will outnumber them. People, I hope, will realise the truth from their own experience.
What is Assamese nationalism about? How is it different from what the RSS calls nationalism?
The Assamese notion of nationality is linguistic. The RSS is trying to spread Hindutva nationalism. Therefore, the two are distinct.
What do Assamese politicians mean by ‘sons of the soil’? What is its relevance to NRC?
Neither the government nor the groups that talk about ‘sons of the soil’ are in a position to define what it means. In my view, this concept originated from marginalisation. It is linked to why Muslims have documents to prove their identity.
The Muslims have maintained their documents carefully because they have been oppressed since Independence. In the 1951 Census, which was converted into the NRC that year, Muslims all over Assam very carefully entered their names.
The Census document itself is said to be unreliable.
This document was with the government and in very poor condition. [Prateek] Hajela, the Supreme Court-appointed coordinator of NRC, collated the Census data afresh from all district headquarters and published the list of [citizens] recorded in 1951. Now this document has become permanent through digitisation. It shows that more than 90% Muslims had their documentation in place. In the 1950s, Muslims were afraid of losing their voting rights. This made them all the more cautious about getting their names included into the voter list. The Muslims feared that the political elite could target them and, therefore, were cautious about maintaining their records. Other social groups may not have enrolled in the Census as actively as the Muslims. In Upper Assam [where NRC is not complete], people may have assumed that since they have lived in Assam for a very long time nobody will question their status. This may have made them less cautious.
What you say militates against the idea that there is any extreme migration into India from Bangladesh.
Muslims are the weakest, most economically deprived section in India and Assam. They depend on land for survival. In the riverine areas, even two brothers, if they are Muslim, can come to blows, even kill each other over a small plot of land. Will such people allow someone from across the border to come in, stay in their area and start farming or taking other economic opportunities away?
When the final list is out, how much exclusion and inclusion do you expect?
Out of 40 lakh people who have been excluded in the NRC process, 37 lakh have visited the NRC offices, submitted all the documents, given proof that was asked of them and so on. Therefore, these 37 lakh cases have already been examined. Whether they are included or not will be clear only when the full text of the NRC is published. Let us wait and see. As I understand, these people will get another chance to appeal within 60 days if they are not included. After that, the final list will be published again. I think genuine Indians will stay on the NRC and non-Indians will be excluded. People are sensing trouble but they will ultimately get justice.
Where does the sense of trouble come from then?
The main aim of the people is to get their name in the NRC. The Assam government’s main aim is to exclude people in the name of religion. This is the problem.