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How ‘No Land’s People’ unearths the untold story of Assam’s NRC crisis

Abhishek Saha's book is an insightful analysis of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Assam because of the controversial National Register of Citizens


May 23, 2021 6:30:04 am
No Land’s People is also a must-read for academics studying migration and citizenship issues, contemporary Indian politics and anyone interested in the country's troubled Northeast and its volatile neighbourhood.

Written by Subir Bhaumik

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In early 2020, I was asked by the Calcutta Research Group specialising in migration studies to compile an anthology of media reports and detailed articles on the updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam to give the country and the world an idea of the unfolding humanitarian tragedy. At the time, there was no book or even a longish paper or monograph on the issue. Abhishek Saha’s No Land’s People fills that void admirably.

Saha’s journalism for The Indian Express has been high quality, fearless and objective. His book bears the mark of rigorous research, objective analysis and appropriate contextualisation. It has a clear narrative structure that helps even those not familiar with Assam understand the complex problem. The real strength of the book is its “from the horse’s mouth” style. His reaching out to victims rejected and possibly made non-citizens by the NRC, even from within his family, adds to the credibility of the volume.

No Land’s People is also a must-read for academics studying migration and citizenship issues, contemporary Indian politics and anyone interested in the country’s troubled Northeast and its volatile neighbourhood. Having spent years doing field reporting in the Northeast, I can see Saha’s focus on the immediate environment and the penchant for local details. A little more background, explaining the many turns and twists of the NRC process, would have made the book more marketable to a global audience, but this is what publishers should have asked of Saha.

For instance, it is worth comparing the NRC exercise with the Bhutanese handling of the Nepali-speaking Lhotsampas. When Bhutan’s ruling elite panicked at the growing number of Nepali migrants in the kingdom and initiated a process of easing them out ahead of introduction of electoral democracy in the 1990s, Nepal accommodated tens of thousands of the Lhotsampas, most of whom were finally settled in Western countries.

But Bangladesh has already made it clear it will not accept any pushback and the Modi government has promised PM Sheikh Hasina that no one will be sent back across the border. So, what happens to those excluded from NRC if they cannot finally defend their case in court? Covering the contested stories about identity and belonging in the Northeast is not easy for a journalist. For my reporting for the BBC and other foreign media outlets, a saffronised magazine dubbed me a “wolf in lambskin Bengali separatist”. Both Saha and I found ourselves on a compilation called “the anti-NRC brigade” circulated anonymously on the internet by bhumiputra (“son of the soil”) hardliners in Assam. Such targeting, which carries risks in Assam since the days of anti-foreign agitation, has obviously not deterred him from revealing the many dimensions of the tragedy.

The BJP, which co-opted the anti-migration agenda of hardline Assamese “little nationalism turned chauvinist” (Amalendu Guha) failed to reconcile the two agendas — the religious and the regional. It now risks the wrath of the anti-CAA agitation from the hardline Assamese and an anti-NRC agitation in neighbouring West Bengal and other Bengali-preponderant areas. The NRC will have a larger regional ramification, not just on India-Bangladesh relations. Newly-elected chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s pitch for a fresh NRC all over again points to the unfinished nature of the issue. Saha captures all these aspects of the unfolding fiasco. It is readable and steers clear of academic mumbo-jumbo and bears clear evidence of considerable legwork and careful analysis.

Just sample this excerpt from the book pointing to the role of the local bureaucracy in the NRC: “In Dhubri, Karthik Ray had disposed of nearly 26 per cent of his cases, declaring only 1.32 per cent as ‘foreigners’. His performance was ‘not satisfactory’; whereas Narayan Nath, who got ‘good’ in his review and was retained, disposed of 15.85 per cent of his cases but declared over 34 per cent of those as ‘foreigners’. In Nagaon, out of the 621 cases Mamoni Rajkumari disposed of, she declared only 50 persons as ‘foreigners’ and got a performance appraisal of ‘not satisfactory’; while Moonmoon Borah, declaring 273 ‘foreigners’ from 401 cases, received a ‘good’ review.

Ray told The New York Times that ‘most of the references’ that police made to his tribunal to investigate suspected foreigners ‘were against Muslims’. He said, ‘You have to declare “foreigners” means you have to declare the Muslims.’

The cat is out of the bag. Saha’s book brings out grave flaws in the NRC process that is destined to impact many millions of Indians if the BJP lives up to its promise to take the Assam NRC model to the rest of the country. His is the first and hopefully not the last title on the controversial exercise.

Subir Bhaumik, a veteran BBC and Reuters correspondent, is a former Oxford fellow and author of several books on Northeast

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