The politics of non-citizenship in Assam
‘Every Hindu living anywhere in the world has the right to come to India when he faces problems there’, proclaimed Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma at an event in New Delhi last November. Many in the ruling party have long wanted this to be the prevailing common sense of the country. The passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) through Parliament in December 2019 was for them a major accomplishment toward that goal. Yet few would have expected such sentiments to be expressed by an elected chief minister of Assam, especially one heading a government that includes some veterans of the Assam Movement (1979-1985), whose legacies remain live, unresolved issues in the state’s politics.
The defining feature of this movement’s ideology – rooted in a local past that predates the Partition – was its historically constituted opposition to unauthorized immigration from across Partition’s eastern border irrespective of faith. The six years of political turmoil saw the collapse of four elected ministries, the outbreak of an armed insurgency, and three spells of president’s rule. Even the 1981 Census operations had to be suspended in Assam because of this turmoil. The violent elections of 1983, including the horrendous Nellie massacre, are also part of this history.
The campaigners of the Assam Movement had said that the foreign nationals’ issue should be construed as a national problem, and not as a problem facing just Assam. Today it has become a prominent, if divisive, national issue. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) was once known only to aficionados of the Assam Movement. But recently there has been talk of an NRC exercise at the national level. Could it be that the Assam Movement has been more successful than is generally thought in nationalizing the foreign nationals’ issue? But while the politics of foreign nationals may have gone national, the issue has been radically reframed by the ideologues of Hindutva. The CAA, after all, effectively gives legal recognition to an idea long held by Hindu nationalists that no Hindu can be a foreign national in India, which is impossible to reconcile with the goals of the Assam Movement.
If the Assam Movement was a watershed event in the politics of post-Independence Assam, the inauguration of Sarma as chief minister could prove to be the most consequential political shift since then. When the BJP announced last May that Sarma would replace Sarbananda Sonowal as chief minister, it may have seemed like a simple switch from one BJP man to another. But the two men could not be more different in rhetorical style, political energy, and ideological orientation. Sonowal, a former leader of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Assam Movement, has built his career as an uncompromising warrior in the cause of the state’s khilonjia or autochthonous peoples. Sarma had been a Congress party man all through his political career before joining the BJP in 2015. He joined the Congress at a time when it was at loggerheads with the forces of khilonjia regionalism unleashed by the Assam Movement.
Just as Sarma
was making his mark in student politics, he was recruited to the Congress by
the late Hiteswar Saikia, who at that time was trying to strategically reorient
the party in response to the state’s profoundly changed political circumstances
resulting from the Assam Movement. Sarma became his protégé. Sub-sequently as
trusted lieutenant of former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi,
he helped the Congress party win three consecutive elections. Significantly ‘the state’s top BJP leaders, including Sarbananda Sonowal’ did not welcome his entry into the party.1 Yet Sarma has been displaying the zeal of a recent convert in his new political incarnation and is proving to be equal to the most ardent Hindu nationalist politicians in the country. The party’s national leadership has clearly decided that he would be more effective than Sonowal in enforcing the CAA in a state where it has been controversial and unpopular. Perhaps Sonowal was too tied to the legacy of the Assam Movement to do an about-turn on the issue.
It is often forgotten that the Assam Movement broke out in the same decade as the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971, and it was not an accident. Nor is it a coincidence that 25 March 1971, a key date in Indian citizenship law after it was amended to make it conform with the Assam Accord, is more significant to Bangladeshis than to Indians. It was the date when the Pakistani military crackdown on the liberation struggle in East Pakistan began, which triggered the refugee exodus to India. There would have been no Assam Movement had there been no Bangladesh liberation war leading to the Great Migration of 1971.2
Under the terms of the Indira-Mujib Pact – the bilateral agreement between India and Bangladesh that addressed the issue of refugee return – newly independent Bangladesh took responsibility for only those East Pakistanis who moved to India after 25 March 1971 and not for those who relocated to India before the country was born, i.e. during the Pakistani period (1947-71) of the region’s history. India was thus forced to accommodate all those who had moved from East Pakistan to India during the twenty-four years of its existence. During negotiations with leaders of the Assam Movement Indian officials insisted that 25 March 1971 had to be the cut-off date for determining who is and who is not a foreign national in Assam to meet this treaty obligation. That remained Indian law until 2019. Only with the CAA, the cut-off date has been effectively extended to 31 December 2014 for Hindus and people of other minority faiths, but not for Muslims.
The break-up of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh is generally known for the change it brought to the subcontinent’s geopolitical landscape. But the turbulent politics of Assam of the past four decades testifies to the terrible consequences of the refugee influx on India’s domestic stability. The sheer size of the refugee population gave new life to old fears that the migration from eastern Bengal risks turning Assam’s khilonjia peoples into minorities in their own lands. The politics of numbers in a democracy and the curious phenomenon of ‘suffraged non-citizens’ – to use Kamal Sadiq’s felicitous phrase – gave political force to those fears. The fact that the exercise of franchise in India rely on rudimentary documents that can be easily obtained through informal means blurs the distinction between citizens and non-citizens at the voting booth.3
Not surprisingly, the perception that the number of voters had risen abnormally in the aftermath of the refugee influx became the trigger for the Assam Movement. A byelection in 1979 for the Mangaldoi parliamentary constituency – an area with a high concentration of foreign-born residents – brought this anomaly to light giving substance to the fear that foreign nationals posed a clear and present danger to the balance of political power in the state.
