On October 8, the Supreme Court sent a notice to the Centre and the Election Commission on a plea seeking a National Register of Citizens for Tripura. The petition was filed by the Tripura People’s Front and others who want a counting exercise like Assam’s, which is currently updating its 1951 National Register of Citizens. It is an exercise whose stated aim is to separate genuine citizens in the state from undocumented migrants – “illegal immigrants” in bureaucratic vocabulary.

The 200-page petition covers familiar ground: years of illegal “influx” from across the border with Bangladesh has apparently reduced Tripura’s tribal inhabitants to a minority, resulting in land alienation, loss of livelihood and the threat of cultural annihilation. “Illegal immigration” is as big a problem in Tripura as in Assam, the petitioners argue. The steady flow of immigrants from Bangladesh, they say, is no less than an “external aggression”, which the state is duty bound to protect its citizens from.

The petitioners were taking a cue from the Supreme Court in their language and demand. In Sarbananda Sonowal versus Union of India and Another, 2005, where the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act was struck down, the Supreme Court had called migration from Bangladesh “external aggression”. The Act relaxed the rules for citizenship in Assam, the court had declared, whereas migrants entering the state should be subject to the same rules as the rest of the country.

According to Indian nationality laws, those who migrated from territories that became Pakistan and East Pakistan would be considered citizens if they entered India before July 19, 1948. The petitioners from Tripura demand precisely that: a National Register of Citizens where the cut-off date for migrants eligible for citizenship would be 1948. The Supreme Court notice to the Centre gives weight to demands that disregard decades of history.

Border states

As border states, both Assam and Tripura went through similar post-Partition convulsions. The population exchange that took place in a few months in other parts of the country was drawn out over several years in these areas.

First, communal riots in the years after Partition led to continuing waves of migration. In 1950 alone, by some estimates, about one million people – Hindus from East Bengal or East Pakistan, as it came to be known, and Muslims from India – crossed the border. It prompted the April 1950 Nehru-Liaquat pact (named after Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his Pakistani counterpart Liaquat Ali Khan), which was meant to ensure the rights of minorities in the two countries, especially riot-hit migrants from East Bengal, West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. It assured them freedom of movement, protection in transit and full citizenship rights. The pact stated that if such migrants returned to their original homes by December 31, 1950, their lands and other immoveable property would be returned to them. It effectively pushed back the 1948 cut-off in these areas to 1950, researchers have noted.

The first Census was not conducted in India until 1951. That same year, Assam got its first National Register of Citizens, a roster of Indians in the state, based on the Census. Tripura, a princely state that merged into the Indian Union in October 1949, did not. It would be accorded Union Territory status in 1956 and then gain full statehood in 1972.

But migration would continue over the next two decades, especially after 1965, when atrocities against Hindu minorities in East Pakistan intensified. The 1971 war, in which East Pakistan became Bangladesh, sent a fresh flood of refugees across the border.

Even Assam’s updated register, a contentious document that promises to encode xenophobic ideas of citizenship, will take into account some of the population flows that occurred post-Independence. The exercise is governed by the Assam Accord of 1985, which brought to an end six years of an anti-foreigners agitation led by the All Assam Students’ Union and other regional groups.

Under the terms of the accord, those who could prove that they or their ancestors entered the country before 1966 would be considered Indian citizens. Those who could prove entry between 1966 and 1971 would be considered foreigners but would be allowed to stay in the country, only losing their voting rights for 10 years. Those who could not prove that they or their ancestors entered before midnight on March 24, 1971, the start of the Bangladesh War, would be foreigners set to lose all rights of citizenship. The aim of the accord was to detect and deport such individuals.

The Tripura petitioners make no allowances for the post-Partition upheavals when they ask for a 1948 cut-off date. As they list out reasons for the “influx” from Bangladesh, economic migration is recognised but not the bloodshed that created refugees over the decades.

Border states Assam and Tripura went through similar post-Partition convulsions. (Credit: AFP)

Tripuris and Bengalis

One of the central preoccupations of the petition is the meaning of terms such as “indigenous” and “original inhabitants”, and the rights that should accrue to people described as such. Like Assam, Tripura has had a long history of friction between tribal inhabitants of the state and Bengalis who made it their home. The demand for Twipraland, an ethnic homeland for the Tripuri people that was drained of other communities, spurred an insurgency that lasted decades.

In 1979, these agitations led to the creation of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council, later granted powers under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The movement for self-determination continued and armed hostilities have died out only over the last decade. But Twipraland, a separate state consisting of the council areas, which covers roughly two-thirds of present-day Tripura, still survives as a political demand.

In the mythology of this movement, Bengalis were cast as outsiders, carriers of a colonising culture that would stamp out the tribal language, Kokborok, and the tribal way of life. Yet, the old Tripuri kingdom of the Manikya dynasty had long and complex ties with Bengal.

Once, the kingdom consisted of hill tracts and large areas of the Bengal plains. By the 19th century, however, the kingdom had been reduced to “Hill Tippera”, as it was called by the British, and the zamindari of Chakla Hoshnabad. At Partition, the zamindari became part of East Pakistan and Hill Tippera, still under the Manikyas, acceded to India.

Royal patronage for Bengali literature dates back centuries, and Bengali was made the official language of the kingdom towards the end of the 17th century. This was also the time that Manikya rulers began settling Bengali cultivators within their kingdom, a practice that intensified after the kingdom came into contact with the British administration. Apart from encouraging cultivators, land was also parcelled out to rich Bengalis.

A dangerous game

With accession, Tripura became a wedge of land with porous borders, surrounded by Bangladesh on three sides. The tribal population made up 52.9% of the princely state in 1901 and dropped to 37.2% in 1951. In 1971, Scheduled Tribes accounted for 28.9% of the population. Since then, however, the figure has stabilised, even increased slightly. In 1991, tribes accounted for 30.9% of the population and in 2011, 31.8%.

There is little in the demographic figures to suggest that Bangladeshis continued to flow into tribal lands in large numbers after 1971. The demand for a National Register of Citizens seems largely rooted in tribal insecurities about land, identity and livelihood. These may be valid concerns, but their solution lies in better political representation and economic measures, not bureaucratic exercises that could end up destabilising thousands.

In Assam, the counting exercise has been a story of bureaucratic error and whimsy. At present, it threatens to strip 40 lakh people of the basic rights of citizenship. It has also provided fodder for right-wing bigotry outside the North East – Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, for instance, is fond of promising that “infiltrators” would be ejected from all parts of the country. With the Supreme Court’s notice to the Centre, a similar exercise in Tripura becomes a real possibility. It is not one of the court’s finer moments.