The Big Story: Counting citizens
Over 40 lakh people have been left out of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens in Assam, released this morning. The register, a list of all Indian citizens in Assam, is being updated for the first time since 1951, when Partition had triggered vast population exchanges across the Indo-Bangladesh border. It is a fraught exercise, whose stated aim is to identify and root out “illegal migrants” in the state. The terms of inclusion were laid down by the Assam Accord of 1985, the culmination of a six-year-long anti-foreigners’ agitation which also spawned militancy in the state. Under these terms, anyone who cannot prove that they or their ancestors entered the country before midnight on March 24, 1971 – the eve of the Bangladesh War – will be declared a foreigner. The verification process, which started three years ago, has been plagued with controversy, particularly allegations of bias against certain communities. As thousands of individuals now hope to be certified as Indian citizens and the government tries to allay fears in a state on edge, the tremendous significance of the exercise is revealed. The National Register of Citizens touches on old, and potentially explosive, questions about identity.
In Assam, it is tangled up with a state’s self-fashioning as an ethnic homeland for the “sons of the soil”, with a search for the true, the “original” inhabitants of the region. The state has seen waves of migration since the 19th century, and definitions of indigeneity inevitably reach far back into history, prehistory and myth. The competing ethnic nationalisms of Assam, which gave rise to armed insurgencies, have always been defined by fears about “demographic change”and indigenous homelands being “swamped” by outsiders. Over the last four decades, they have triggered paroxysms of violence, often against Bengali Muslims, from the Nellie massacre of 1983 to the Kokrajhar killings of 2012. They have also become the mainstay of politics in the state, where each election sees an escalation in the rhetoric against “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” infiltrating voter rolls, changing electoral outcomes and occupying precious land.
In the larger national imaginary, the exercise taps into unresolved questions of Partition and reveals who the state considers fit for citizenship. The regional agitations may have been directed at all outsiders, whether Hindu or Muslim, but so far as the Centre is concerned, the identification and deportation of foreigners has always had communal undertones. For decades, the Indian state has made a distinction between Hindu “refugees” fleeing persecution in neighbouring countries and Muslim “infiltrators” infecting the body politic. These informal distinctions were codified in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which seeks to make citizenship easier for non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Assam has seen protests against the bill as it undermines the terms of the 1985 accord. But the counting exercise has consistently been accused of being skewed against Bengali Muslims, branded as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants because of their religious and linguistic identity. Over the last year, the state’s Muslim minorities have increasingly feared exclusion as the terms of the exercise seemed to change and new rules were introduced.
The government has given assurances that no one will lose their rights and privileges after the publication of the draft list, neither will they be sent to detention camps. But as the draft becomes a final list, certain difficult questions will have to be confronted. What is to become of those who are unable to prove citizenship even before the Foreigners’ Tribunals and are therefore left stateless? In the absence of a repatriation treaty with Bangladesh, will they be deported or be allowed to remain in the country, shorn of the rights and privileges that the government assures them now? And how does the government plan to bridge the social fissures that this exercise widened once again?
The Big Scroll
Read Scroll.in’s reportage and commentary on the citizenship tangle in Assam here.
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