Dialogue July-September, 2010, Volume 12 No.1
Unrest over the updating of the NRC
The updating or revision of the
National Register of Citizens (NRC), 1951 has been hanging fire in
for over three decades now—ever since a bye-election to the Lok Sabha seat from
Mangoldoi in 1979 and the discovery of the names of lakhs of foreign nationals
in the electoral roll of Assam triggered off the Assam Movement. As the movement
against the foreign nationals illegally living in Assam picked up momentum,
official copies of the NRC of 1951 began to disappear from several districts of
the State. This became an excellent ruse for the government to put off the
revision of the NRC that was being demanded periodically. Thereafter, both the
Congress and the AGP kept procrastinating on this vital job.
The Congress, of course, had a good reason not to revise the NRC. The party had committed the original sin of winning elections on the votes of non-Indian voters from East Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the Assam Movement made it imperative for the party not only to continue with the illegality, but to sustain the pretence that all the East Pakistani and Bangladeshi voters were actually Indians. If anything, losing political power to the AGP in 1985 must have actually steeled the resolve of the Congress to protect all foreign nationals whose names were in the voters lists, to encourage the illegal influx from Bangladesh and even to legislate a separate immigration law exclusively for Assam to ensure that the illegal migrants in the State could be fully protected against detection and deportation from India. After all, the foreign nationals represented the precious vote bank of the Congress in Assam. This was true of a few other States of India as well like West Bengal, Bihar, UP and Delhi. In Delhi, Congressmen like HKL Bhagat and Jagdish Tytler spread the red carpet for Bangladeshi immigrants without papers. The striking down of the IM(DT) Act by the Supreme Court in 2005 has not made any difference to the actual application of the present immigration law—the Foreigners Act of 1946—to detect and deport illegal migrants. The State now has no immigration law at all, since the Foreigners Act has not been implemented, and hordes of illegal migrants still come from Bangladesh and get their names entered in the electoral roll. The two stints of AGP rule made no difference to the task of updating the NRC. During the first stint from 1985 to 1990, the young ministers of the AGP often did not know how to get anything done in such matters, and by the time the AGP was back in power for its second stint in 1996, the party’s objectives and priorities had become no different from those of the Congress as far as the Bangladeshis were concerned. The AGP was wooing Bangladeshi voters; there could be no question of updating the NRC to lose votes.
It was, therefore, the AASU that took up the task of pressurizing the Centre to update the NRC of 1951 since this was so vital for Assam. Ever since the signing of the Assam Accord on August 14-15, 1985 with the Union government, the Assam government, the All Assam Students Union and the Asam Gana Sangram Parishad as the signatories, this accord has virtually replaced the provisions of the Indian Constitution on the cut-off date for migration from Pakistan to India and made the cut-off date 25 March 1971 in respect of Assam alone. Given the bizarre situation created by the Assam Accord and the obsession of Congressmen in Assam to not only protect the illegal migrant from Bangladesh but also to encourage such migration since it added to the number of foreign voters, it was imperative to have a way of monitoring migrants from Bangladesh who kept coming even in the 21st century and swelling the vote-bank. As such, the revision of the NRC of 1951 was crucially important for Indian citizens of Assam. But neither the Centre nor the State government was doing anything to revise and update the 1951 NRC. A look at the population growth in the State in just two years and even more remarkably the abnormal growth in the number of voters during the last two years has underscored the need to detect and deport all illegal migrants from Bangladesh and other countries and to remove their names from the electoral roll. Considering that in nine of the districts of Assam the immigrant Bangladeshis now constitute the majority of the population, the exercise of updating the NRC had become crucial for Assam to prevent illegal migrants from becoming Indian citizens through clandestine means. The AASU, therefore, insisted on and secured a tripartite meeting of the Union government, the Assam government and the AASU leaders on 5 May 2005 in New Delhi and got the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister of Assam to agree to the updating of the NRC of 1951 within two years, that is, by 5 May 2007. However, that deadline came and went without the government even having started the work of revising the NRC. Thereafter, the matter was very assiduously taken up with Union Home Minister who finally agreed to the updating of the NRC with the electoral roll of 1971 as the base document, since the State government kept insisting that earlier electoral rolls or other documents were not available for the task of updating the NRC of 1951. But even though the use of the 1971 electoral roll as the base document is an act of gross injustice on the people of Assam and India, even the Home Ministry had to finally agree to the use of the 1971 electoral roll as the base document.
