This is a second response from Sanghamitra Misra, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Delhi to Tanweer Fazal’s article titled “NRC: Tested frequently since Partition, the Indian theory of citizenship has faltered once again”, published on on August 25. Her original letter, and Fazal’s response to it, can be seen here (“‘Misleading and factually incorrect’: A response to an article linking NRC to Assamese chauvinism”)

NRC debate

My response to Fazal’s initial piece merely pointed out factual errors and misleading arguments and did not articulate a position on the NRC ( inaccurately characterised my piece as a “counter-view” on the NRC). Fazal begins his reply to my response by obfuscating issues through making unwarranted assumptions about me and my position. He says that my position “approximates” that of Sarbananda Sonowal and is one that wishes to “provide proof of the non-chauvinistic character of the Assam movement”. I had said nothing in my response that could be construed as such. What I did raise were the following issues, to which Fazal has either refused to give an answer or only indulged in further obfuscation.

1. I had used the word chauvinistic only to refute Fazal’s original claim that “unmarked citizenship” was breached in the 1980s, when “Assamese chauvinism” had “compelled the Indian state” to introduce Assam-specific clauses in the Citizenship Act, and “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” (end of paragraph three of Fazal’s original article).

In my reply I had a) asked for evidence for how the Assam movement had “compelled” the Indian state on the issue of “unmarked citizenship” and b) had shown clearly that contrary to Fazal’s contention, the Assam-specific clauses (6A) referred to entry from Bangladesh and had nothing to do with birth. This can be easily verified by looking at the said Citizenship Act or 1955 (and its amendments). I also argued that far from being chauvinistic, the Assam-specific clause (6A) of the Act fixes the cut-off date for entry at 1971, whereas the rest of the country has it at 1948, abiding by Article 6 of the Constitution.

This is why the constitutionality of 6A of the Citizenship Act has been referred to a Constitutional Bench. Fazal has given no adequate response to either issue. He writes, merely repeating his original contention, once again without providing any proof, and contrary to the Act referred to above, that “The 1971 cut-off date forecloses the option of acquiring citizenship by birth (and all other options as well) in Assam, unlike in the rest of the country.”

2. Fazal’s position on nationalism is conservative and hegemonic. To assume, as he does, that there was an Assamese “pluralist vision” into which various communities were absorbed, and that is now in danger, is a deeply Assamese nationalistic position that I, as much of extant scholarship, have discussed and critiqued. In this context, regarding the distinction between Assamese and “tribals”, I used the word “often”, which Fazal seems to have missed.

At any rate his causal use of the word “tribe” reveals his unfamiliarity with the debates on the history of the tribe, its roots in the colonial hill-plain binary discourse and continuities of the same in northeastern India (Sanjib Baruah’s “Territoriality, Indigeneity and Rights in the North-east India” in the Economic and Political Weekly explores some of these issues). This is not the place to elaborate on these perspectives. Suffice to say that in Assam, various communities have used it for the reinvention of their collective self and for state benefits, and disregarded it at as will at various points in the history of the colonial and postcolonial state.

Illustrative of this is the history of the Ahoms, Sonowals, Kacharis, Misings, and Bodos – these communities have returned themselves in history as distinct “tribes”, “Assamese”, and now more recently as “OBCs”. Fazal’s own reference to the Monirul Hussain’s article to support his argument, in fact, if read, proves my point.

3. In his article, Fazal had argued that “the Assamese intellectuals conveniently overlook the long history of migration of East Bengalis into Assam”. I pointed out that not only have the said Assamese intellectuals produced original scholarly work on this very subject, but Fazal could have avoided embarrassing factual errors such as the dating of the migrations, if he had been aware of their work.

Rather than address this criticism, Fazal brings in Sylhet and obfuscates. The story of Sylhet’s incorporation into Assam is an important part of the history of the Bengali community in the region, but to find parallels between it and the migration of cultivators from Mymensingh into the Brahmaputra valley as Fazal does is a puerile and fallacious argument. From 1874 until 1947, when Sylhet was “returned” to Bengal, Sylhet’s intelligentsia and educated elite articulated a politics of linguistic identity that was shaped considerably by their dominant position in the realms of politics, administration, and education in Assam. This position was articulated in resistance from within sections of these elites to the inclusion of Sylhet within Assam which was perceived as a more backward province.

