How the National Citizenship Registration in Assam is shaping a new national identity in India

Nimai Hajong and his wife, August 2018. Hajong was born in Bangladesh and moved to India when he was an infant. The 58-year-old, now considered a “foreigner” in his own state, poses with paperwork supporting his right to citizenship. A. Shamar/AFP

As the monsoon continues to strike several states in India, millions of residents face not only devastated homes and landscapes due to extreme flooding or drought but also frustration, fear and hopelessness.

Residents living along the India-Bangladesh border have a long history of being considered “foreigners” in India, and my doctoral research demonstrates their centrality in understanding the state today. India as a political and bureaucratic apparatus and as a social process is working to homogenise borderlands with a goal of shaping of national identity.

Assam is located at the border with Bangladesh, in India’s far east. Imranism9/Wikimedia, CC BY

The final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), created in 1951 and which registers all identified as “genuine citizens”, is expected to be published on August 31 for the state of Assam along the India-Bangladesh border. It will decide upon the future of millions of people in the state.

Why is this register crucial to understanding the way Indian politics are going today? What can it tell us about citizenship and identities, and how will it affect thousands of people in the South-Asian region?

Unwanted people

In the last four years the right-wing Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been particularly vocal about ridding the Indian territory of “Bangladeshi infiltrators”.

Assam became a starting point following prevalent “anti-infiltrator” sentiments in the state. Agitators demanded that the 1951 NRC – conducted for the entire country – be updated. It led the Indian Supreme Court’s order of 2014 in directing the government to update the NRC in the state of Assam.

The final draft of Assam’s updated NRC was approved on July 30 2018. It now classifies as an illegal immigrant and foreign national any individual who entered the state after March 24, 1971.

More than 31 million people in Assam have since had to prove their Indian citizenship. Last year, four million found out that they would no longer be considered Indian citizens. Closely following the draft publication, on August 29, 2018, the state of Assam was declared a “disturbed area”, with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), being extended for another six months.

It brought the entire state of Assam under the rule of the security forces, giving them special rights and immunity in carrying out operations. The whole state remains under AFSPA, making the ordinary people vulnerable to the power of the security forces.

At a rally in Kolkata on August 2, 2018, BJP activists shout slogans in support of the publication of the first complete draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and against what they say is illegal immigration of people from Bangladesh. Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

Sorting out human beings

On July 17 2019, the Indian Home Minister, Amit Shah, who belongs to the BJP, announced in the upper house of the Indian parliament that the government will identify illegal immigrants staying in any part of the country and deport them as per international law.

These pronouncements sound like the trumpet of Kafka’s The Departure, an indication from political leaders to the settlers in Assam, many of whom are now being recategorised from Indian citizens as “illegal immigrants”.

The NRC process and lists have been considered highly questionable and erroneous, which explains the delays in finalising and publishing the final draft.

Assam State National Register of Citizens officials check documents of Indian residents in the state of Assam on May 31, 2019. Biju Boro/AFP

Nearly four million people, constituting 12.5% of Assam’s population await the final verdict. Many will face an uncertain journey that may very well lead them to life-long exclusion and marginalisation.

As soon-to-be noncitizens, they will be removed from the voters list and expropriated. Many may end up in jails and detention centres that are being built in Assam, according to media reports.

Assam detention camps, The Print.

Instilling national fear

Right-wing politics around the globe have been shaping a political narrative of “national fear”, identifying names and faces of the unknown “infiltrator”. In this scenario, created to politically control immigration, “foreigners” and “nationals” are increasingly being determined by their bloodline.

Assam experienced migration from 19th century onwards from the neighbouring regions of Bengal, Jharkhand, East Bengal (which later became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh), Nepal, among others. Census data from 1901 till 1971 shows large movement of population from East Bengal to Assam, but a drop in population growth since the 1971 creation of Bangladesh.

A woman walks in the rain along the Indo-Bangladesh border, in the Dhubri district of Assam state, on July 30, 2009. The border, regarded as one of the world’s most fluid, was fenced with barbed wire and concrete by India in the early 2000s to combat the influx of migrant workers from Bangladesh. AFP

The creation of the India-East Pakistan border in 1947 transformed the easy movement of settlers into Bengal delta into international migration. Millions of Hindus moved from East Pakistan to India and Muslims moved from India to newly formed East Pakistan. In 1971 it took the name of Bangladesh. These movements took place in waves. The narrative of homecoming identified new settlers under many labels: political migrants, repatriates, refugees and displaced persons. It blurred the distinction between “political” and “economic” settlers.

