In 2012, while researching fishers’ rights to the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary on the eastern coast of Odisha, I stumbled upon an unexpected conflict. Odiya fishers were accusing long-settled Bengali fishers of being undocumented migrants who had destroyed the ecosystem with unsustainable fishing practices and sending the fish to Bangladesh. Though the Odiyas reluctantly acknowledged that their communities had learnt the art of marine fishing from Bengalis, they deeply resented their presence.

As I continued my travels, I came across villages referred to as “refugee colonies”. These had been settled by waves of both Hindu and Muslim refugees who had arrived from East Pakistan in the 1950s and 1960s. When East Pakistan was rechristened Bangladesh after it gained independence in 1971, they continued to trickle in. But now, some of the residents of these colonies were being described by a term I’d never heard before: “anuprabeshkari” or infiltrators.

The resentments in the fishing settlements had been intensifying since a cold January morning in 2005, when a revenue inspector accompanied by the police arrived in two villages to notify approximately 25 families in each settlement that they had been identified as Bangladesh nationals. A terse “quit India” notice issued by the District Collectorate gave them 30 days to leave. The notices were in English and the official offered no further explanation.

The situation that has unfolded in Odisha since then is a chilling precursor to the events that have accompanied the current debate about the planned National Register of Citizens. Since 2005, this small group of alleged infiltrators in Odisha has lived in an extended state of suspension. Some have been denied access to state services such as food rations through the public distribution service. Most of all, they live their lives in uncertainty, not knowing what action will follow.

Baffled reactions

Seven years after they had been told that they would have to leave India, none of the people I interviewed seemed to understand why the state had taken this action. Nobody seemed to know how the list had been compiled. No state officials had conducted an enumeration exercise or checked their documents, they said.

Besides, the list of alleged infiltrators contained several anomalies. In some families, one sibling was listed as undocumented but others were not. Many people were convinced that somebody with local knowledge had surreptitiously supplied names to the block office. “How else would the state know these names, even of little children?” one person asked.

My interviews with approximately 15 families in these two villages and 10 local officials showed that most residents were descendants of people – both Hindu and Muslim – from the former East Pakistan who had come to the region via West Bengal in the 1950s. They had followed familial and other social networks to travel to these coastal parts of Odisha. Other settlers had arrived from West Bengal following the abolition of the zamindari system in Odisha in 1952, which made fertile unoccupied lands available.

Many Bengalis initially obtained land on leases. After 1965, some received land titles in a settlement exercise conducted by the state government.

As the years passed, the settlers cultivated their farms and built homes. Every family I interviewed was on the voter list and had a ration card. Most also possessed “Below Poverty Line” cards that allowed them to access state welfare subsidies for the poor. They had acquired these identity documents through the 1990s. Most also had some form of written registration for their land (though not always a formal land deed or patta), and paid taxes and penalties. They voted in and contested elections. For all practical purposes, they had become Indian citizens.

With its strong connotation of physical intrusion, the term “anuprabeshkari” or ‘infiltrator’ did not make much sense to people who had been living in these villages for decades. There was anxiety about what would happen next. In the early days after the announcement of the list, people struggled to piece together an explanation of what had motivated it. In predominantly Hindu villages, the thought that the government had targeted them “despite being Hindu” was uppermost in many minds.

Surmised one ex-sarpanch, “Maybe the central government wanted to list the Muslim people who came to India after 1971, but the state government got it wrong.”

A village in coastal Odisha. Credit: Rajib Biswal

Legal changes

The resentments in Odisha’s coastal villages had been fanned by successive amendments to the 1955 Citizenship Act. Changes to the act in 1985 resulted in the Assam Accord that retrospectively decreed that anyone who had entered India after March 25, 1971 (the eve of the Bangladesh war) was an undocumented migrant. A further amendment in 2003 excluded from citizenship anyone born in India but with one parent who was an undocumented migrant at the time of her birth.

The 2003 amendment signalled that anyone believed to be associated with Pakistan (and later Bangladesh) through their ancestry could become a suspect.

I understood from local activists that an Orissa High Court Directive led to an order by the state government in 2005 to identify illegal immigrants in the state. This had ostensibly resulted in the production of this list of 1,551 people. It was impossible to find out more, since a few years had passed since the episode.

‘Crippled by anxiety’

For two years after the list of undocumented migrants was announced in Odisha, there was no action in the villages in which I was conducting my research. Though the people on the list had been ordered to quit India, there was no mention of deportation nor action taken. The state had made an appearance, threatened the worst, and then, quizzically, nothing happened. This suspense was almost more disconcerting than any actual consequences.