The Mymensinghias, on the other hand, were poor, landless peasants, who could scarce protect their cultural identity and language. Scholars (Amalendu Guha included) in fact have perceived a consensus among Assamese nationalists regarding the status of the Eastern Bengal migrant that, as long as there was evidence of attempts by the migrants to adopt the Assamese language and culture, he was to be allowed to hold and occupy land without any opposition. Further, as Guha points out (Planter Raj: p.170), the political causes of the Mymensinghias received little support during the colonial period from either the Assamese Muslims or the Bengalis of Sylhet, with both groups seeking to preserve their “distinct” cultures. Fazal’s use of the term “Bengali” to suggest a single political collective of all Bengali speaking communities is thus both careless and incorrect.

4. Fazal accepts his omission of listing the acceptable documents for the NRC, but tries to minimize its importance for his “central argument”. It remains unclear how such an omission in the context about the stringency of the NRC can be minimised.

5. When confronted with data that makes his generalizations regarding the different receptions of the NRC, unacceptable, Fazal points to “anecdotal evidence” (I would have thought this is an oxymoron, but perhaps this is what drives social science these days). And then argues that complete data is not yet available. It remains unclear to me how generalizations on the basis of “anecdotal evidence’ can be inferred from the absence of complete data when the existing (partial) data refutes these very generalisations.

6. Finally, Fazal in his original piece used the category, “doubtful citizens”. In the interest of factual accuracy I had pointed out that there was no such category. In his reply Fazal writes, “Certainly there is no category called doubtful citizens, but isn’t Misra aware of a category called D-voters”. If he was so certain, why did Fazal initially make the mistake of referring to a non-existent category (“doubtful citizen”), and how does pointing to the existence of D-voters absolve the previous error? – Sanghamitra Misra

Tanweer Fazal’s response

Sanghamitra Misra refuses to see evidence when it stares at her in the face, so at the cost of repeating myself, let me reiterate my rebuttals to her.

1. Since Misra’s understanding of the Citizenship Act and the debates on citizenship is patently limited, let me elaborate here for her benefit in clear and simple words. The Constituent Assembly saw vigorous debates over the nature of citizenship, and the demands from many conservative sections that Hindus and Sikhs living anywhere in the world be granted automatic citizenship were rebuffed. The principle of jus solis (right of soil) won over jus sanguinis (right of blood). In essence, as it was embodied in the the Citizenship Act 1955, anyone born in India was deemed to be an Indian citizen, irrespective of who she was born to.

Even so, this non-exclusivist and unmarked character of citizenship was breached by the introduction of evacuee property, as I wrote in the original piece. The second occasion when this idea of citizenship was strained was when in the aftermath of the Assam Accord, birth by itself ceased to be a guarantor of citizenship. The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 will wreck it further.

Misra would have the readers believe that 6A by marking the cut off date at 1971 (actually it is 1966), “far from being chauvinstic” is somehow far more open than Article 6, which fixes it at 1948. Either she is ignorant, or deliberately hides the fact that 6A makes citizenship contingent on the condition that one of the parent’s must be an Indian citizen, and as amended in 2003, further required that the other parent must not be an illegal migrant. It would be better if Misra spends some time reading 6A sans prejudice in order to understand how it constitutes a turn to citizenship defined by ethnic markers. The question of birth – which Misra finds missing in 6A, and innocently wonders what the fuss is about – is quite the moot point. Surely, it is not so difficult to grasp this exceptionalism carved out for Assam where jus solis was allowed to pave the way for jus sanguinis under the pressure of a chauvinst movement? Or is it?

2. Misra’s understanding of my position on nationalism as “conservative and hegemonic” results from her inability to distinguish between pluralism and absorption. In Misra’s mind, Assam is a haven of fluid and multilayered identities – one cannot speak of “Bengalis” (without first qualifying the difference between the elite Sylheti and the poor landless Mymensenghis who she deigns to empathise with in her latest missive), or for that matter “tribals” (without first elaborating the long history of colonial construction of hill-plain binary because that would be too casual). Tribals are only “often” Assamese but not quite.

