Why unresolved questions on identity threaten Assam’s economic transformation

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Mumbai: A tense New Year awaits the people of Assam as they wait for the release of the first draft of the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC), due on 31 December 2017. The updated register will contain the names of the descendants of those who featured in the first such register published in 1951, or in electoral rolls up to 24 March 1971, and is aimed at distinguishing between bona fide citizens and illegal immigrants, a contentious issue in the fractured polity of the state.

The issue of immigration has long been a bone of contention in Assam, fuelling a six-year-long agitation by students of the state from the late 1970s. It triggered successive waves of violence over the next few decades, which led to a flight of capital from the state, and eroded growth.

At a time when insurgency in the state has lost much of its appeal, and the flow of investments seems to be picking up, a successful closure to the identity question will be important to ensure that Assam’s incipient economic revival stays on track.

But ensuring closure is easier said than done in a state where the citizenship question has been the primary fulcrum of politics for over three decades, and where old fears and concerns relating to identities have once again come to the fore over the past few months. If the NRC is perceived to have included suspected illegal immigrants, it will throw a spanner into the entire process. If the NRC is seen to exclude people who are seen to be legal citizens by their compatriots, that may reignite ethnic tensions as well.

The seeds of the current conflict lie in the lack of a coherent refugee policy since independence. A clear-cut policy on refugees might have nipped the immigration problem in the bud, wrote political scientist Sanjib Baruah in his book, India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality, but that was not easy. The state’s desire to protect Hindus and reluctance to distinguish between refugees on religious lines led to a series of flip-flops on immigration into Assam. That contradiction has continued till this day.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party and its regional allies rode to power in the state promising to resolve the problem of illegal immigration for good, its attempt to grant exemption to Hindu refugees from Bangladesh (and Pakistan and Afghanistan) on grounds of religious persecution has not gone down well in Assam. The move has attracted protests from those who believe that religion should not figure in this question.

Data from post-poll surveys conducted by the Lokniti research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) show that a growing number of voters in the state are concerned about the issue of illegal immigration, and perceive such immigration to have grown.

At the same time, the surveys also show that support for granting refugee status to Hindu Bengalis (refugees from Bangladesh) has declined over time.

Apart from these political frictions, the NRC update process has affected the poor, who may not possess documentary identification, as well as women who may have moved from their original places of birth after marriage. The polarization around the issue seems to have heightened concerns over harassment of minorities in the guise of evicting illegal immigrants.

The simmering tension in Assam has revived memories of the conflicts around questions of identity in the 1980s and 1990s, which led to a sharp decline in investments and growth in the state. Assam’s rankings among major states on the basis of per capita incomes saw the sharpest decline among major states since the 1980s.

Data from the capex-tracking database of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) indicate that over the past year, Assam has witnessed an incipient investment revival.

A recent Crisil report argues that Assam could soon become a major warehousing hub because of the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST).

But unless the NRC process is fair, and seen to be so, it could fuel a fresh cycle of violence in the state. And Assam could miss the bus to prosperity once again.