As Willem Van Schendel points out, the border was instrumentalised in fuelling the anti-migrant settlement argument. It also nourished the Indian narrative of “infiltration”. The argument gained traction when it was discovered that many recent immigrants from Bangladesh were Muslims. It empowered the claim of Hindutva politics that such movement was a threat to Hindu India as it pegged Bangladeshi infiltration as a national issue.

Since the early 1990s, such a framing has led to many Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants in the Delhi region being rounded up on the suspicion of being Bangladeshis. Many were illegally deported to Bangladesh or simply held under duress by Delhi police.

The Bangladeshi “infiltration” and Assam

As Professor Debarshi Das has observed in his 2019 book, The Saga of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC), (People’s Study Circle, Kolkata):

Fear of outsiders has deep roots in the history of immigration into the state and the politics of son of the soil, which has had a sterling career in the state.

Indeed the Assam Movement, which took place between 1979 and 1985, was an agitation by the indigenous Assamese against large-scale migration of Bengali-speaking population from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The movement opened the Pandora’s box of Indian citizenship.

Since the late 1980s, certain persons who had voter status in Assam were recategorised as undocumented immigrants by the Foreigners Tribunals established in the state and reclassified as “doubtful” (D) category of voters.

The art of inventing foreigners

This political discourse shaped the Indian national identity through amendments to India’s Citizenship law since 1986.

The large numbers of people who do not figure on the NRC list today are a consequence of “foreigner-making”. The NRC methodology indeed relies on documentary proof. But most of the targeted population lack official records or paperwork to back their claims. Many observers also denounced the register as flawed with bias against the poorest segment of the population. It includes landless nomadic tribes, Bengali-speaking Hindu and Muslim migrants and Assamese Muslims.

Trends indicate that the final list will see large numbers of people being excluded from Indian citizenship. This number is likely to include many genuine citizens, both Hindus and Muslims, who have been in Assam since before March 24, 1971.

Assam is made of a very diverse population both on ethnical and religious grounds. Here Indian Assamese women take shelter after floods in Assam this year. David Talukdar/AFP

Fear, anxiety, suicides and violence

The anxiety surrounding this issue is so huge that more than 51 cases of suicide have already been reported.

In some areas, such as the Morigaon district of Assam, Bengali-speaking Muslims refused to vacate their homes despite the heavy floods that devasted their villages. To them, physical occupation is their only way to support their claims to citizenship.

Whether or not the NRC achieves its aim of correctly identifying and segregating those who arrived in Assam after March 24, 1971, it will serve the purpose of the Hindu nativist agenda by segregating “outsiders” in India from indigenous Assamese people.

The new regime of legal and street-level scrutiny of citizens across the country has also being shaped with the enactment of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Amendment Order, 2019, an institution – so far – unique to Assam (100 Foreigners Tribunals exist across the state). It empowers all state agents and district magistrates to set up tribunals for identifying a “foreigner” living in India “illegally”. The practice could extend to other states.

Migrants (particularly Muslims) from rural areas of West Bengal and the north-eastern states are most likely to bear the brunt of this nation-wide hunt for “foreigners”. Targeted residents are likely to live in constant fear of being suspected as India’s “Others” in what seems to be increasingly the emerging of a police state.

Suffering, statelessness and intolerance

The NRC is likely to neither stop the low-intensity transnational flow of undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, nor reduce the demand of their labour in India’s growing urban-construction industry. As migration patterns globally demonstrate, despite the growth of barriers, walls and enhanced border surveillance regimes, the continuous deaths due to drowning of boats in the Mediterranean and the large-scale apprehensions at the US-Mexico border have not stopped people from migrating.

At the very least, the NRC process is likely to cause large-scale and long-term human suffering materialising a culture of statelessness. It will alter the fabric of national society in India, fostering a regime of mutual suspicion, intolerance and the hardening of social and cultural boundaries between Indian citizens. It will make Indian citizenship far less stable as a cultural experience. India in trumpeting the collective fear of “foreigners” inside its borders, follows the footsteps of the populist turn globally, with majoritarianism fuelling nativism, to the exclusion and marginalisation of “Others”, who are invariably the minorities and the migrants, rescripting the relationship between population and territory.