Grand Tamasha

Niha Masih on the History and Political Implications of the NRC in Assam

Episode Summary

Nearly 33 million residents of Assam applied to have their names included on the National Registry of Citizens. When the list finally came out in late August, nearly 2 million people discovered that their names were left off the list--calling their citizenship status into question.

Episode Notes

Milan speaks with Niha Masih of the Washington Post about the ongoing political drama surrounding the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. Nearly 33 million residents of Assam applied to have their names included on the register, which was intended to distinguish between who was a legitimate resident of the state of the Assam and who was an illegal migrant from Bangladesh. When the list finally came out in late August, nearly 2 million people discovered that their names were left off the list--calling their citizenship status into question.

Niha recently spent time on the ground in Assam and she and Milan discuss the history of the NRC process, its contested implementation, and the political color it has taken on in recent years. The two also debate the political implications of the registry for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the fate of the millions whose names did not appear on the revised list.

Episode Transcription

Intro: 00:00 "Unabashed" "The most unpredictable" "becomes a headline." "The most volatile" "outrageous behavior." "Unsubstantiated narratives" "a battle of personalities."
Milan Vaishnav: 00:12 Welcome to Grand Tamasha. I'm your host Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. On August 30th the updated list of Assam's National Register of Citizens or NRC was released. 33 million residents of Assam applied to have their names included on the register, which was intended to distinguish between who was a legitimate resident of the state of Assam and who was an illegal migrant from Bangladesh. When the list finally came out, nearly 2 million people discovered that their names were left off the list, calling their citizenship status into jeopardy. To learn more about the NRC process and its political implications. I'm joined today by Niha Masih of the Washington Post. Niha recently traveled to Assam to report on the NRC and she's on the line today from new Delhi. Niha, welcome to the show.
Niha Masih: 00:52 Thank you so much for having me, Milan.
Milan Vaishnav: 00:54 So, Niha, this is a very complicated story with lots of nuances, lots of definitions, dates, government paperwork, government procedures. Let's start from the beginning. What exactly is the NRC and why was it first established?
Niha Masih: 01:08 Right. Absolutely. This is something that a lot of people in, in India have found hard to sort of fully understand and, and you know, take a you don't get to the nuances because also it's not a new thing. So let me lay out the basic you know, background for your listeners first. The National Register of Citizens which took place in the Northeastern state of Assam, you know, bordering Bangladesh is actually the second such exercise happening in the state of the first time it happened was in 1951. The idea behind it, as you sort of said in your introduction, was to identify who were the original inhabitants, of Assam which people locals felt that the state was being overrun by Bengali speaking immigrants from Bangladesh. The fear was that an influx of Bengali speakers would change the state's demographic and impact the local language and culture.
Niha Masih: 02:05 So in the seventies - late seventies - and early eighties, a massive student movement, agitation you know which often turned very violent happened in Assam. And as a result of that, the government of India at that time had signed something called the Assam Accord in 1985. And that accord essentially sort of lead the, or lead the ground for what is the NRC today. The Assam Accord sort of said that those who were in Assam or at least could prove till the 1967 election list voter's list would be granted full citizenship. And those who came up til March 24th, 1971 would not get voting rights for 10 years, but after that they would be you know, given citizenship rights to and that was sort of like the cutoff date, which is still the cutoff date for this current NRC. And this date is crucial because this is just before the you know, the Bangladesh liberation war from Pakistan began of independence which is when there was a third round of influx into Assam. So this is sort of like a, a very, very basic broad introduction to the exercise. And and I think you know, what sort of is, is the next obvious question that a lot of people have is about why why Assam and why this particular exercise is significant there.
Milan Vaishnav: 03:41 Yeah. I mean, that's something I wanted to ask you about because why is it that they're residents of Assam are so upset about the issue of migration that they have pushed literally for decades, as you just pointed out, for such an exacting process of identification and enumeration?
