NEW DELHI: Assam is sitting on a powder keg as the decades-old conflict between an insecure Assamese Hindu majority and a severely threatened Bengali Muslim minority of East Bengal origin, gathers momentum over the drawing up of the National Register of Citizenship (NRC), which is to be completed by December 31 this year as per a Supreme Court order.

The Assamese Hindus continue to live in fear of being “over run” by Bengali Muslim “illegal” migrants from Bangladesh. Any reduction of the Hindus’ numerical dominance sets off alarm bells because Assam is a medley of various ethnic groups competing for communal rights in the political and economic spheres.

It was after a long and hard struggle that peace was brought about in Assam through the 1985 Accord between Rajiv Gandhi’s government and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU. As per the Accord, only those Bengali Muslims whose families had been living in Assam prior to March 24, 1971, could be deemed to be indigenous to Assam and entitled to automatic citizenship. Others would be “foreigners” who would have to pack up and leave the country.

The Bengali Muslims, on the other hand, are traumatized by the prospect of being stripped off their right to stay in India where they might have been living for generations. The rise of the Bharatiya Janaya Party (BJP) at the Center and Assam and the re-start of the process of identification of “foreigners” to draw up a fresh register of citizens, have combined to give the Bengali Muslims a scare reminiscent of the one which prevailed in the 1970s and early 1980s at the height of the Assam agitation.

Maulana Arshad Madani, President of Jamiat-Ulema-i- Hind, has warned of a replication of what happened to the 600,000 Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar on the citizenship issue. This has touched off sharp reactions from the Assamese nationalist parties which have dubbed Madani’s assertion disruptive, communal and anti-national. Assamese Ministers have warned of strong action against “disruptive” elements. Assamese leaders trooped to New Delhi to put pressure on the Center not to yield to the Muslims‘ demand for leniency.

Despite the Assam Accord, migration of Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh into Assam has been on, triggered by lack of opportunities in an over-populated, politically unstable, and violence-prone Bangladesh. However, the recent partial barbed wire fencing of the Indo-Bangladesh border and the “shoot at sight” orders given to the Border Security Force (BSF), have reduced infiltration to a great extent.

Nevertheless, the issue of weeding out “illegal” Bengali Muslim immigrants has come up off and on. It has gathered steam in the last three or four years with the ascendency of the aggressively Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Center and the State as the ruling party.

In Assam, the BJP has fed the Assamese Hindu majority with a potent mixture of Hindu nationalism and Assamese pride which has led to conflicts with all minorities in the state, especially the Bengali Muslims.

Already striking anomalies have come to the surface in the drive to clean up the NRC and to track down illegal immigrants. In October, Mohd. Azmal Haque, a retired Bengali Muslim Indian Army Junior Commissioned Officer with 30 years’ service in the force was notified as a “foreigner” and asked to prove his Indian citizenship. The move shocked him and also the rest of the Bengali Muslim community in Assam which apprehends that more such cases could come up as work on the NRC proceeds apace.

Aside from that, the current issue in Assam has a gender dimension which needs to be taken note of from the human rights angle.

In February, the Guwahati High Court ruled that the Residence Certificates issued by a village Panchayat Secretary are “unconstitutional” and a “threat to national security”. The court had also warned that if a Residency Certificate issued by a village Panchayat is rejected by the Foreigners Tribunal or the High Court, and the certificate holder is eventually declared as a foreigner, the issuing authority would run the risk of issuing the certificate to a person who has been declared a foreigner and punished.

“Such an act may be construed to be an act of harboring an illegal migrant, which may amount to a gross misconduct exposing himself to departmental action besides attracting penal consequences. Such consequences may also visit the counter-signing authority,” the order warned officials.

The nullification of the Panchayat Secretary’s certificates has grievously affected the prospects of 48 lakh married Bengali Muslim women who had applied for citizenship with only this slip of paper.

