Assam Tangle

NRC and Policy of Exclusion

A K Biswas

In a massive exercise by the Registrar General of India (RGI), monitored by the Supreme Court of India, 28,983,677 out of 32,991,384 applicants, were found eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Citizens (NRC). He declared 40,07,707 to be ineligible. According to him, the draft was published under "supervision, monitoring and directions of the Supreme Court. It is a legal process and has been conducted in a transparent, fair, objective and meticulous manner."

All India Matua Mahasangha [headquarters at Thakurnagar, North 24-Parganas, West Bengal] voiced serious grievances that one million Matuas, who are Namasudra, are excluded from the NRC. In protest rail services on August 1, 2013 by Matuas at different railway stations in Eastern Railway's Sealdah section were badly paralysed affecting normal life in Calcutta.

In the census of 2011 returned 693,215 Kaibartta Jaliya, accounting for 31% of 22,31,231 scheduled caste population. For Namasudras, the corresponding figures are 6,31,542, and 28.3% respectively. These two castes work out to 2.2% and 2.02% of total 3,12,05,576 population of the state respectively. Eight decades ago, census returned 1,70,519 Namasudra, who were the largest caste in Assam in 1931, while the Brahmans numbering 1,59,116 were the second largest in the province.

Import of working class in tens of thousands became the felt need of Assam with the introduction of tea cultivation on commercial basis in 1853-54. Between 1911 and 1921 labourers were recruited largely from Bihar, Orissa, Bengal, Central Provinces & Berar, United Provinces, Central India Agency, etc. A contingent of 12,90,000 outsiders were enumerated in 1921 against 8,82,000 in Assam in 1911. They aggregated at 21,72,000. These migrants were broadly of two categories—those who worked in tea gardens and those who were, by and large, engaged in agriculture and related activities, besides traders, shopkeepers and professionals.

G T Lloyd, ICS, and superintendent of census, 1921 observed that Assam-bound migration reflected "the attractions of the province by the tea industry and waste land available for colonisation as well as the home staying propensity of the natives of Assam". He further highlighted that the great increase in migration of those born in other parts of India represented "mainly colonists from Eastern Bengal and the new tea garden labourers", in 1911 and 1921 censuses largest exodus of working classes from Bihar and Orissa was recorded 399,000 and 571,000 respectively. Bengali migrants during the same period, on the other hand, aggregated at 194,000 in 1911 and 376,000 in 1921. The 'coolies' [Mundas, Santals, Gonds. etc,) from Central Provinces and Chota Nagpore "are the best men for the climate and work of the tea gardens", noted the concerned census report.

Large number of coolies whose "time-expired" for contract of engagement did not go back to their native places. Officially esteemed as "an asset" Lloyd noted that, "the coolies who settled in Assam and opened up new land are undoubtedly an asset.... In four upper districts of Bhrahmaputra Valley, where they are found in large numbers, they are reported to be much more industrious than the local Assamese cultivators, and they certainly increase the available food supply". The Government estimates of Assam-ward inflow of labour in the decade ending 1921 aggregated at 769,000 at the rate of 77,009 a year. In 1920-21, the ex-coolies and/or their descendants held 3,00,000 acres of land.

In 1891 census report Edward Gait, ICS touched an insightful aspect to merit notice. It might have been thought that "the amount of cultivable land, the fertility of the soil and the low rents prevailing would have induced some portion of the overcrowded cultivators of Bengal to find their way to Assam and take up land here". But this does not appear to be the case. The coolies for tea gardens come to Assam because they were more usually indigent, and were specially recruited and brought to the province at the expenses of the persons for whom they were to labour. Even railway lines were opened up between Bihar and Assam for safe, prompt and convenient movement of labour forces. Paid steamer services were organised for the labourers to travel on the mighty Brahmaputra.

"No such inducements exist to bring ryots to Assam", observed Gait, "to take up land for cultivators and they, therefore, do not come. A certain number of persons from the neighbouring Bengal district of Mymensingh, Dacca and Rangpur have crossed the boundary and settled down in Sylhet and Goalpara, but this can scarcely be called immigration. They have only moved a few miles from their original home and the accident of boundary alone has brought them within the limits of Assam". By 1921, Goalpara boasted of 20% of its population who were Bengali settlers. In Nowgaon, they formed 14%. Barpeta subdivision of Kampur district and Darrang were engaging their close attention.

Kamrup Deputy Commissioner Bentinck is quoted in census report that "They (Bengali) do better cultivation than the local people and as such they have reclaimed and brought under permanent cultivation thousands of acres of land which local cultivators had for generations past merely scratched with haphazard and intermittent crops or recognised as exigent of efforts beyond their inclination. The large undulating expenses of char lands to be seen in late March or early April finely harrowed, weeded and newly-sown are something to which the spectacle of ordinary Assemese cultivation is quite unaccustomed. They have besides their industry shown examples of new crops and improved methods".

Extremist attacks on Bengalis in Tinsukia, Assam, resulting in unfortunate tragedy claiming lives of five innocent and defenceless men—four Namasudra and one Jalia Kaibartta by caste, all scheduled castes, left the entire Bengali speeking people there greatly shocked, traumatised and terrorised. The victims identified were Shyamlal Biswas, Avinash Biswas, Ananta Biswas, Dhananjay Namasudra and Subal Das. The attackers came in army fatigue, called out the youths busy playing Ludo, taken to a place and shot point-blank range dead.

One is baffled to believe that this community having lived in Assam generation after generation over a century and half are not yet deemed as sons of the soil. Exclusion of a million of them as outsiders in an exercise under august "supervision, monitoring and directions of the Supreme Court.... conducted in a transparent, fair, objective and meticulous manner" may surprise many well-meaning people with conscience.

There are elements who seem to be keen on balkanising India into small and belligerent parts. Not long back, people have occasionally heard strident demands, 'Mumbai for for Mahara-shtrians", "Bengaluru for Kannadiga", "Bihar for Biharies", "Assam for Assamese," etc. Those who propagate such puerile ideas are few in numbers and target the spirit of India as Constitutionally crafted and established. One can be sure of Assam to boast of thousands of men who in liberality of thought, catholicity of ideas and vision, magnanimity of head and of heart are taller than the pigmies, who in darkness of hatred and prejudice, killed five innocent men in Tinsukia.

Now there are high pitch sermons that India is not a 'dharamshala' and therefore unwelcome guests have no place to stay here. But what about those who lived here generation after generation and contributed to the growth of the economy bit by bit with their toil and brawns? Should they too be targeted for exclusion?

Vol. 51, No.27, Jan 6 - 12, 2019