Review: No Land’s People: The Untold Story of Assam’s NRC Crisis by Abhishek Saha
Much has been written on the problems surrounding the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. It is easy to get inured to the stories of suffering. However, Abhishek Saha’s new book, No Land’s People: The untold story of Assam’s NRC crisis provides a timely reminder that, as conscientious citizens, we do not afford to be blasé about the man-made humanitarian tragedy playing out in slow motion.
Assam’s immigration problem has a long history. The issue of illegal immigration has dominated the politics of the state since Independence. Even as political parties, governments, and NGOs keep harping on the danger posed to Assamese identity and dominance by the influx of foreigners, the number of foreigners illegally residing in Assam remains unknown. There are only wild guesses which place the number between 40 and 70 lakhs.
The aim of the NRC was to bridge this gap, that is to put an exact figure to the number of illegal foreigners in Assam, to identify, and detain or deport them. The exercise really took off in 2013 when Justice Ranjan Gogoi became part of the bench in the Supreme Court, which took up the case. Prateek Hajela, a 1995-batch IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre was brought in as NRC coordinator in the same year. From 2013 until his retirement in November 2019, Justice Gogoi pushed as hard as he could for the early completion of the exercise.
On August 31, 2019, the results of this unprecedented exercise were announced. While a total of 3,11,21,004 persons in Assam were found eligible for inclusion in the NRC, 19,06,657 persons were found ineligible.
This was supposed to bring clarity and conclusion. As it turned out, not quite. No Land’s People covers this exercise comprehensively – starting from the first NRC in 1951 to the troubles that bubbled up after the final NRC was published. The author is personally invested in the issue too – while he made it to the list, his grandmother did not. The book cites copiously from secondary sources to provide context and background. Issues relating to the search for a cut-off year to determine citizenship, complexities involved in culling foreigners from citizens, the structure and procedures of the Foreigners Tribunals, detention camps, and the legality or otherwise of the exercise are all discussed in detail.
However, the book’s strength primarily lies in shining a light on two things: the sheer arbitrariness of the NRC judgments and the undue suffering brought upon those caught in the web of the exercise. The NRC touched “the lives and souls of each and every individual,” claimed Hajela. Indeed it has, and not in a good way.
Arbitrariness is exemplified in the randomness and unpredictability of the judgments. There are cases where sons are excluded while parents are included or vice versa. Amongst the excluded are government employees, ex-servicemen, and a former president’s nephew. Ayesha Siddika Begum was the only person in her family excluded. Why? Because the “r” in her father Hamir’s name was misspelt as “d” in her matriculation admit card. The more one reads, the more bizarre it gets.
To be excluded from the NRC or to be recorded as a “D” voter (doubtful/disputed, a term introduced by the Election Commission in 1997) carries grave implications in Assam. There is always the possibility of getting thrown into the detention centres. The book documents people, most of them illiterate, who mortgage or sell off their lands, houses and jewellery to hire lawyers to help them at the Foreigner’s Tribunals tasked with deciding appeals. Primal fear gripped them. The stigma of “Bangladeshi” can invite a mob’s wrath in a moment. Some, like Nirod Baran Das, simply take their own life. Das was a retired school teacher. His name figured in the first list of 2017 but not in the second. He was the only one from his family who was excluded. After his exclusion, he was taunted on the streets and called “Bangladeshi”. He asked around but no one could explain why he was excluded. On October 21, 2018, he hanged himself. “In his pocket that morning,” his wife Rama said, “instead of toffees – which he usually carries to offer to people on his morning walks – was the NRC rejection letter.”
At least 28 documented suicide cases between July 2015 and March 2019 are suspected to be related to the NRC. Many accidents also took place when people rushed to reach Foreigner’s Tribunal hearings held hundreds of kilometres away. They had been informed only hours in advance. The stories are heartbreaking.
It is hard to miss the bureaucratic nature of the exercise. This is bureaucracy doing what it does best – checking papers, or rather, trying to find fault in documents. About a matter as complex as human existence and identity. Unsurprisingly, the exercise throws up more questions than answers.
Yet, there is no visible circumspection or rethinking on the part of the NRC authorities or the Supreme Court. There only seems to be more determination to press on. There’s only a pause. As per procedure, those excluded should be issued rejection letters within six month on the basis of which they can file appeals in FTs. That has not been done till today. As the state entered election season, there were loud demands for re-verification to produce an “error-free” NRC.
For now, the citizenship status of the excluded remains in limbo. There’s no peace for those included either, as the process is on to trace those “wrongly included”. The refrain is that many who should have been excluded have been included and that this needs to be corrected. The contrast between the casualness with which the issue was discussed at the top and the seriousness with which it was received at the bottom could not be sharper. After reading the book, the author’s question, “Would the key sociopolitical players in Assam, and the mechanisms of statecraft here, ever want the ‘foreigner problem’ to be entirely resolved?” continues to resonate.
All the while, on the ground, the juggernaut rolls on.
Thangkhanlal Ngaihte teaches political science at Churachandpur College, Lamka, Manipur