“For months, I could not sleep,” one woman said. “Every time I heard the sound of a vehicle going by, I would be crippled by anxiety that they are here to take us away.”

Then one day in 2007, just as abruptly as the issue of the notices, a Bengali school teacher from a neighbouring village was given the task of conducting a “verification exercise” together with the tehsildar and a policeman. The people I interviewed were understandably petrified. Only one household had access to a document dated before 1971: a “relief eligibility certificate”, apparently given to refugees in relief camps in the 1960s.

I heard a few stories of how others had misplaced or lost similar documents in course of their lives. But most had no idea about such things. It would have been easier looking for a needle in a haystack than to find verifiable bits of paper, said one man.

Grappling with uncertainty

In the years since they were informed that they were “illegal”, the people whose names are on the list have had to grapple with uncertainty every day. Some of their state benefits dried up. Unless the dealer of their local public distribution system shop was feeling generous, they generally did not receive any subsidised rice or kerosene. Affected households also stopped getting allotments under the Indira Awas Yojana housing programme. Students from such homes even found it difficult to obtain their school-leaving certificates.

But where state assistance was not contingent on an identity document, such as accessing the facilities of an anganwadi centre, they could continue as before. In some bizarre cases, they continued voting despite their names being struck off voting lists. That is because the state’s systems were not efficient enough to realise that they had been put on the list of undocumented migrants.

For those caught in this tangle, a state that had mostly seemed distant at worst and benign at best, was now the biggest factor affecting their everyday existence. Not receiving rations was hard. But far worse was being called “anuprabeshkari” by one’s own neighbours, most of whom had the same history of migration.

“These people should get nothing from the state,” passers-by casually shouted. Several men told me about how they had to adopt an attitude of servility, doing menial jobs for others at low pay, besides enduring orders and rough talk.

Marriage proposals to girls from anuprabeshkari households dropped. A state order had entered the core of social life and affected language to the point that it had become a term of self-reference.

A seminar in Kendrapara district about undocumented migrants. Credit: Ranjan Kumar Das via Facebook

Presaging citizenship initiatives

On August 31 last year, after years of controversy, the central government published the National Register of Citizens living in Assam. Its stated purpose was to identify “illegal immigrants” based on the 2003 amendment of the 1955 Citizenship Act. Nearly 4 million people out of the 32.9 million who applied did not make it into the register, having failed the documentary verification. Their fate as Indian citizens, having lived most or all of their lives as Indian citizens, evoked incredulity and outrage across India and other parts of the world.

Now the government is set to take this disastrous experiment into a national arena. The National Population Register, which has already been initiated, will allow the government the unprecedented opportunity to relate residents’ biometric details with information relating to the birthplace of their parents. After details are verified, the proposed National Register of Citizens will be generated from the Population Register, to create a category of “doubtful citizenship”. People in this category would have to prove that they are Indian citizens, relying on an assorted set of documents.

The hardening of India’s citizenship regime has followed with the further rise of majoritarian politics since 2014. The Citizenship Amendment Act passed in December provides a fast track route to naturalisation to persecuted non-Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. This allows anyone whose name does not make it to the National Register of Citizens to claim refugee status – unless they are Muslim. In a manner described by the Italian political thinker Giorgio Agamben, the Indian state has passed into a state of generalised emergency that seems to derive its authority from the creation of categories to exclude some groups at the expense of others.

As I saw in Odisha, the price of this will be immense. While the consequences of living as unrecognised persons, or non-citizens, were difficult and unpleasant in the years following this notice, in today’s era these would be catastrophic. The religious basis of provisions offered by the amended Citizenship Act will create new schisms and strange contradictions within the everyday lives of a people whose existence is so inextricably bound with one another. There is the real spectre of detention centres, and far more stringent execution of state-created exclusions.

Finally, we cannot forget that the people trapped in this situation are real human beings trying to manage their lives and livelihoods in highly challenging circumstances. Declining fish stocks, the violation by bigger trawlers of fishing grounds reserved for traditional groups and the increasingly climatic uncertainties are only some of these.

Instead of enabling India’s diverse people to come together to face up to their immense challenges, these recent laws will strengthen the negative and strident assertion of indigeneity and foster the politics of exclusion.

Vasudha Chhotray is Associate Professor at the School of International Development, University of East Anglia. She is lead editor of a special issue on Certifications of Citizenship: History, Politics and Materiality of Identity Documents in South Asian States and Diasporas published in the journal Contemporary South Asia in 2018.