A barely hidden secret about the 1971 refugee influx was that a majority of those who fled East Pakistan for India were Hindus. This was only to be expected since the Pakistani military regime, as Bangladeshi scholar Meghna Guhathakurta puts it, saw the liberation movement as an Indian conspiracy and treated Bengali freedom fighters as if they were Indian infiltrators. The repressive backlash of the Pakistani state fell upon almost 90 per cent of Bangladesh’s Hindu households. And as the military campaign against Bengali resistance intensified, the proportion of Hindus fleeing to India increased significantly.4 Around 70 per cent of the 9.7 million refugees who migrated to India in 1971 were Hindus.5 The West Pakistani generals calculated that forcing millions of East Pakistani Hindus to flee to India would weaken Bengali nationalism as a political force.
Yet, despite Indian officials’ frequent description of the Pakistani military’s massacre of East Pakistanis as genocide, ‘the best case for branding these atrocities as genocide’, says Gary Bass of Princeton University, ‘was one that India did not dare make.’ They feared that ‘publicizing anti-Hindu genocide could have splintered Indians on communal lines… possibly setting off riots.’ So, rather than basing ‘their accusations of genocide on the government’s best evidence about the victimization of Hindus’, Indian officials were content to use the word only for its shock effect.6 The leaders of the Assam Movement, of course, saw the influx for what it was: that there were both Hindus and Muslims among the refugees, but a clear majority were Hindus.
The Yahya Khan regime’s strategy of demographic engineering failed only because of the determined response by the Indira Gandhi government. Stopping the refugee influx and ensuring the safe return of the millions already in India were the key goals of India’s military intervention. The story often told about the refugee influx is that most refugees immediately returned home after the liberation of Bangladesh. But there are good reasons to doubt this narrative of complete repatriation. The Indian government has itself cast doubts on this narrative on various occasions. For instance, a piece of legislation passed by the Indian Parliament in 1983 begins with the following preamble:
‘A good number of the foreigners who migrated into India across the borders of the eastern and north-eastern regions of the country on and after the 25th day of March 1971, have, by taking advantage of the circumstances of such migration and their ethnic similarities and other connections with the people of India and without having in their possession any lawful authority to do so, illegally remained in India.’7
Others have also made this point. Bangladeshi commentator Sarwar Jahan Choudhury said in an article published in 2019 that many of the Hindu refugees of 1971 were ‘suspected to have stayed back in West Bengal, Tripura, and Barak valley.’8 Had all refugees gone back, the foreign nationals’ issue would not have festered for all these years. Indeed, by the 1990s the notion that the Assam Movement failed in its primary objective became the conventional wisdom in Assam, which made the Assam Accord a hallowed document in the state’s political discourse. No political party could afford to be seen as not supporting the Assam Accord.
In the election
to the state Assembly in 2016 the BJP made a clever political calculation and
made the implementation of the Assam Accord a campaign promise, which helped
the party win power in the state. But not long after this election victory the
BJP began to move on the citizenship amendment bill. Predictably, the
resistance to it in Assam focused entirely on the fact the bill grossly
violates the Assam Accord since it nullifies the 25 March 1971 cut-off date for
determining citizenship status. Chief Minister Sonowal was criticized for not
the bill given his storied past as a prominent leader of the Assam Movement. The controversy threatened to unravel the BJP-led coalition government in the state.
In the final version of the bill that was passed by Parliament in 2019, there were a few revisions made supposedly to allay apprehensions of people in Assam and the Northeast. But they were designed more to give the bill’s grudging supporters in the region a way to save face. The cut-off date of 31 December 2014 was not in the bill’s original version; it was inserted to mollify criticism that it would encourage ceaseless future migration of Hindus from Bangladesh. However, it is hardly realistic to think that any future government will close its doors to Hindus from Bangladesh after 2014.
In another revision, the CAA was made inapplicable to those North-eastern areas where the Inner Line permit regime or the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule are in place. But these exemptions were more cosmetic than substantive. For people who are not indigenous to those areas in any case cannot settle there. An explicit reference to this was presumably considered necessary to manage the opposition to the bill in the Northeast. Politicians from a number of Northeastern states could now claim that they have turned around to supporting the CAA after winning assurances that it will not adversely affect the interests of their states.
But the CAA’s grudging supporters in Assam – whether one-time Assam Movement activists that are now in the BJP or the party’s regional party allies – may have entered a Faustian bargain. By acquiescing with the CAA, they can continue enjoying the loaves and fishes of power. But they are junior partners in this political arrangement. They can hardly expect to get their way on an issue that is as important as the CAA to the ruling party’s ideological identity. Enforcing the CAA in Assam under these circumstances would be a challenge that would require unusual ingenuity and political cunning.
