Book Review: The Politics of Citizenship and Those it Excludes

With the threat of a nationwide NRC still looming, Sanjib Baruah’s latest book 'In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast' emerges as a relevant read.

Dhubri (Assam): The final list of the National Register of Citizens in Assam has left out 1.9 million people. These people find themselves in a limbo with regard to the status of their citizenship. They are yet to be issued rejection slips.

Once these slips are issued, their cases will go to the Foreigners’ Tribunals where they will face another long drawn out arduous legal battle to prove their citizenship.

But even before this process is complete, another issue has come up in the state – the issue of who is a ‘khilonjiya’ (indigenous), meriting constitutional safeguards.

The high-level committee formed by the Ministry of Home Affairs to decide on it (as per the Clause 6 of the Assam Accord) have already submitted its report and, largely, the cut-off date for these rights have been decided as 1951. While the modalities are yet to be finalised, if this cut-off is implemented, Assam is looking at the face of another category of people being excluded.

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In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast, Sanjib Baruah, 2020, Stanford University Press, p 296.

In this fast changing political terrain, Sanjib Baruah’s latest book In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast emerges as a relevant read.

Written almost after two decades of the widely read India Against Itself (1999), this book revisits the over-arching issues that continue to dominate the political discourse of the region.

Northeast is a construct which is a result of administrative convenience rather than a product of a long drawn out movement. It is also a region where the process of nation-making continues and NRC is a part of it.

The region in fact sits uncomfortably in the nation’s larger permutation and combination.

The author reiterates the region’s stand on Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to drive home this fact. The people of Assam opposed CAA as they saw it as a threat to the ‘indigenous’ people of Assam, a take slightly different from the all India stand which problematises giving citizenship on religious basis.

The book is divided in six chapters aside from an introduction and a conclusion. The chapters deal with issues like how the region experienced partition, migration, insurgency, counter-insurgency.

Talking about the long shadow of partition in the second chapter, the author elaborates the multiplicity of experiences in the state with regard to partition.

The changing stand of the people of Sylhet on partition and how it continues to be a wedge between the two valleys of Assam – the Brahmaputra and Barak – also shows that the problems between the two them goes back to the colonial period.

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The region was developed both as a ‘settlement frontier’ and a ‘resource frontier’ by the colonial masters. In fact, the colonial policy of earmarking certain areas as Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas paved the way for ethnic homelands in the region.

After almost five decades of reorganisation of the region, one can question what the politics of ethnic homeland did for the different tribes in the region. The discourse on ethnic homeland assumes a core ethnic group will have exclusive access to resources. Taking example of Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, Baruah shows how on one hand these areas are supposed to be saved from ‘exploitative outsiders’, but on the other hand, resource continues to be extracted by miners from outside and locals rent out these land.

There is a change in land relations and the local people are only earning rent from it.

An anti-CAA protest in Assam. Photo: PTI

The region has witnessed long-drawn conflicts, the oldest being the Naga conflict. The author traces the developments taking place in Nagaland and through the particular conflict talks about how central governments are dealing with such issues. The details of the Naga Peace Accord continue to be shrouded in mystery (at least till the author published his book). The author rightly asks if the Central government which read down Article 370 will embark on a similar journey of according greater autonomy to Nagaland?

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What about the demand for a Greater Nagalim which claims territory of other states of the region as well? The Central government through ceasefire and negotiations with selective groups have over the years legitimised the voices of some insurgent groups as opposed to those who took to democratic means of protest.

This, on one hand, weakens democracy and on the other, legitimises the hybrid elected governments which often have an informal shared sovereignty with insurgent outfits.

The last two chapters give a glimpse into how over the years the government’s counterinsurgency measures in the region have not only normalised violence but also put in place an atmosphere of democratic deficit and impunity. Successive governments have cited regular elections and an improved rate of voting to provide proof of a ‘normal’ atmosphere. But the lens of security while examining the region continues to be intact.

Even the development discourse in the region has been exploitative because it treated the region as merely a means to serve the greater good of developing the nation. Policies like ‘Look East, Act East,’ big dams, are all aimed at fulfilling this very ambition.

The book deals with how politics of migration have often segregated communities.

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While the author talks about the Miya Muslims (Muslims of East Bengal origin) and their contribution to the greater Assamese society, it had the scope of engaging with the inherent diversities within the new voices that are emerging from the community and put forth a diverse take on NRC.

The multiple narratives from the region deserve greater engagement. The book ends on the important note that citizenship policies should stop being exclusionary. But with newer politics of exclusionary indigeneity emerging, this seems like a distant dream.

Parvin Sultana is assistant professor, Pramathesh Barua College, Gauripur, Assam.