Bengali Muslim women leave their natal village upon marriage, and settle in their husbands’ village, where they get a residence certificate from the local Panchayat Secretary. In lakhs of cases this has been their own identity card.

But the documents sought by the government for inclusion in the NRC are a tall order for these poor people. There are two lists of valid supporting documents. “List A” includes documents which were issued before midnight on March 24, 1971 and have the name of the applicant or his/her ancestor to prove residence in Assam.

The valid documents are: The 1951 NRC; 1971 Electoral Rolls; Land and tenancy records; Citizenship certifitcate;Permanent residential certificate; Refugee registration certificate; Passport; LIC; Any government issued licence/certificate; Government service/employment certificate; Bank/post office accounts; or Birth certificate.

If only the name of the ancestor appears in the document submitted as per “List A”, then the applicant will have to submit documents as per “List B” to establish his/her relationship with such ancestor/parents.

List B includes the following documents: Birth certificate; Land document; Board/university certificate; Bank/LIC/Post office records; Circle officer/gram panchayat secretary certificate in case of married women; Electoral roll; Ration card; Any other legally acceptable document.

The ration card and Panchayat Secretary’s Certificate mentioned above are no acceptable. But as stated earlier, these are the only document the poor would have.

A group of Bengali Muslims inspired by Madani had approached the Supreme Court which is currently considering the matter. The court has ordered officials working on the NRC to leave out these 48 lakh cases pending its decision, and continue the work on the NRC to finish it by year end.

But against the backdrop of the massive and violent displacement of 600,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar from August 25 till now, on the issue of citizenship, Jamiat chief Madani warned of a prospect of a Myanmar being replicated in Assam.

“ If the Panchayat-issued Residency Certificates are not considered valid for claiming citizenship, lakhs of Assam’s women residents will be deprived of their nationality, turning India into second Myanmar,” the Jamiat President warned.

This was taken as a cue by AASU as well as Assamese national political parties to roundly condemn Madani as a anti-national communalist. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal (BJP) warned that anyone trying to derail the NRC process will be considered “anti-national”, even as he assured that names of all genuine Indian citizens will be enrolled in the updated NRC, and people belonging to the various communities and faiths living in the State have no reason to fear.

The influential All Assam Students Union, which has been spearheading a movement to publish the NRC to solve the vexed illegal foreigners’ problem in th State, said: “It is now clear that forces like Arshad Madani are making desperate attempts to stall the NRC publication process for their vested interests. Persons like Madani who had opposed the Assam Agitation, have been safeguarding the interests of illegal Bangladeshis living in the State.”

Assam Ganatantra Parishad President and State Agriculture Minister Atul Bora warned Madani not to play the communal card on the question of the NRC and warned that the present BJP regime in Dispur will be very tough on communal forces.

Above all, there is an overarching threat from Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. In a speech at Serampur in West Bengal in the run up to the 2014 parliamentary elections, he thundered: “You can write it down. After May 16, these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed.”

Bengali Muslims’ fears of discrimination is further heightened by the BJP government’s open preference for Hindu immigrants in the matter of granting citizenship.

In 2015, more than 4,000 Hindus from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh were granted Indian citizenship on the grounds that they had been persecuted in these Muslim majority countries.

There is also a bid to amend the Citizenship Act to give effect to the 2014 election promise to give citizenship to persecuted Hindus from other countries. The Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016 envisages granting citizenship to illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, eligible for citizenship.

As the Bill makes illegal migrants eligible for citizenship on the basis of religion, It may be violating Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees right to equality.

In the midst of the controversy over the NRC, Assam officials have clarified that if a person’s name is not published in the draft of the updated NRC, he or she could approach the local Registrar within 30 days of the publication of the list and also approach the Foreigners’ Tribunal.

However, if anyone suspects that a foreigner has been included in the NRC, he could complain to the Registrar and the Tribunal. Thus, the threat of expulsion hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the heads of the Bengali Muslims of Assam.