When it was announced in August 2019 that the NRC in Assam excludes as many as 1.9 million people – effectively identifying them as non-citizens – many feared that a Rohingya-like crisis of statelessness may be looming on the horizon. Indian officials, however, said repeatedly that the NRC is an internal matter; and diplomats assured Bangladesh that large-scale deportation is not on the cards. The combined effects of the NRC and the CAA are now beginning to make themselves felt in Assam. Because of the NRC, and the CAA that effectively grants a faith-based amnesty to Hindus excluded from the NRC, there are signs of a shift in the narrative of moral worth and deservingness and of a new hierarchy of belonging.
Since the CAA legally sanctifies the idea that a Hindu can never be a foreign national in India, a ‘Bangladeshi illegal’ can now only be a Muslim. The Bangladeshi illegal is stigmatized as a people; the category is oblivious to a person’s formal citizenship status. The overwhelming majority of Muslims of east Bengali descent in India are obviously Indian citizens. Yet in this rhetorical configuration encroachers and Bangladeshi illegals can be called upon to do the imaginative work of eviction even before the deployment of direct violence.9
This dismal practice of non-citizenship was in full display in the large-scale evictions that took place in Sipajhar last September. Sipajhar forms part of the Mangaldoi parliamentary constituency – a near sacred site in the history of the Assam Movement. The controversy over electoral rolls there in 1979 was a catalyst for the Assam Movement. The area has remained conflict-prone ‘with a section of indigenous residents claiming their land has been usurped by migrants.’10 For ideological descendants of the Assam Movement the political connotations of the evictions occurring in Mangaldoi can hardly be understated. It is hard to think of a more apposite site for enacting the practice of non-citizenship.
The evictions involved the demolition of the homes of more than 800 families and of three mosques to clear up 4,500 bighas of land for an agricultural development project designed to provide livelihood opportunities to the area’s ‘indigenous youth.’ The evicted families were all Muslims of east Bengali descent.11 The evictions were planned and executed with unusual precision. The agricultural development project for which the land was cleared was fast-tracked in an unparalleled manner. The tilling of the land to prepare it for new crops began the day the police, bulldozers, and elephants carried out the evictions. According to Chief Minister Sarma the evictions were part of state government’s continuing ‘drive against illegal encroachments.’
The primacy of the stigmatized category Bangladeshi illegal over actual citizenship status was poignantly brought home during the disturbance surrounding the evictions. One of those killed in the police firing that ensued was 12-year-old Farid. His identity came to be known immediately because he had in his pocket a new Aadhaar card with his name and date of birth. He picked it up at the local post office just before he got caught in the melee. Journalist Arunabh Saikia noted the irony of Farid who would fall into the stigmatized category of a Bangladeshi illegal being certified as an Indian citizen minutes before being killed by the police; and in Assam, he reminds readers, ‘only those with irrefutable citizenship credentials are issued new Aadhaar cards.’12
It is hard not to see the emerging practice of non-citizenship as the latest chapter in the tale of woe that has been unfolding in Assam since the refugee influx of 1971. Whatever the official rationale for the CAA, its adoption marks a decisive break from Indira Gandhi’s policy of refusing to yield to the demographic engineering strategy of the West Pakistani generals who ran the war in East Pakistan. The geo-political effects of the Bangladesh war have received more attention than its effects on India’s domestic stability largely because these effects have been most pronounced in a region long relegated to the periphery of Indian policy. But the dismal practice of non-citizenship that has since emerged in Assam suggests the events that unfolded across the Partition’s eastern border fifty years ago have profoundly impacted on the contest over India’s national identity as well.
1. Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, Assam: The Accord, The Discord. Penguin Random House India, 2019, p. 188.
2. Partha N. Mukherji, ‘The Great Migration of 1971’, Parts I, II & III, Economic and Political Weekly, 2, 9 & 16 March 1974.
3. Kamal Sadiq, Paper Citizens: How Illegal Immigrants Acquire Citizenship in Developing Countries. Oxford University Press, New York, 2009, p. 142.
4. Meghna Guhathakurta, ‘Amidst the Winds of Change: The Hindu Minority in Bangladesh’, South Asian History and Culture 3(2), April 2012, p. 290.
5. Zillur R. Khan, ‘Islam and Bengali Nationalism’, Asian Survey 25(8), August 1985, p. 848.
6. Gary J. Bass, ‘The Indian Way of Humanitarian Intervention’, Yale Journal of International Law 40(2), 2015, pp. 255-56.
7. Government of India, The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983. This law was declared unconstitutional in 2005.
8. Sarwar Jahan Choudhury, ‘History, Truth, and Reconciliation’, Dhaka Tribune, 5 November 2019.
9. I am paraphrasing words used by literary theorist Rob Nixon in another context.
10. Tora Agarwala, ‘Explained: Assam’s Conflict Over Land’, Indian Express, 28 September 2021.
11. Arunabh Saikia, ‘Moments before a 12-year-old fell to Assam police bullets, he had secured a crucial identity card’, Scroll.in, 25 September 2021.