By Dr.Moushumi Bhattacharjee
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The National Register of Citizens (NRC) – as it is called in Assam was created in 1951 to determine who was born in the state and is Indian, and who might be a migrant from neighbouring, Muslim-majority East Pakistan, now called Bangladesh (Bhaumik, 2019). Bangladeshi migrants to Assam consist of Muslim migrants and Hindu refugees. Both categories have different sets of reasons to migrate (Sarmah&Dutta, 2014, p. 21).
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a register containing names of all Indian citizens (“Office of the State Coordinator of National Registration (NRC), Assam,”). The first NRC was prepared by including the details of 1951 Census and the people included in the list. But now, it is being updated only in Assam, to comply with the demands in the Assam Accord, which was the culmination of the six years long Assam Movement against migrants from Bangladesh. The biggest problem which the state encounters is the entry of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants which has led to serious demographic changes.
In 1826, after the British annexed Assam as part of the Bengal Presidency, migrant labourers were also brought in from central India to work in tea plantations and this necessitated the production of more food, which the local population could not manage on its own (Dutta, 2015). Moreover, a spout in demand in the jute market necessitated an increase in jute cultivation in Bengal, which again was not possible due to lack of manpower. Both these reasons were behind the migration of Muslim farmers of East Bengal to Assam, though in small numbers. But by the turn of the 20th century, there was a huge influx of migrants to the chars, or river islands, in lower Assam from Bogra, Rangpur, Pabna and Mymensingh districts of Bengal (“National Register of Citizens in Assam: Issue of illegal foreigners continues to be a major political one,” 2015) .
The 1911 Census indicated that the number of migrants had shot up to over 1,18,000 in Goalpara district, which was about a fifth of the district’s population, from 49,000 in 1891. The total number of Muslim immigrants in the Brahmaputra valley in 1911 was 2,58,000. After occupying most of the cultivable land in Goalpara, they moved to other parts of lower Assam.
As a result, in the first three decades of the century, the proportion of Muslim population in Assam had shot up from 13.6% to 22.8%, causing much distress among the local inhabitants. The Muslim population grew steadily from 24.56% in1971 to 28.43% in 1991 to 34% in 2011. Number wise from 1951 to 1971 the Muslim population grew by 16 lacks or 80,000 per year- from 1971 to 1991 by 27.81 lacks or 1, 39,000 per year, from 1991 to 2001 by 18.67 lacks or 1, 87,000 per year, from 2001 to 2011 by 26 lacks or 2, 60,000 per year, the highest rate of increase in India (Khanal, 2018,p.14). Here it is important to mention that according to a report the 1996 Bangladesh population census report found 8 million (80 lacks) persons missing or unaccounted for in the country (Khanal,2018,p.14).
In the 1920s, the introduction of ‘Line System’ as part of the British divide and rule policy, draw an imaginary line to ghettoize immigrants from the indigenous tribals. But in 1939 the provincial government headed by Syed Muhammad Saadullah invited East Bengali Muslims to settle in Assam under a ‘Grow More Food’ scheme – to much opposition and criticism. (Saikia,2019)
The partition of India in 1947 had far-reaching ramifications in Assam and riots between1947 and 1950 forced thousands of Muslims to move to East Pakistan. But the pact signed by the then prime ministers of India and Pakistan, Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan, allowed refugees from both countries to return by December 31, 1950. But many of the Muslims who had fled Assam could only return later, thereby not being included in the 1951 Census and NRC. The main influx of people occurred during partition and before the Bangladesh War in 1971 when about 10 million people came to India from Bangladesh to escape persecution (“NRC has excluded not only Muslims but Dalits, too,” 2018).
Although the mass media’s role in shaping public attitudes is well documented, less is known about its specific impact on promoting nations’ negative or positive views toward immigration and immigrants (Anderson, Brinson. &Stohl, 2012; Boda& Szabo,2011). Studies on relations between immigrants and citizens of countries to which they immigrate (Osfeld,2017) have been undertaken but how media plays an influential part in this entire procedure have been left unheeded.
The construction of both Assamese and Bangladeshi identities takes place within the migration discourse. Collective identity is always constructed on the basis of the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy and thus it always contains ‘Otherness’. In the case of Bangladeshi migration to Assam, the Bangladeshi migrants are constructed in the press as the quintessential other. The discourse of differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is realised through discursive strategies of representing the positive self and the negative other and thereby constructing a homogenous Assamese identity. The press sets the limits of Assamese identity, defining who is an Assamese and who is not. (Glebova, 2013, p.20)
Media plays a very important role in this identity issue. Identity is discursively constructed and produced through media. (Glebova, 2013, p.21) Referring to the role of English medium Newspapers of Assam, Glebova points out that ‘The Sentinal’ questions their Assamese identity, ‘The Assam Tribune’ argues for the protection of Assamese Muslims as ‘Genuine Minorities’. ‘The Assam Tribune’ creates a distinction between Bangladeshi Muslims and Assamese Muslims as “fake” and “genuine”. (Sarmah&Dutta, 2014, p. 25)
Citizenship is based on the principle of exclusion of some people who are deemed as undesirable to the state. The final list of Assam’s NRC released on August 31, 2019 saw many discrepancies. Since its release, every day new stories are pouring in of rejection and acceptance status of members belonging to the same family tree. Many genuine Indian citizens were dropped from the final National Register of Citizens list irrespective of linguistic and religious lines. A retired employee of the Assam State government who passed her matriculation in the year 1965, fails to make it to the finals. This is not the only case, many such stories are piled up to be unveiled in the near future.While queer persons are not complete citizens, they may get included in the idea of citizenship if they are seen as being desirable, respectable, and having the capacity of being a consumer.
Notably, though there exists much literature revolving around NRC, citizenship bill and illegal immigration, but studies on humanitarian ground revolving around the people who are directly affected by this turmoil have never been taken into consideration.
Dr.Moushumi Bhattacharjee is currently working as a Guest Faculty at the Department of Communication and Journalism, Gauhati University.
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