Niha Masih: 03:57 Absolutely. So the answer to that sort of lies both in the history and geography of the state. Geographically, again, Assam is in the far Northeastern corner and it borders a Muslim majority country and the border has always been rather porous. So it's not a hard border where, where entry and exit points are regulated like the maybe in, in, in many other places. So that's geographically, that's one of the key points to remember. I'm now coming to history, which is probably the most important thing here, is Assam has seen weaves of migration from you know, at the from Bangladesh as it is today. So the first wave of migration was under the colonial rule when the Britishers brought in cheap labor from there to work in Assam's tea gardens and settled a lot of a population in Assam from Bangladesh.
Niha Masih: 04:50 The second influx happened when the British left and India and Pakistan were divided into two countries. So many, many Bengali Hindus fled to India because Bangladesh was originally part of Pakistan and was known as East Pakistan. And then the third massive wave of course was in 1971 after Bangladesh won independence. So in all of these we must again, sort of lead this out that the migration was was I mean a part of it was legitimate or given legitimacy after that happened. So not everyone who came in, in these three waves was you know, meant to be, or identified as an outsider if they had those requisite papers again, according to the Assam Accord. And the second important point about these waves of migration is that these contained both Hindus and Muslims. And it was not just Muslims that were coming in because now Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country. So, people think of anyone coming from Bangladesh as, as possibly being Muslim, which has not been the case.
Milan Vaishnav: 05:53 Now the BJP, which currently rules the state of Assam, has received a of criticism for pushing the NRC process in a way that's, you know, exclusionary possibly discriminates against Muslims. But on the other hand, isn't it true that the NRC process is actually an outcome of a Supreme Court initiative? I think the question arises, you know, how political is the implementation of this NRC?
Niha Masih: 06:15 Again the issue in Assam has always been political. The issue of outsiders, the issue of identification of Bangladeshis has the state's politics has been heavily influenced by that before the BJP government came into power in the center. However, you're right that the, that the current NRC is a court monitored process. But it continues to have a very, very potent political aspect. Even even today and more and more nationally unlike earlier when it was limited to sort of the local politics of Assam you know, as I explained, it sort of began as more of an identity movement against migrants from Bangladesh, which at that time included both Hindus and Muslims. However, under the current BJP government the exercise has, you know taken a much more anti-minority, anti-Muslim turn and critics have pointed out how even on the campaign trail you know, earlier on in May party leaders made attempts to conflate migrants with Muslims.
Niha Masih: 07:16 Again, now Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country, so it's easy for a lot of people to think that anyone coming from there would be Muslim. And of course with the fact that they have well, not officially, but made several statements by - top leaders have made several statements about how they will take this exercise nationwide and it again expands the notion of who's Indian and who's not on the basis of religious identity, which is,uuyou know, again, like a very, very,uimportant issue for the BJP politically. So it, it, it does remain very, very political at the end of the day.
Milan Vaishnav: 07:51 So this is a process that the Supreme Court has gotten involved in. As you've put it, the BJP has politicized it in a certain direction. But now having pushed for an NRC, many leaders of the BJP both at the center and in the state are calling the process illegitimate. Why would a party that has been advocating the NRC, not just in Assam, but as you mentioned in other states as well, why would they suddenly be disavowing the process?
Niha Masih: 08:16 Again, that's a slightly hard question to explain to people, especially those who may not be familiar with Indian politics so much. But again, I think one of the aspects of, of this exercise is that out of these, I mean, that's a big question that no one has an eye that no one knows at this point is how many among how many amongst these 1.9 million exclusions how many are Hindus and how many are Muslims? Now of course there was for the BJP this exercise you know, is against those who they consider outsiders you know, in that word "outsider" is implicit you know, people who are Muslims. But obviously there are thousands of Hindus who are also excluded in this list. News reports have documented that, but there is absolutely no idea of the scale of, of how many or from which religion.