Despite the Union Government having agreed to the use of the 1971 electoral roll as the base document for the updating work, there was riot in Barpeta of July 21, orchestrated by the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU). And yet the updating of the NRC in Barpeta and Chaygaon was part of only a pilot project initiated by a government unwilling to revise the NRC and thus lose the votes of the illegal migrants of the last few years. The riot indicates that the Bangladeshi lobby is determined not to let the updating of the NRC proceed peacefully. The riot took a toll of four lives and left many others seriously wounded. There was also a great deal of vandalism. The police, under direct attack by the rioters, had no option but to open fire. The two pilot projects on the revision of the NRC were promptly suspended after the riot, though the Chief Minister assured everyone that the work would be resumed very soon. There are a lot of people who believe that the Congress itself had a hand in the Barpeta riot so as to get a reason to stop the updating of the NRC permanently or at least until after the 2011 elections. After being admitted to hospital in New Delhi recently, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi announced a cabinet committee of ten members to carry forward the work of revising the NRC. This is the best possible tactic to delay the updating of the NRC even further. Getting nine Congressmen to meet for any committee work is a difficult task at the best of times. Getting them to sit together for a task that goes against the interests of the party’s vote bank is going to be virtually impossible. And we all know how politicians are able to exploit the fact of their leader being in hospital to the hilt. So all said and done, the people of Assam can expect the updating of the NRC to be deferred by a year or two or at least until the 2011 Assembly elections are over.
It is the sacred duty of every able-bodied Indian in Assam to make any postponement of the updating of the NRC quite impossible for the government. This tactic of delay, dither and deferring of such constitutional tasks merely to suit the ruling party’s illegal electoral ambitions represents sabotage of the worst kind. This must be firmly resisted regardless of the pressures and acts of violence unleashed by the Bangladeshi lobby and the fundamentalist militant outfits at their beck and call.
Resistance to Indian nationhood
Democracy in India is still an
unfinished agenda. What drives us is the Indian Magna Carta - the Constitution.
As an emerging polity, Indians everywhere (at least in the more developed
states) are in a state of rapid transition. They have not only apparently
imbibed the democratic ethos enshrined in the Constitution but they have also
learnt to adapt to global capitalism and its opinionated agenda. But there are
other ‘Indians’ in the frontiers of this country whose histories are yet to be
written by their local indigenous historians and who depend heavily on western
constructs of their societies, their politics, their culture and even their
world views. In these frontiers where people still have grave doubts about their
citizenship many have never read the Indian Constitution either because they are
illiterate or they cannot read English or because they are simply not
interested. Their lives and livelihoods are far removed from the dictates of the
Document and many of its virtuous ideals are far from being
In these peripheries those who do read the Indian Constitution try and interpret it to others. A section of youth who have reached the end of the alley as far their fortunes are concerned use the Constitution to drum up popular support against it. Scholars from India’s North Eastern region are constantly testing the Constitution to see if we collectively meet its demands or whether it (the Constitution) meets our collective aspirations. There are, of course, antagonists and protagonists for and against the Indian Constitution. Those working for the state have to swear by it even if they do just the opposite immediately after. Many others in the state system do not bother; they carry on their activities not knowing what and who they owe their loyalty to.
The reason why many in the North Eastern states cannot vibe with the Indian Constitution is because they never had a hand in its crafting. Hence the ‘We’ in the preamble, they feel, excludes them completely. In 1999 the NDA Government which was a coalition of 24 political parties attempted to bring in some stability in governance and sought to do so by constituting a Committee to Review the Working of the Indian Constitution headed by Justice MN Venkatachalaiah and which included amongst others Mr Subhash C Kashyap, former Secretary General of the Lok Sabha and author of several books on constitutional and electoral reforms. The Commission traversed the length and breadth of India to have public consultations, ostensibly to right the wrongs of those who feel ‘they have not been consulted.’
