In the history of the formation of nation states in the Indian subcontinent, two events, equally brutal to those affected, stand out. Hundreds of thousands of deaths, displacements, shattered homes, broken families and scarred memories bind the two together. There are, however, more connecting dots. In 1947, it was on grounds of commonality of faith that the foundation of Pakistani nationhood was laid. The birth of Bangladesh in 1971 mimicked the European model of a state ensconced in linguistic nationalism. In both the cases, haphazardly drawn cultural and political boundaries, far from offering solutions to the prevailing afflictions, exacerbated them multifold. The question was about the models of citizenship. Would nationality or cultural markers have a bearing on citizenship? Or would it be extended to all residents irrespective of their beliefs, origins and tongues? Where nationality was conflated with citizenship, as in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the exclusion of minority groups was the imminent and intended outcome.

These were also testing times for the Indian theory of citizenship. Partition-induced violence and patterns of migration had unforeseen fallouts. Diversity being the leitmotif of Indian identity, citizenship had to be unencumbered of ethnicity or claims of indigeneity – but then majoritarian impulses could not be expelled altogether. The rules were clear, and apparently non-partisan. Immigrants who came to India prior to the promulgation of the Constitution on January 26, 1950, were all welcome with open arms. But the same generosity did not apply to those who had migrated to Pakistan post-March 1947, albeit even briefly, and wished to return to their homeland. Their citizenship stood ceased and its restoration impeded by a regime of sinister rules such as the permit system and declaration of evacuee property. Citizenship and immigration rules enacted during those tumultuous times were carefully crafted to dissuade Muslim returnees from Pakistan even as it facilitated the arrival of Hindu and Sikh migrants to India. Triumphalism prevailed but in a code that revealed itself only to those who were to bear it.

Having settled with its Partition woes, India reverted to its non-denominational commitments. The Indian Citizenship Act, 1955, conferred citizenship on the basis of birth (to everyone born between 1950 to 1987, and thereafter to anyone born to Indian citizens), descent (born to Indian citizens outside India), naturalisation (foreigners who have lived in India for 12 years), and registration (valid immigrants with a continuous stay of seven years). This idea of citizenship was again put to test in 1971, during the Bangladesh war of independence – and again it faltered. Refugee inflows from the erstwhile East Pakistan rang alarm bells and propelled nativist mobilisations. Majoritarian nationalists were quick to add the property of religion in according citizenship. No wonder, India is now in the midst of making amendments to its citizenship laws to accommodate “persecuted Hindus and others” and to expel “infiltrating Muslims”. The prevailing consensus over unmarked citizenship – one that is not conditioned by religion, language or ethnicity – was breached in the mid-’80s when Assamese chauvinism compelled the Indian state to introduce special clauses in the Citizenship Act that applied exclusively to Assam. Thus, rather than 1987, the cut-off for eligibility for citizenship in Assam became 1971, and the option of acquiring citizenship through birth, registration or naturalisation virtually ceased for the immigrants arriving after the cut-off date. Other provisions in the state included an Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act to detect illegal migrants, the institution of foreigners’ tribunals, detention camps, categorisation as doubtful citizens and the preparation of a National Register of Citizens.

Reactions to NRC

The final draft of the National Register of Citizens has come nearly 50 years since the cut-off year of 1971 and more than three decades since the Assam Accord, which had compelled the Centre to amend the terms for citizenship in the state.

The NRC’s exclusion of nearly 40 lakh residents has elicited varied reactions. For the leadership of the All Assam Students Union, which spearheaded the anti-foreigners agitation between 1979 and 1985 , which led to the Assam Accord, it is a day of reckoning, as it stands vindicated on what it terms “illegal” immigration into Assam. The BJP has reiterated its denunciation of those it terms “Bangladeshi infiltrators” – Muslim Bengalis is what it means. The Trinamool Congress has termed the NRC an anti-Bengali measure, which could trigger massive disruptions and violence. In all of this, the Congress appeared most puzzled – unwilling to relinquish its claims over the NRC, while picking loopholes in the procedure. The two regions of Assam – the Brahmaputra Valley, where most of its Assamese speaking populations live, and the Barak Valley, historically the abode of its Bengalis – were a study in contrast. One electrified with jubilation, the other marked by stoic silence.