On this, let me quote here an author she is likely to defer to:

“[W]ith the majority of these tribes, this sense of solidarity with the Assamese wore off once the Assam Accord was signed. They viewed the Accord as a move aimed at protecting the identity only of the Assamese-speaking people, while totally ignoring and overlooking the grave dangers that were being posed to tribal identity. When doubts were raised on the question of providing constitutional safeguards for the Assamese people, it became clear that the state’s major tribal populations were not willing to be identified as Assamese. The fact however was not accepted by the Assamese intelligentsia which continued to harp on the tribal non-tribal synthesis in Assamese society.” (Immigration and Identity Transformation in Assam.” 

– Udayon Misra, May 22-28, 1999, EPW.

But my question is this: Why does Misra hide behind a miasma of supposedly elastic, swirling identities to deflect attention from the process of othering which has been underway for long and receives legal sanction in the NRC? Why does she refuse to engage with the question of violence unleashed by the Assam movement on all those it percieved as non-Assamese? As Amalendu Guha writes:

“As the Asamiya middle class emerged stronger and more ambitious than ever after Sylhet was shaken off its back, its little nationalism started degenerarting into chauvinism and minority-baiting. RP Vaghaivalla, as Census Superintendent for Assam in 1951, did not fail to take note of this new trend of “aggressive linguistic nationalism”. Riots directed against non-Asamiyas in 1948, 1950, 1960, 1968, 1972 and 1980 in the Brahmaputra Valley bear him out. Largescale genocides, giving expression to anti-Bengali hatred in particular, began to take place from 1960 onward.”

Little Nationalism turned Chauvinist: Assam’s Anti-Foreigner Upsurge, 1979-80, October 1980, EPW.

3, Misra is very upset that I mentioned Sylhet. I do not know why she would prefer this information not to be used in the context of history of Bengalis in Assam. Her insistence on migration of Bengali peasants being strictly a turn of the 20th century phenomena actually overlooks local and little histories being recorded by communities and their organisations, which stretches the migration farther back. But these are not cited by mainstream intellectuals so remain beyond the pale of respectable History writing. Moreover, Census figures from 1971 clearly show that population of Assam has been declining – why then are Assamese secular intellectuals raising the hype and hysteria about Assam being overrun by illegal migrants.

4. Misra can flog the list of documents all she wants but it cannot take away from the fact that there is a very clear hierarchy of documents, and it is the legacy data comprising 1951 NRC and electoral rolls prior to 1971 which were preferred by the NRC officials. As I mentioned in my reply earlier, there are more documents (but all prior to 1971) that were considered. Interestingly, while Misra was taking comfort in the fact that there were 14 documents that could be cited, the NRC itself sought to remove 5 of them in the revision process thus exposing its prejudicial character.

5. Perhaps Misra has failed to note the link to news reports which point to the differential reception of the NRC in the two valleys. Surely, it is still accepted in the discipline she has been trained in to refer to news reports. Or should we wait for these news reports to reach state archives before they can be raised to the status of ‘source’? Besides, I am frankly perplexed at her contemptuous dismissal of the anecdotal as a legtimate methodological device in favour of the official archive.

And when I said that complete data is not yet available, I was merely being polite not wishing to point out that Professor Udayon Misra (the original author I had critiqued) was citing “data” that the NRC agency had not yet officially released. Sanghamitra Misra leaves me with no choice to but to say that (partial) data is being leaked selectively to state aligned intellectuals to further a narrative.

6. I have not used “doubtful citizen” in error, but quite deliberately to signal the stripping away of citizenship rights of thousands of people in Assam. Till October 2016, 621,688 people were either branded as D-voters or reference cases were registered resulting in the suspension of their civil and political rights. I hope that Misra will at least understand how disenfranchisement can cause one’s citizenship to be in doubt.

Misra charges that she has so far not spelled out her position on the NRC, but her repeated attempts at raising so-called factual questions and petulant hairsplitting over nomenculature – ignoring the real possibility of a mind-boggling 40 lakh people being rendered stateless – is ample and sad proof of where she stands. But as I said, Misra is wont to blithely ignore evidence. – Tanweer Fazal

Editor’s note: Correspondence on this piece is now closed.