The political discussion on the National Register of Citizens in Assam grows nastier, more brutish. BJP president Amit Shah has spoken of weeding out the “ghuspethiye (infiltrators)”, called all prime ministers after Rajiv Gandhi “buzdil (cowards)” for failing to implement the Assam Accord, and invoked the spectre of “national security”. Rhetoric of this kind from the chief of the party which rules at the Centre and in Assam is predictable and unseemly. In its lack of subtlety and nuance on a complicated and fraught issue, unfortunately, it has been matched by the statements from across the political aisle. Here, Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal Chief Minister, and Trinamool Congress leader, who is staking her claim to the space of the national opposition to the BJP ahead of 2019, has taken the lead. Banerjee has warned of “civil war” and “a bloodbath” and her party has alleged a “super emergency” in Assam after a team of TMC leaders was detained at an airport in Silchar where they planned to campaign against the exclusions in the new citizens’ list. Through it all, Parliament has been convulsed by disruption on the issue, instead of hosting a debate that can throw more light and bring down the heat.
The war of polarising words threatens to drown out the note of caution sought to be injected by Prateek Hajela, the Supreme Court-appointed coordinator of the NRC, who has overseen the large and complex exercise, and who knows that there is still a long way to go. Descriptions of those left out of the list as infiltrators are “premature”, he has said in an interview to this newspaper, and pointed out that any finality to the process must await “judicial scrutiny” and “a certain set of codes… which is called the foreigners’ tribunal”. Most tragically, however, the political heavy-breathing on the NRC is yet another sign of its leadership failing the people of Assam, by reducing the citizenship and identity issue, with its tangled skeins of history, economics, geography and demography, into blunt oppositions. If political issues that reigned centrestage in the periods preceding and immediately following Partition have returned to haunt Assam, if their residues continue to seethe and be stoked by the NRC process, a large part of the blame must be taken by a politics that has been unequal to the task of helping the state grow out of its traumas and ruptures of the 1940s.
Assam has not yet found a way of emerging from the long shadows cast by the faultlines between its Bengali- and Assamese-speaking populations, pressures brought to bear by the large influx of mostly Muslim migrants from Bangladesh and their claims to land and other resources in a decelerating economy, scars left over by an extractive colonial administration, and a distorted Centre-state dynamic that has only encouraged resentments and isolationism, militancy and secessionism. The NRC process could have been a moment of reckoning for Assam with itself. It still could be one. But for that, the state needs a calmer, if not wiser, politics.