Niha Masih: 09:15 And it, it don't obviously also have a column which sort of asked for people's religious identities. But this is an important issue for the BJP because it's emphasis on becoming a Hindu rashtra, on being a country for the Hindus. And that does not sit that and this exclusion of a lot of Hindus, even if it's not the majority, but like potentially thousands it does not sit well with that agenda. This is also a local vote bank for them in Assam as well as nationally for them to sort of pick on as of now without knowing the numbers, it's it's again, sort of implied in the way that the BJP has been talking about it. So for instance, the state government released the percentage of exclusions from certain districts seeing that the districts which have a high Muslim population have a lower rate of exclusion. A while those with a higher Hindu population have a lower rate of X to a higher rate of exclusion, which shows that potentially more, more Hindus are excluded and that they cannot accept. So, so it's sort of become a little more complicated now. And and because it's a court monitored process it's harder for the government to sort of step in and, and you know, like turn it around as they would like to in in such case.
Milan Vaishnav: 10:33 So it seems to me Niha basically what you're saying is that there are a number of Bengali speaking Hindus who are left off the NRC list. And this is an enterprise therefore that could potentially be turning in a what was an asset to the BJP into a potential liability for the party, both in Assam and Bengal and potentially nationwide. Is that, uh, one possible outcome?
Niha Masih: 10:56 Yes, absolutely.
Milan Vaishnav: 10:57 And what happens now to the millions of residents whose names had been left off the register? Do we know right now what will happen to them if they are deemed to be illegal residents of India?
Niha Masih: 11:10 Again, the answer is yes and no. The government has in the last few weeks leading up to the NRC and post the list as well. The government has issued repeated clarification saying exclusion does not mean detention or deportation. However, it is also not made explicitly clear what actually happens. So what do we know, or what we do know right now is that the people, all those people who've left out can apply to Foreigners Tribunals, which are quasi judicial bodies who have been empowered in Assam since 1985 to declare people, foreigners or Indian. So they have a time period of 120 days to appeal their exclusion in these Foreigners Tribunals. However what happens after those appeals get heard? I mean, you know, people who get declared Indian should be okay, but those who get excluded even after that process, there is no clarity on that.
Niha Masih: 12:09 Now, as per the existing FT process, people who get declared foreigners are detained in detention centers and again, that's a gray area about what happens, how long will they be detained for,uwhether there will be a deportation process. India does not have,uany kind of like deportation treaty with Bangladesh. And Bangladesh has made it clear again in the run up to this exercise that it's not going to take in people. And especially not have this,uyou know,unow off the scale.UBangladesh itself is, is heavily and very, very densely populated and dealing with the Rohingya refugee influx. Uthe foreign,usecretary,uwho was a foreign minister, sorry, who was recently on a trip to Bangladesh called it an internal matter. So that also suggests that,udeportation is not something that they are really looking at, but again, they've not said what will happen.
Niha Masih: 13:03 So it is, that's also one reason why there has been so much fear and paranoia amongst the people because they don't know exactly what will happen. The other thing that's also happening is that more detention centers are coming up and much, much more massive than the existing ones. And also the Foreigners Tribunals have been expanded exponentially in the, in the run up to them. I saw a news report, we sort of did the math that if even with like hundred foreigners tribunals of all the people who've been excluded every single day, they would have to take like 20,000 cases at least to be able to like get through 1.9 million people.
Milan Vaishnav: 13:41 I want to ask you a question about some of the reporting you did. You were in Assam recently and you met a number of people. Some of them had been included on the list of, of registered citizens, some of them in left off. But you met a shopkeeper named Pradeep Saha and Pradeep and his two sons had been left off the register, but Pradeep's brother's name was included. Tell us a bit more about Pradeep's story and how he found himself out of this list.