The Commission completed its tenure and produced a voluminous tome of good intentions which neither the NDA government nor those after it chose to be guided by. The Congress party vetoed this exercise because they felt it was aimed only at strengthening the NDA and help it last its full term. Hence a well-meaning exercise which incorporated peoples’ voices became a victim of bad politics. To this day we have not heard about the outcomes of the Report and whether any political party is even willing to give the recommendations a look to see if there are elements there which could help in deepening democracy in India. So much for good intentions and needless squandering of public money!
Subsequently, Subhash Kashyap and Dr Pai Panandiker jointly edited a book, appropriately named ‘Political Reforms: Asserting Civic Sovereignty’ where ironically several eminent writers from across the country barring the North East made their learned contributions. Some of them have written illuminating articles on the North East just by travelling to the region for a couple of times. Others by virtue of having served one state in the region as police officers and later as governors felt they had earned the legitimacy to comment on every aspect of the tribal life, thinking and world view. Ironically the book and perhaps the Commission only repeated the mistakes they were trying to correct. Barring PA Sangma who became part of the Commission by virtue of having been the former Speaker, no other North Easterner was considered enlightened enough to be part of the Commission and finally the book which is an outcome of the North Eastern sojourns amongst others does not have any writer to represent the region. So much for representative democracy!
In the introduction, Subhash Kashyap waxes eloquent on the objectives of the founding fathers of the Constitution, who he stated, vested on the people the quintessential principle of sovereignty. This Kashyap says stands grievously eroded by the political system and public administration.
Considering that Kashmir and the seven states of North East India present atypical cases of regions where the Constitution is at its weakest and is constantly under threat, a couple of chapters in a book which attempts to redefine the Constitution should have found space. Kashmir and the North East represent the unfinished agenda of nation building as far as India is concerned. For the states of the North East their transition from tribal chieftainships to Indian democracy is a major leap of faith. They are still processing Indian democracy and trying to fathom what it means for them. In their own ways each of the ethnic groups was fairly sovereign in the sense that they governed themselves, even though their systems of governments were far from perfect. The Indian Constitution with an all-powerful Centre took away this sovereignty. In recent times the Indian National Congress with its feudal moorings has reduced the states to vassals. Even government formation in states where Congress gets the single largest majority, is decided in Delhi.
These contradictions go against the grain of liberal tribal ethos of decision making by consensus. Before they can adapt to one form of governance, the tribes now have to interface with global capital which threatens to alienate them from their land, forests and water bodies – their very ecosystem and their reason for survival. It is besides the point to argue who has allowed globalisation to desecrate the forests or to poison the once pristine springs and rivers. Every society has its share of usurpers and ravenous knaves whose loyalty is to themselves and not to the communities that have nurtured and protected them. Globalisation demands individuals who are loyal to its avaricious agenda. And tribal communities find themselves disintegrating faster than the melting glaciers.
In Meghalaya, the global cement giant, Lafarge managed to win over some tribals to vote against the larger community in their attempt to mine valuable limestone from Shella, East Khasi Hills. Lafarge even mortgaged huge tracts of tribal land to international funding organisations because they have a Khasi agent whose loyalty lies with the French multinational.
These and other dichotomies stare us in the face and we are unable to handle this existential and political crisis. No wonder Independence Day and Republic day create their own dilemmas. Unfortunately those who disrupt these ‘national’ days have least understanding of the real angst of the people because they have ceased to represent our collective aspirations.
Moderation first, Resolution later
Moderating conflict is Manipur’s need of the hour. Conflict resolution can follow. However, the often cited mantra that a lasting resolution to a conflict situation can only be brought about if the roots of the problem are identified and tackled has become little less than a cliché. The danger about mantras is, they are far too often chanted by robotic rote as if the sound of it is the diagnosis and cure for the problem addressed. The approach has seldom been of treating the of the mantra as a formula to be applied in practice and assessed against the results they wield. Perhaps the problem is also of the difficulty of putting this mantra into practice which has made it convenient for its chanters to shroud it in an aura of learned mystery, not easy or desirable to be analysed and dissected too closely. This would have been very fine had it not been for the fact that the approach has deprived the mantra of its applicability in problem solving.
