Rangapara is a small town in northern Assam. Many tea gardens dot the area. When the British laid down railway tracks in these parts, the main motive was to connect the tea-producing regions.
Rangapara subsequently became a railway hub. At Rangapara, a line branches off south to Tezpur. From the Tezpur port, tea was shipped to Kolkata via the Brahmaputra river. Tea and railway were two big carriers of immigrants to Assam. Not surprisingly, many Bengali, Bihari, Nepali people make up the diverse population of Rangapara.
My aunt, Putul Kakima, was married off to Rangapara sometime in the 1970’s.
She was born in Pandu, a locality near Guwahati. When the axe of Partition hacked Bengal province into two, her parents migrated from East Pakistan. Her name Putul means doll in Bengali. She had to cast away her name, along her surname, after marriage, because the in-laws’ family had two Putuls already. From Putul Guha, she became Kabita Das. Little did she know that these mundane domestic adjustments can throw someone in jail.
In 2016, a local Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) apparently sent summons to her home. In FT trials, the burden of proof rests with the accused. In other words, in contravention of the principle of natural justice, the accused has to prove that she is not a foreigner to the satisfaction of the FT members.
For Putul Kakima, there was no trial. The FT declared her to be a foreigner in an ex parte judgement (ex parte judgements are one sided judgements that are made in the absence of a party). This is because nobody in the family even knew that there was an FT summon.
Enacting a Kafkaesque scene, one fine morning, policemen knocked at her door, asked her to pack up, took her away and locked her up in Tezpur jail. The jails in Assam accommodate detention camps for “foreigners” within their premises. She was an elderly women, more than sixty years old when she was thus incarcerated. Her crime: the pre-nuptial name did not match the post-nuptial name - must be a case of a sneaky Bangladeshi trying to pass off as Indian!
Being from a non-poor background helped. Court hearings followed and Putul Kakima was released after a month. The episode jolted many of us.
The bleak days of the Assam Movement of 1970’s and 1980’s were not over, it seemed. From street protests, arson and massacres, it has metamorphosed into a state-directed avatar. The Assam Movement of 1979-1985 was formally dubbed as an anti-foreigner movement but its wrath often got directed against settler migrants. In the heat and dust of the agitation, outsiders, Indians or foreigners alike, bore the brunt. Bengalis, the second biggest linguistic group in the state, often found themselves in the crosshairs.
Bengalis in Assam
Many Bengalis living in Assam are Partition refugees like Putul Kakima. But some were here even before 1947. In British India, Bengal, which consisted of the present day West Bengal and Bangladesh combined, had a long border with Assam. It stretched from North Bengal in the north to all the way to Tripura in the south.
Many a Bengali fortune seeker travelled to Assam in the wake of British annexation of Assam in 1826. In historical documents of the 19th century, one finds description of businessmen from Dhaka plying their trade in rural Assam. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, thousands of farmers from East Bengal (present day Bangladesh) migrated to the Brahmaputra valley. They were poor Muslim cultivators encouraged by the colonial government, as well as local landlords, to settle down on unclaimed riverine lands.
Then came 1947. It’s often overlooked that Partition and Independence were joined together, that with the price of the former the latter was purchased. One wonders, what the powers that be were thinking when they decided to break Bengal into two. Did they think that no one would cross the border after Partition? If not, what provisions were made for millions of refugees?
For those who left their home and hearth behind, lost loved ones to communal carnage and migrated to Assam, the payment for Independence is not over yet. The NRC, the FTs, anti-outsider violence keep prolonging that moment. The moment of Partition continues for them.
But NRC is not about Partition refugees alone. It’s also about refugees who have kept trickling through the border for years after Partition. Haladhar (name changed) is a talkative neighbourhood carpenter.
He tells anyone who would listen how they left their home in Bangladesh, crossed the border and entered West Bengal in the 1970’s. But soon they were deported to Dandakaranya by the then newly-formed Left Front government of West Bengal. Pesky refugees were not welcome. It hardly made a difference that the refugees spoke Bengali. Nor did it matter that they did not exactly fit the description of bloodsucking capitalists. They were mostly, in fact, dirt-poor Bengali Dalits.