Niha Masih: 14:06 Right. so one of the you know problems with the NRC process, apart from all the conceptual you know criticism has been the implementation. It has proved to be a very, very difficult process, especially for the poor to navigate. The system has been riddled with errors and and issues and, and Pradeep's case you know sort of highlights some of these aspects. So Pradeep had documents showing that has showing his grandfather's refugee card, which was issued by the then Assam government, that is a document that is acceptable under the NRC list. He also had a voting list from the sixties which is also in the list of acceptable documents. So he told me that he never doubted that he would get left out. And he and his brother's family bought, submitted the same set of documents and exactly those same documents left Pradeep and his sons out
Niha Masih: 15:06 But his brother and his family was included. So which is, which is just like sort of, you know, seems bizarre. Now when they went to an NRC office, after the draft list had come out, they were told that Pradeep was left out because he has been declared, a foreigner. Now, of course, the Foreigners Tribunals I referred to earlier, have the power to declare people foreigners. And the burden in these cases is on the people to prove and not on the police that usually file these cases. Pradeep said that he had no idea that there was even a case against him. He had never received any notice. He had never received any paper work to appear in any case to defend himself. And even at that point at the NRC office, he was not provided any more details. So he kept running from the NRC office to the Foreigners Tribunal, you know, to the local police officials to try and find out what was happening. Ultimately, no one can find anything against any, any, a pending case or any earlier cases against him. So ultimately he just ended up submitting the same documents once again, hoping that this time he would make it.
Milan Vaishnav: 16:15 And these are two brothers who had exactly the same sets of documents. One brother made it in and the other one didn't.
Niha Masih: 16:21 Absolutely. That's right. They submitted the same set of documents. Because essentially what is important in these is not the document and not your own documents, but your legacy documents. So you have to basically submit your ancestral documents, which would be the same for everyone if you are from the same family and, and proving a link to, to those ancestors. So basically you have to prove that you are your parents children. And for two brothers, those would be the same documents.
Milan Vaishnav: 16:50 So I wanna ask you a little bit about the political consequences of this process. We know that there are many Hindus whose names do not feature on the NRC list, but there is the possibility that they could be given a reprieve if the government manages to pass the so-called citizenship amendment bill in parliament. This is a bill that was introduced in the previous parliament. It did not make it through both houses, but it gives expedited Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, or Christian immigrants. Notably Muslims do not qualify. Is the BJP essentially banking on this bill going through? Because if it went through, then the Hindus who are left off this list could be given a, some kind of status to remain in India that wouldn't do anything for the Muslims who are left on the list. But is this something now that has become an active talking point in the halls of power inside Delhi?
Niha Masih: 17:41 Absolutely. this was always sort of, Oh, the BJP's you know, like plan and this, as you said, it came up actually before even the NRC list came out and they tried to pass it in their last you know as part of their last government. And, and this again, sort of you know, like exemplifies why this exercise has sort of taken a more communal turn as opposed to what it was originally. So, so the key point here is that the Citizenship Amendment Bill would actually grant citizenship rights or expedited citizenship rights on the basis of religious identity, which is against you know, which technically violates the Indian constitution according to a lot of lawyers. So the assumption here being that these five categories of minorities from Muslim majority countries being minorities would be facing possible persecution, which is why they would not be deemed illegal immigrants
Niha Masih: 18:39 But be deemed refugees. However, leaving out the two, well, Muslim minority countries where Muslims are in minority and facing persecution, which is Burma and Sri Lanka makes it clear that it is targeting it is again - one of those targeted vote bank or political moves by the BJP. So that's definitely one of their big - big things that they still plan to push. However, there has been criticism of this bill in the Northeast itself, including in Assam because again, the idea of giving outsiders rights in these places, which have often fought for,uthese regional movements. And this is not limited only to Assam, but in the larger northeast. So these were met with - this bill was actually met with - a lot of protests in Assam,uwhen it was brought in. So it will be interesting to see how the BJP manages to keep those,uthose concerns,uin check while pushing forward for this bill, which would help them in the rest of the country.
Milan Vaishnav: 19:46 So basically what you're saying, Niha, is that Hindus who reside in Assam who are given a reprieve through the Citizenship Amendment Bill could still face an issue insofar as the local government is concerned because there are many in Assam who still see these folks as outsiders rather than people who should be residing in the state. Is that an accurate depiction?