One of the problems in seeking the roots of any vexed social problem is, you can never be sure if there is anything as the final root to any of the issues. If a root has been identified to any particular issue, this root may itself have its own roots and these subsequent roots more roots of their own etc. The search in this manner can prove to be never ending and indeed futile. Under the circumstance, what may urgently be called for is a return to the very basics of the values of life, and not just the roots of any particular event. This would entail referring back to the fundamental guiding principles delineating good and bad, right and wrong, and from there reconstruct the issue of the conflict at hand.
Sounds a little distant, but experience even in Manipur in the past few decades would demonstrate why this is inevitable. Everybody in a conflict situation has a justification for their stand from their own vantage and logic. Especially if the conflicts are nationalistic in nature, the fire of nationalism normally succeeds in blinding the parties to all logic other than their own. They have also been known to seldom question their own action. This is why some very fundamental laws which all conflicting parties cannot but endorse and follow must form the foundation on which all can stand and begin the negotiating process.
The notion of jus cogens or peremptory laws in international law is something to learn from in tackling issues of conflict on any canvas, including our own. Jus cogens are compelling laws which are presumed to be inviolable regardless of what the circumstance is. It has been agreed as per the “Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties” that any law made by any country which infringes upon these jus cogens would be treated as null and void. Some of these peremptory laws are genocide, slave trade, piracy, execution of juvenile offenders, torture, wars or aggression aimed at territorial aggrandisement, colonisation etc.
In our own conflict theatre, in the effort to build a common platform on which all different interested parties can thrash out their problems, an agreement on certain peremptory laws has become vitally important. The job should not be all too difficult as we will have the international jus cogens as model and North Star. Our own Ten Commandments of conflict moderation and resolution could only be an addition to the list already available as per our needs and experience. Some of these could be a prohibition on prolonged bandhs that cause education and essential services shut downs, prolonged economic blockades, torture, rape, child soldiering, abduction for ransom etc. Any act that compromises any of these and such other absolute values should not be given any consideration for sympathetic hearing.
Once such a common platform has been established and agreed upon by all parties, working out a peace model, or at least moderating the pitch and brutality of conflict, should become less daunting. Hopefully then, there would also be an agreement on what should be considered the roots of present disagreements. In such a circumstance, not only should remedies begin to appear possible but be much more lenient on each of the conflicting parties involved.
A study of the Manipur situation should also convince serious
onlookers that there is also no better approach to conflict resolution than a liberal one. This being the case, whatever the causes may be, the government must do everything to bring about some parity in development between the hills and valley if it is interested in any long term peace in the state. In bringing about such a happy situation, it will also need the cooperation and understanding of the communities in these two regions.
This understanding must also be cemented by what many have called “enlightened self interest”, which is in a way a very pragmatic interpretation of the notion of generosity. For instance, when somebody sacrifices a bit of his own benefits for the sake of somebody else, this would by classical definition amount to philanthropy or generosity at the least. But the other interpretation (with a Freudian ring) is, there is a vested interest even in philanthropy, albeit an enlightened one. It establishes a sense of all round goodwill first and foremost, but more than that it also ensures a method for bringing at least some parity between the privileged and the deprived thereby guaranteeing a sense of just peace, a condition which would be a reward for the one who made the sacrifice too.
The reservation policy for instance, despite the arguments against it that it kills competition etc, could be described in many ways as an embodiment of this enlightened self interest from the point of those who can do without reservation. Until at least a level playing field is established, the policy should remain.
In this spirit, let a differential land revenue policy between the hills and the valley also remain at least till such a time the hill communities feel they are ready for the modern system. We had thought the provisions of the ADCs in this sense were also about preparing the hills for the modern (without actually plunging it into its milieu immediately) by shifting some of the powers of the village chieftainship to an institution of elected tribal leaders with a renewable mandate. This is however being objected to, and it remains to be seen if the ADCs members for which have already been elected, can function against this opposition, especially in the Naga areas.
