In early 2020, I was asked by the Calcutta Research Group specialising in Migration Studies to compile an anthology of media reports and detailed articles on the NRC process in Assam to give the country and the world an idea of the unfolding humanitarian tragedy. At the time, there was no book or even a longish paper or monograph on the issue. Abhishek Saha’s No Land’s People fills that void admirably.
Saha’s journalism for The Indian Express has been high quality, fearless and objective. Now his book bears the mark of rigorous research, objective analysis and appropriate contextualisation. It has a clear narrative structure that helps even those not familiar with Assam understand the problem and how serious it is. The real strength of the book is its ‘from the horse’s mouth ‘ style . His reaching out to victims, even from within the family , adds to the credibility of the volume.
It is also a must read for academics studying migration and citizenship issues, contemporary Indian politics and anyone interested in the country’s troubled Northeast and its volatile neighbourhood.
But a little more backgrounding explaining the many turns and twists of the NRC process would have made the book more marketable to a global audience but is what the publishers should have asked of Abhishek Saha.
Having emerged from a similar background of field reporting in India’s Northeast like Abhishek, I can see the obvious focus on the immediate environment and the penchant for local details. A bit more of regional and continental perspective — like comparing the NRC exercise with the Bhutanese handling of the Nepali speaking Lhotsampas. When Bhutan’s ruling elite panicked at growing number of Nepali migrants in the kingdom and initiated a process of easing them out ahead of introduction of electoral democracy , Nepal accommodated tens of thousands of the Lhotsampas , most of whom were finally settled in Western countries. But Bangladesh has already made it clear it will not accept any pushback and the Modi government has promised Hasina not to push back anyone. So what happens to those excluded from NRC if they cannot finally defend their case in court? Looking at interesting global examples might have embellished the book and Saha may consider doing that in subsequent editions. But lack of that does nothing to take away from Saha’s wonderful effort in capturing one of the greatest and yet unfolding tragedies of post-colonial India.
Covering the NRC driven humanitarian tragedy for a host of foreign media outlets like BBC led to my branding as an ‘wolf in lambskin Bengali separatist’ in a saffronised magazine and I found myself – and Abhishek- on a hate compilation called the anti-NRC brigade circulated anonymously on the Internet by some bhumiputra ( son of the soil ) hardliners .
Such vicious targetting which carries risk to life and limb in Assam since the days of anti-foreign agitation has obviously not deterred Abhishek from revealing the real dimension of the tragedy.
The saffron brigade which co-opted the anti-migration agenda of hardline Assamese ‘ little nationalism turned chauvinist'( Amalendu Guha) failed to reconcile the two agendas– the religious and the regional. So it now risks the wrath of the anti-CAA agitation from hardline Assamese and an anti-NRC agitation in neighbouring West Bengal and other Bengsli-preponderant areas . The way the toxic issue is playing out in the Assam and West Bengal elections and also impacting on India-Bangladesh relations points to the larger regional ramification of the NRC process. BJP minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s pitch for a fresh NRC all over again points to the unfinished nature of the issue
Saha captures all these aspects of the unfolding fiasco. It is readable and steers clear of the academic mumbo-jumbo and bears clear evidence of considerable legwork and careful analysis.
Just sample this excerpt from the book pointing to the role of the local bureaucracy: “In Dhubri, Karthik Ray had disposed of nearly 26 per cent of his cases, declaring only 1.32 per cent as ‘foreigners’. His performance was ‘not satisfactory’; whereas Narayan Nath, who got ‘good’ in his review and was retained, disposed of 15.85 per cent of his cases but declared over 34 per cent of those as ‘foreigners’. In Nagaon, out of the 621 cases Mamoni Rajkumari disposed of, she declared only fifty persons as ‘foreigners’ and got a performance appraisal of ‘not satisfactory’; while Moonmoon Borah, declaring 273 ‘foreigners’ from 401 cases, received a ‘good’ review. In Mangaldoi, Babita Das got ‘not satisfactory’ even after declaring 42.95 per cent of cases as ‘foreigners’, probably because she could dispose of only 156 cases (11 per cent), an abysmally low number on the chart. Ray told the New York Times that ‘most of the references’ that police made to his tribunal to investigate suspected foreigners ‘were against Muslims’. He said, ‘You have to declare “foreigners” means you have to declare the Muslims.’
The cat is out of the bag. Saha’s book brings out grave flaws in the NRC process that is destined to impact on many millions of Indians if the BJP lives up to its promise to take the Assam NRC model to the rest of the country. His is the first and hopefully not the last title on the controversial exercise.