Niha Masih: 20:05 Yes, absolutely. And those fears are not limited to Assam, but in the large in most of the other states of Northeast, which have often had these movements against, outsiders settling in, buying land and being granted resident rights.
Milan Vaishnav: 20:22 So do the events unfolding in Assam, give the ruling party, give the BJP any pause when it comes to the broader idea of a nationwide NRC? This is something that the party promised and its 2019 election manifesto, something that they often talk about. Do you think that this is going to force them to have a rethink given how this process has played out so far?
Niha Masih: 20:42 Well, it's always challenging and sometimes foolish to predict what the BJP will do. You know, they've been known to take bold and often very controversial decisions. As of now I don't see them and don't see too much indication of them sort of taking a step back on this you know, there are now news reports coming in off a detention center or potentially coming up in Maharashtra, which let me remind you is due for elections. So I don't see it going away immediately. But of course I think what they have to sort of try and manage first is, is the, is the sentiment in Assam and, and even while it's criticized and distance itself from the current NRC. They have you know, continued to say that the idea is good, just that the implementation is the problem.
Niha Masih: 21:30 So they are not seeing that the NRC in itself was a problem, but how it was done. And and I think, Oh, one of the top,uyou know, BJP leaders in, in Assam said on the day the list came out that "we had already devising fresh strategy on how, on how we will proceed." So, so I don't think they're going to take a step back at least,uimmediately. But,ubut yes, they have to sort of see how to, how to moderate the local sentiment,uwith their national agenda.
Milan Vaishnav: 22:01 When the draft list of the NRC came out many months ago we learned that nearly 4 million people found out that their names are left off the list. That number has now come down by half. It's around a 1.9 million people. Is there a sense in the state government and in the BJP that despite these numbers, you know, to an outsider, they sound quite large, but is there a sense of disappointment? Or a sense of these numbers? We thought they'd be much bigger given how much the issue of illegal migration has been talked about?
Niha Masih: 22:33 That's actually like a really good point that you raised because actually in parliament several times, not just under the BJP government, but in the previous UPA government, this question was asked repeatedly to home ministers to the government how many illegal Bangladeshis are there in the country? And they have never been able to actually give an accurate figure. They have always said it is in the estimate of you know, 20,000 or thousands or could be larger and added that there is no accurate estimate. So so again, it is one of those issues which, which gets a lot more traction without, as much ground evidence that the government has at least been able to provide. If they have those numbers or if they have a way of tracking them, they have not made that they've not made that public.
Niha Masih: 23:22 They have not made it clear. And and, and that's also one reason why it's hard to sort of estimate whether this is a big number, whether this is a small number. The Assam agitation movement was primarily based on the exponential you know, population growth in those years in Assam and one of the rights group have shared some numbers how the population Assam did grow much more than the national average you know, post post-1971, but but a couple of years after that and till till till more recently, the population growth of Assam has actually been slightly lower than the rest of the country. So this whole you know, anti-immigrant rhetoric has unfortunately not been based on any kind of hard evidence of facts provided by any credible agency.
Milan Vaishnav: 24:11 Niha Masih is a reporter for the Washington Post based out of their new Delhi Bureau. She recently traveled to Assam to report on the NRC. She's on the line today from Delhi. Niha, thanks so much for joining us. I know that you've also been spending a lot of time in another political hotspot at the state of Jammu and Kashmira, uh, and you're going out there I think later this week. Is that right?
Niha Masih: 24:31 Yes. I, I hope to. But things are of course you know, are constantly changing in Kashmir. So one has to sort of be, be a bit nimble on, on what happens when.
Milan Vaishnav: 24:44 Well travel safely. And thanks so much for coming on the show. We hope to have you back again soon. Absolutely would love that. Thank you so much.
Outro: 24:50 The Grand Tamasha is a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. You can find us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Don't forget to rate and review. It helps others find the show more easily. For more information about the show and to find the writing we referenced on this week's episode, visit our website Production assistance comes from Megan Maxwell and Rachel Osnos. Tim Martin is our audio engineer and Lauren Dueck is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next week.