In the meantime, even if the traditionalists win the day and the hills are reverted back to its archaic administrative model, so be it. However, let not there be bitterness if the valley which has embraced the modern, surges ahead in the modern development paradigm. Again, so that the hills can stick to the old administrative paradigm and still make the best of it, perhaps the ADCs should be made equivalent to the 6th Schedule ADCs. If this were so, even if the differences between the hills and valley were still not bridged, there would be less room for anybody to blame the other, despite the reality that no 6th Schedule area in the entire northeast, (Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura and Assam) has ever been known to have managed to keep development parity with the areas under modern land revenue system. Although there is no denying the existence of a developmental disparity between the hills and valley, it is in the perception as well as attribution of the reason for this disparity that problems arise. To give an example of this perception distortion, there is a tendency amongst the hill communities to first of all equate Imphal with the valley, and then from this presumption compare the backwardness of towns and villages in the hills with the privileges available in Imphal city and then claim that the valley has cornered all the cream.
This is a very flawed comparison. Imphal is the political and commercial capital of the state and is hardly representative of the entire valley. A more apt comparison would be between remote villages in the hills with remote villages in the valley or small townships in the hills with small townships in the valley. If this were to be done, much of the imagined deprivation of the hills by the valley would vanish. The poverty, the infrastructural deficits etc, would suddenly become comparable.
The only major difference would be, the poorest man in the valley village would be empowered by the land he owns. As for instance if an emergency arises and he comes to need expensive medical attention for a loved one, or the seed money to kick start a small enterprise, his land would become his gold reserve. Sell or pawn a part of it and he will have the money to prevent tragedy or to make a new start in life.
Again, the flaw is for Imphal to be seen as a Meitei city. Nobody will be fooled this is so. Imphal is today evolving to be quite a metropolitan city, and practically every community has become its domicile. In any attempt to defuse the build up of animus between the hills and the valley, these reflections should be vital tonic and all genuinely interested in peace should liberally lose themselves in them more frequently.
Ushering in Normalcy
Meanwhile, the one-up-man-ship game between
the government and the opponents of the ADCs must end. In the ADC tussle as well
as the one over the entry of Thuingaleng Muivah into Manipur, let nobody be in
doubt, there were only battles won at best, but the war is still wide open. As a
matter of fact, it would not be too wrong to even say that everybody lost
substantially, and if there were victories, these were incidental.
It is now up to the government to show its catholicity and willingness to welcome back the prodigals. Leaving behind a sense unjust deal or humiliation is like leaving behind a time bomb ticking. A state which has been exposed to a nagging conflict situation for so many decades should not have any difficulty understanding this. Let the government show its magnanimity and extend the hand of reconciliation. First, initiate the process to revoke the High Court order to have the blockade leaders arrested. As it is the blockade is over and the matter of their arrest is now somewhat redundant. If the matter is pushed, it will now begin to acquire the visage of a witch hunt, which by no standard, is healthy.
It will be helpful if the All Naga Students Association, Manipur, ANSAM, president, agreed to appear before the court of law if the government agreed not to have him go through the humiliation of being taken into police custody. Such an understanding should not be easy to reach, provided both parties are looking for a solution to the bitter entangle. Let the ANSAM come to terms with the fact that from the point of view of the law, the blockade was illegal regardless of whatever the provocation there was. Even if the government was willing, it would not be able to vacate the case on its own.
The government must look for a resolution to the problem however unreasonable it thinks it is. In social issues like the one we are witnessing, sometimes what matters is perception of justice having been done more than even actually doing justice. Let the dissenting voices not be simply ruled out. The ADC matter should come up in the ongoing Assembly session for discussion.
As of now, it is arguable, neither those supporting the agitation against the ADC elections nor those supporting the elections, are fully aware of the actual Act and its content, or who exactly were responsible for the Act’s enactment etc. How true is it that the ADCs would amount to tribal land being compromised? While the agitators think this would be an inevitable consequence, there are others who think the 2008 amendment only brought the 1971 ADC Act closer to the provisions of the 6th Schedule, the demand for which all us would remember was the reason behind the ADC elections being boycotted the first time in 1989. The other issue of Muivah’s visit to his village should also not be abandoned as over and done with. The bitterness left behind by the entire episode, as well as the widening in the rift between communities are no fiction. In fact, they are palpable everywhere. Let the government as well as the people on either side of the fence in this conflict of interest look for a reconciliatory position acceptable to both. There is no need for a reminder that such an understanding can only be reached in a spirit of understanding and accommodation.