The future of over 19 lakh people in Assam has been rendered uncertain with the publication of the final National Register of Citizens on August 31. This fraught bureaucratic exercise has ironically delegitimised political rights of individuals by invoking the discourse on citizenship. The NRC has a dual purpose: the purported aim is to identify Indian citizens, and to detect illegal migrants and hence, define non-citizens in a border state.

The NRC is a legacy of Assamese subnationalism: the sons-of-the soil movement of the late 1970s, galvanised to determine the “rightful” claimants to land, natural resources and cultural capital. The resultant Assam Accord of 1985 sought to detect foreigners who had come to the state on or after March 24,1971, to have their names deleted from electoral rolls and deported in accordance with law.

Official rhetoric notwithstanding, deporting so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ would require an agreement with Bangladesh. But this does not exist at the moment and is highly unlikely to materialise in the future. Since India cannot offer documentary proof to establish the nationality of these individuals, Bangladesh has no reason to accept anyone who is deported after the NRC exercise. Given this political reality, why is the Bharatiya Janata Party so shrill about detecting and deporting illegal immigrants?

The answer, perhaps, is in the third D – deleting the names of such individuals from the electoral rolls. The anti-foreigners movement between 1979-’85 in Assam was triggered by allegations that the names of thousands of illegal immigrants had been found in the electoral lists for one parliamentary constituency. Hence, the NRC seeks to create the non-citizen by primarily stripping alleged aliens of their voting rights.

Disenfranchisement is already a reality in Assam in the form of the “D” voter or doubtful voter category. These are individuals who are standing trial in foreigners tribunals or who have been declared foreigners by the tribunals. They are not allowed to vote and have not been included in the NRC.

But not all suspected foreigners are equal in the eyes of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, even though both Bengali Hindus and Muslims have been at the receiving end of this process. In the party’s view, Bengali Hindus are refugees fleeing persecution in Bangladesh and must be accommodated in India, while the Bengali Muslim are “infiltrators” and “termites” that need to be expelled. Already, this formulation has helped the party consolidate Hindu votes across India. Its electoral project would be further aided by the disenfranchisement of Bengali Muslims in Assam.

A man whose names has been left out in the National Register of Citizens draft stands in a queue to collect forms to file an appeal in Guwahati in August, 2018. Credit: Biji Boro/AFP

For this, however, the NRC is not enough. Anecdotal evidence suggests a large number of people of Bengali origin – both Hindu and Muslim – have been excluded from the final NRC. In fact, stung by the exclusion of Bengali Hindus, BJP has criticised the final NRC.

To create a distinction between Hindus and Muslims left out of the NRC, the BJP government at the Centre wants to amend India’s citizenship law, which would enable citizenship for Hindu migrants while discriminating against Muslims.

Human rights in a world of nation states

In addition to the communal politics now ensnaring Assam’s foreigner detection process, the citizens register also reflects the larger concerns around the limits inherent in the idea of the modern nation-state. In the world system dominated by nation-states, citizenship has come to encompass other social identities like class, gender and race, and has become politically more salient. Rights and entitlements, including human rights, emanate from one’s citizenship status in a country.

In her work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, strongly indicts the nebulous concept of human rights. Arendt, who was deprived of her citizenship in Nazi Germany, argues that the declaration of inalienable Rights of Man had tenuous origins even as it marked a new phase of human history. In this new secularised idea of a society, individual rights were not drawn from traditional sources of legitimacy like religion but from Man himself, by virtue of being born human. Man, and hence by implication people, was the source of a sovereign polity and rights accorded within it. Thus, human rights became inextricably linked to the individual whose existence is folded into the larger canvas of a people or a nation.

Arendt, who had experienced statelessness, pointed out the contradiction in the concept of human rights: these could only be realised only within a framework of citizenship and nation-states. Despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, in her experience as well as that of millions of persecuted individuals, it was membership of a nation-state that gave humans the “right to have rights”. Since human rights are deeply imbricated in the idea of citizenship, the loss of citizenship rights may be seen as equivalent to losing human rights, she contended.

It is not surprising then that the Indian state machinery led by a majoritarian government is driving this exercise to deprive minorities of their right to have rights. Declaring someone an alien allows the state to relegate her to becoming permanently stateless, a move that is entirely compatible with the current regime’s ideological stand on religious minorities. This is particularly convenient since no arrangements exist to expel people declared aliens under the NRC from of the country.

In Assam, the politics of citizenship, which is a toxic combination of Assamese sub-nationalism and Hindutva majoritarianism, brings to the fore how the limits on human rights put by modern nation-states and ideas of citizenship may be weaponised. More than half a century ago, Arendt said of stateless people: “Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them”. This, she argued, could easily precipitate into a state of complete “rightlessness”, a condition ultimately resulting in dehumanisation.

Arendt gave us a sobering lesson – that we cannot assume human rights as a universal concept, unmoored from our membership of the all-powerful nation state. The unfolding tragedy in Assam amply proves that.

The writer is an Assistant Professor at FLAME University in Pune.