It was not easy to survive in the jungle of Dandakaranya. The soil was hard and infertile, not the kind one finds in the Bengal delta. They could not subsist there for long, and made another attempt towards Bengal. This time, they went right across Bengal, and finally settled down on government land near Guwahati.
Haladhar did not find his name included in the first list declared in December, 2017, nor in the second one which came out in July, 2018. He has been called several times to the NRC Seva Kendras (NSK) for questioning and showing documents. A poor Dalit of fisherman caste, with clever hands and words, but little else, the calls to NSK take away his daily wage, he grumbles.
The NRC tales are not only about poor people like Haladhar either. The NRC tales are also about those who were not refugees. Take my teacher. We shall call him Mr Bhattacharjee. I owe some of the tools of trade I have learnt to him. He and his immediate family have not featured in the NRC draft list.
Their fault: Mr Bhattacharjee cited the elder brother of his father as the legacy person since his father passed away very early (the legacy person is the man whom the applicant draws her lineage from when she applies for NRC). This is not allowed, and his application was rejected. In spite of many attempts to make amends, Mr Bhattacharjee remained out of the list.
The profile of this well-to-do Bengali Brahmin family does not match with the set visual images of NRC – poor Muslim men and women lining up in the sweltering heat outside NRC centres. Surely, Mr Bhattacharjee is less perturbed than those poor people. Money gives poise.
But he is no less livid. Mr Bhattacharjee’s ancestral family settled down in Assam well before 1947. He was born here and spent his entire life in Assam, training scores of batches of young minds. At the twilight of his life, the anguish of the knowledge that he did not belong here was hard to bear.
Sons of the soil
Not all the victims of the NRC are Bengali speakers. In the western part of Brahmaputra valley, called Lower Assam, the population is heterogeneous. This part is contiguous to North Bengal.
Common Bengali surnames, such as Chakraborty, Choudhury, Bhattacharjee, Roy, Goswami, Dutta are shared by “son of the soil” communities, such as the caste Hindu Assamese or the Koch Rajbongshis. How would an NRC official know from the surname of the applicant if she is an Original Inhabitant (OI)?
But depending on the OI status, the degree of scrutiny changes. OIs are subjected to less strict examination compared to non-OIs. Due to the surname confusion, many a khilonjiya (Assamese for son of the soil) did not find themselves on the list. A friend with an irreproachable Assamese surname found himself and his son in the NRC first draft. His wife, an Assamese Chakraborty, had to wait for seven more months to get included. The fate of many relatives of Assamese friends with ambiguous surnames was worse.
Muslims have been similarly affected. But, it bears emphasising that the NRC exercise has not been biased against Muslims. The motive behind NRC was to filter out infiltrators – “infiltrators” as defined in the Assam Accord: those who/whose ancestors entered from a foreign country after March 24, 1971.
The nativist politics which propelled NRC has been reasonably religion-blind. It’s also a fact that the Bengal-origin Muslims are better organised, compared to their Hindu Bengali, Gorkha, Koch Rajbongshi, Adivasi counterparts. These organisations helped less privileged Muslims by providing information, guidance, procurement of obscure documents, filling out forms, etc.
Justice and Closure – so far away
Will the excluded get justice in the FT appeal stage? This is an unchartered territory. For, FTs have not dealt with NRC-reject cases before. Their previous record does not inspire confidence. Not Foreigners’ Tribunals but a regular judicial authority would do better justice to the enormity of the situation.
Finally, do the 19 lakh poor working class Muslims, Namashudras (Bengali Dalit subcaste), Koch Rajbongshis, Gorkhas, Tea Tribes Adivasis, Biharis, indigenous people have the resources to fight the tortuous legal battle ahead? The vendors of divisive politics want more people to be struck off the list so that the pool of sufferers swells further. The closure that naive souls sought from the NRC does not appear to be close at hand.
[The author is based in Assam]