Suddenly Stateless Conversation Series : “Refusing Citizenship”

India has recently excluded four million people from the National Register of Citizens, thereby deeming them ‘illegal’ and, if their appeals fail, will deny them citizenship. In our specially curated conversation series Suddenly Stateless, The Polis Project takes an in-depth look at the controversial National Register of Citizens.

Praveen Donthi

The Polis Project’s Director of Research, Vasundhara Sirnate, spoke to writer and journalist Praveen Donthi. Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer with The Caravan magazine and has been a journalist for more than a decade. He has reported intensively on politics in India with a special focus on the Kashmir conflict, and, the human rights issues of minorities and oppressed communities. He has an M.Phil in Modern Indian History from Jawaharlal Nehru University.  Mr. Donthi’s most recent piece is, “How Assam’s Supreme Court-Mandated NRC Project Is Targeting And Detaining Bengali Muslims, Breaking Families”. 

On the 30th of July 2018, the Indian government released an updated National Register of Citizens that cataloged the names of Indian citizens of the northeastern state of Assam. This process was first initiated in 1951. Because of a variety of reasons including partition, war, underdevelopment and climate change, the northeast region has played host to millions of Bangladeshi migrants over the last half-century. However, the Assamese protective of their culture, tribal population and their lands have been asking for the identification of Bangla migrants. In fact, one of the worst recorded massacres of migrant Banglas occurred in 1983 in Assam where an alleged 2191 or more persons were killed in 14 villages. Today we know this as the Nellie massacre. This was carried out after the All Assam Students Union and an armed resistance group called the United Liberation Front of Assam issued a warning to the government to strike the name of suspected East Bengal voters from the electoral rolls in the run-up to the state elections of 1983.

Undoubtedly the politics of Assam and of many northeastern states are linked to the presence of those that local people consider “outsiders”. In Assam alone, the numbers given for illegal migrants or those that should not be considered Indian citizens is anything between 1.6 million to 8 million. No one knows what the correct figure is and it is extremely difficult to distinguish between insider and outsider, Assamese and Bangla. To complicate the matter further the migrants have been both Muslim Bangla and Hindu Bangla but it is suspected by many that the current updating of the National Register of Citizens that began in 2014 under a Supreme Court directive has selectively left out Muslim Bangla migrants or those suspected of being Muslim Bangla, even though they may be Assamese.

This quest for the legibility of an invisible or largely undocumented mass of people reminds one of James Scott’s work in Seeing like the State where he describes how the best-laid plans of states have a tendency to worsen the human condition. In Assam, a new bureaucracy with several moving parts has been swiftly created to identify illegal immigrants, and on 30 July 2018, it was reported that 4 million such persons had been left out of the National Register of Citizens. This was done chiefly because many were not able to prove that they had an established legacy of having moved to India before the cut-off date of March 24, 1971. Many could not locate the names of their forefathers on electoral rolls since then or if they were women, could not prove their addresses as their names did not appear on property papers before marriage.

The current exercise of the identification of citizens has caused much concern in India because, with the rising violence against minorities in the country, there is no identifiable mechanism in place to safeguard those that have been identified as foreigners, Muslim and Bangla. Bangladesh has stated that this issue is an internal matter and it will not be taking anyone deported since they can also not prove that they are citizens of Bangladesh.

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