The NRC has left more than one tenth of Assam’s current population in a quandary: Should they hope for a revision or is it a dead-end already? Thanks to some glaring omissions – the relatives of former President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed or those who have proven their nationalist credentials by serving in the Army such as Mohammad Azmal Hoque – their hopes still float. At least this is what some Assamese intellectuals would have them believe.

Regardless of the prospect of millions of people being rendered stateless, applause for the exercise has come from several quarters. Most striking has been the praise from the Assamese left and secular intelligentsia. For instance, his concern for stateless people notwithstanding, Sanjeeb Baruah commended the NRC team for “successfully and competently” completing a difficult task. Udayon Misra and Hiren Gohain, torchbearers of the intellectual left in Assam, minced no words in joining the chorus of Assamese chauvinism in citing the purported “demographic change” due to relentless infiltration resulting in encroachments over the rights of the indigenes. They argue that the glass should be viewed as half full rather than half empty, for hasn’t the NRC included more Bengalis and Muslims than it has left out? Gohain also made the curious claim that the NRC was in fact more a desire of Assam’s Muslims than that of the Assam movement. Likewise, Misra urges us to believe that even the All Assam Students Union is upset about the exclusion of genuine Bengali speaking citizens of the state.

The Bangladeshi bogey

At the centre of the storm is the term “Bangladeshi”, an appellation that signifies multiple connotations. Purely legally, it applies to those who, irrespective of their persuasion, arrived in the state, after March 25, 1971, and have continued to stay on. It is, however, rarely applied with such accuracy. When Misra refers to the declining proportion of the Assamese speakers in the state vis-à-vis the Bengali speakers, it acquires an expansive character. In everyday parlance, the term is reserved for the Muslim, usually a Bengali speaking one. A more derogatory reference is the term “Miya”.

If there ever was an illustration of how cultural stereotypes inhere in the instruments of the state, it is the NRC. An arbitrarily created original inhabitant category, based on ethnic differentiation, exempted those whom it deemed indigenous from the rigorous documentation process to prove their legacy. The rest had to prove the genuineness of the claims of their legacy through an ancestor whose name figured either in the 1951 NRC, or in the electoral rolls up till March 24, 1971. The documents deemed valid are more arbitrary still. Land records apply only to the landed, and electoral rolls to those who had reached the age of 21 on the deadline date, conditioned of course by whether the person was politically so conscious to have immediately enlisted herself, and whether the electoral rolls were revised on time. For the original inhabitants – a euphemism for those bearing Assamese or tribal surnames – a mere certification from the Panchayat Samiti was passable. On the other hand, for the so-called non-original inhabitants, even a valid family tree could run them into trouble if other claimants to the same legacy contradicted it. There are innumerable anomalies in the NRC process; some of them may get corrected in due course. Beyond these merely procedural issues is the underlying predisposition regarding who could be labeled a foreigner, a migrant, a Bangladeshi, and an illegitimate resident. The outcome then is pre-scripted.

Amidst the pandemonium of an impending demographic change, it is history as much as statistics that is given a short shrift. In repeated applause for the NRC, the Assamese intellectuals conveniently overlook the long history of migration of East Bengalis into Assam. The earliest one recorded is during the mid-19th century, when, facilitated by the colonial state and encouraged by Assamese landlords, they moved into the state. These were largely Muslims, most of whom gradually adopted the na-Assamiya identity. Little did it help them in dodging targeted violence, whether in Nellie or in the Bodo areas. The second major wave of Bengali immigration was Partition-induced, when refugees from East Pakistan were settled in the state. Unlike the earlier two phases, the 1971 refugee crisis did little to alter Assam’s ethnic or religious profile, and the decennial Census bears this out. Yet the mortal fear of the Bangladeshi dictates the public discourse in Assam.

Much to our relief, and unlike many predictions, the publication of the NRC draft has not triggered violence. It only suggests that to an extent, majoritarian anger appears satiated. For so far, in the history of collective violence of the state, immigrants have been at the receiving end. However, there is an everyday fear of entitlements being robbed, livelihoods being snatched, families being torn apart. Let us hope that chauvinist narratives and blood and belonging privileges do not colour the pluralist vision in the Indian idea of citizenship.

Tanweer Fazal is the author of Nation States and Minority Rights in India. He teaches Sociology at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University.