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Be careful what you wish for. Perhaps nothing reflects this saying as much as the exercise to effect a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. Less than a week after the final list was released on 31 August, uncertainty prevails over the process that could make nearly two million people stateless.

They can appeal within 120 days. But a majority aren’t well-off and many live in areas away from NRC tribunals. Nearly a dozen detention centres are being prepared for those who fail that bid. At present, it looks like a looming humanitarian and political crisis with overtones of a security crisis.

That Assam may have bitten off more than it can chew is evident from the strident protests against the numbers—and the vast numbers of non-Muslim people out of the NRC net—by several parties including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Among other things, BJP won assembly elections in 2016 and scored big in Assam in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, on the back of rooting out illegal residents through NRC.

A national BJP plank was also to provide a category of non-Muslim immigrants the opportunity for naturalization by amending the Citizenship Act, 1955. Introduced through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in 2019—which took on board suggestions of a parliamentary committee that reviewed a similar bill from 2016—the central government sought to reduce to the residency requirements for “…persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan" from an aggregate of “not less than eleven years" to “not less than six years".

In Assam, NRC and the Citizenship Bill proved a contradictory and volatile mix. As NRC sought to address long-time, and occasionally violent, local feelings against ‘outsiders’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ (the Axomiya and Bodo movements were predicated on this) to the Assamese, the Citizenship Bill seemed to be an underhand way to legitimize such migration. A massive outcry followed. The Bill died a natural death with the end of the BJP-led Lok Sabha’s term in May 2019. The NRC remained an ongoing exercise the subsequent BJP-led government claimed as its own. Now, as the party, both in Delhi and Dispur remains tied in knots, perhaps no other place in Assam reflects the complexity as much as the Barak Valley—Cachar area to the southeast of the state. Here, matters of religion, language and ethnicity are incendiary.

For starters, this area wasn’t even part of Assam not too long ago. The East India Company extended its conquest of Assam in 1826 with that of Cachar six years later, and merged them with the Bengal Presidency. After administrative reorganization in the wake of the 1857 mutiny, the largely Bengali-speaking districts of Sylhet, Cachar, and Goalpara—in what is known as Lower Assam—were, along with some hill districts, merged into the new Chief Commissioner’s Province of Assam. It administratively cut off Bengali speakers from Bengal, besides isolating the Sylheti people.

Matters became messier with Partition. In 1947, much of Muslim-majority Sylhet went over to newly born Pakistan after a referendum that year, except for the eastern extremity of Sylhet where a majority were both Bengali-speaking and Hindu. This remained with India—and Assam. The anti-Bengali violence in Assam in the 1960s, which followed a violently put down pro-Bengali language movement in Cachar, sharpened divides. Subsequent bursts of migration from East Pakistan and later, after it transformed into Bangladesh in 1971, heightened pressures as well as expectations.

Cut to the present. In 2019, the BJP won the Silchar Lok Sabha seat from the Congress and Karimganj from the pro-Muslim All India United Democratic Front, or AIUDF. In 2016, it had won the majority of assembly segments across Cachar district, of which Silchar is the headquarter. (Seats in Barak Valley districts of Hailakandi and Karimganj went to the Congress and AIUDF.)

Now, the BJP is caught between assuaging deep misgivings over the NRC exercise in Assam as well as Cachar—for opposite reasons. Many non-Muslim Bengalis out of the final NRC register in Cachar area do not have the prophylactic the Citizenship Bill sought to provide. It’s a confounding case of attempting to please a majority and ending up displeasing the majority. That Assam remains under the watchful eyes of greatly reinforced teams of paramilitary forces is only one indication that the NRC cauldron remains on the boil.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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