On a foggy afternoon of September, 2017 I arrived at Ashrab Ali’s house to interview him about the history of Mankachar. Mankachar, situated at the Indo-Bangladesh border, is the extreme south-westernmost end of north-eastern India. The region is always in the news for border related issues including illegal immigration from Bangladesh.
Ashrab Ali, the retired Headmaster of Mankachar Girls’ High School, described that the history of Mankachar is related to Mir Jumla. Mir Jumla was a prominent subahdar of Bengal under the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who died in 1663 at the Hill of Mankachar which became famously known as the Mir Jumla Tomb.
In the political map of Assam, Mankachar is a sensitive region because of its river border. The river is the only medium to differentiate the two countries. The frontier regions have usually not received equal significance as the other parts of the state/country. On one hand, the bad road connection to Mankachar from the mainland, reflects that the region is not given priority in terms of development because of its remote location. On the other hand, the floodlights with lots of BSF camps at the fencing border carry a different picture of the role of the state. The budget allocation for floodlight work along both Indo-Bangladesh border and Indo-Pakistan border was Rs 50 crore each, during the year 2017-18.
However, the frontier zones of Assam include the chars (riverine islands constituted of river sediments) at the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries. Neither the government nor the middle class Assamese people are much concerned about the lives of chars. The release of the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) on December 31, 2017, carries different dimensions about the minorities of chars who are locally known as Pamua Muslim.
At the preliminary stage, the illegal immigration was not the only issue for the Assam Movement. The movement was also a protest against the exploitation of the Centre, and the underdevelopment as a frontier state.Assam also had to face a high rate of outsiders migrating from other states during that time. Indeed, the word ‘outsider’ was frequently used instead of ‘illegal immigration’. But later, to make the demands clear and more effective, the main objective of the movement was fixed with the issue of ‘illegal immigration’. To prove the strength of the movement, the list of the illegal migrants was made longer, because of which many legal citizens’ names were included in those lists.
I believe that because of the illiteracy and communication gap, the minorities of Assam are always used as a vote bank by the Congress. The vote bank politics created lots of barriers for the minorities to participate in the larger political discourse of the state. Now, the educated and younger generation of the minorities feel their importance in the mainstream politics of the state, and they demand that the NRC process be made faster.
The suffrage and struggle that the minorities have faced, are neither taken seriously by the state nor the centre. The minority youth can be a part of the debate against the illegal immigration issue in the larger political discourse. However, without the presence of the Pamua Muslim, the mainstream Assamese cannot demand majority in terms of Assamese language.
Historically, the idea of Bor Axom (Greater Assam which was the prominent ideology of Ahom Kingdom) is based on secularism, which does not support the majority on the basis of any religion. The anger in Assam over the centre’s decision to grant citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh still continues among dozens of ethnic and political organisations which violates the Assam Accord.
The Indo-Bangladesh border has many chars in the river Brahmaputra, shared between both countries. The people living in the Indian part of the chars have to enter their names by showing their voter ID at the BSF check point while visiting Hatsingimari (market centre in Mankachar) on the market days. The same process is repeated during their departure too. The boat communication is open from 7am to 5pm. These remote chars do not have any medical facilities. However, there are lower primary schools which follow the Assamese medium.
So, without knowing the life stories of the people, it is very difficult to link them with the issue of illegal Bangladeshis. While visiting the chars of Mandiya, and Majher char in Barpeta district in lower Assam, we encountered many people who carried their documents when they heard someone was coming from Guwahati. Some of them said, “We do not trust any government now. Each government forces us to live in fear of identity, the way the river forces us to settle in new places each year. So, we need NRC now.”
There is a political consensus that the NRC will help to detect the illegal Bangladeshi migrants, who had entered Assam post the midnight of March 25, 1971 following the Assam Accord. The first draft of NRC does not give any indication of the number of illegal Bangladeshi migrants staying in Assam. On new year’s day, people rushed to NRC Seva Kendras and scanned the NRC websites to ascertain if their names have been included or not. Facebook profiles were flooded with images of the NRC draft displaying the names of family members, while many expressed their anguish over either partial inclusion of family members in the draft, or complete exclusion of all the applicants’ families. However, the issue is not the inclusion or exclusion of names in the draft of the NRC. The complete and final NRC will include all the names of Indians living in Assam, irrespective of them being Bengali Hindu-Muslim or Barak-Brahmaputra.
Many of the educated youth among the Pamua Muslim community raised the issue that after the approval of NRC, there may be a continuation of marginalisation of minorities from the mainstream Assamese sentiment. It depicts that the middle class Assamese people do not welcome the minorities in the larger Assamese Jati formation. The limitation of the middle class Assamese people is because of the lack of access to information and communication with the chars in the frontier areas. The final and clear NRC can be a recognition and be a strength for the minorities living in these areas.
Wearing lungi and tupi, building new tin houses, or speaking Moimansingiya, living in frontiers or chars does not indicate that someone is an illegal Bangladeshi. The history of the frontiers indeed demands the NRC faster to make their future safe and secure.
I want to conclude this article with the statement given by Asrab Ali in the interview, “Meghalaya was formed in 1971, which create another border for Mankasar. You will not find any Bengali school in Mankachar. But Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that travelling to Mankachar, is like travelling to Bangladesh. We became unsaved. The border between India and East Pakistan was demarcated based on zamindari. Though 75% people in Mankachar are Muslim, we decided to stay in Axom. We are not living on the border, the border is imposed upon us.”
Juri Baruah is a Guwahati based upcoming writer and researcher. She can be reached at [email protected]
The article originally appeared on Youth Ki Awaaz.