The spectre of both ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi Muslim migrants swamping India and India’s claims to offer ‘refuge’ to the persecuted non-Muslims from the neighbouring nation-states have made national citizenship an illiberal device. On December 11, 2019, parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. In carefully crafted legal wording, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government has offered Indian citizenship to designated ‘persecuted minorities’ – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians – who have ‘illegally’ migrated to India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan on or before December 31, 2014.
Among the officially listed 31,313 applications for long term Indian visas within this date, 81% are Hindus. However, Union home minister Amit Shah has conveyed that crores of people who have been ‘illegally’ residing in the country will feel empowered to apply. Unsurprisingly, the law does not include persecuted Muslims from these neighbouring states, nor does it have any provisions to include non-Muslim refugees from Sri Lanka.
The BJP’s nationwide plans for implementing the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a code for legitimising the harassment of Muslims. It will be liable for misuse against Indian Muslims. By now, state repression directed against protestors has claimed 25 lives, along with the arrests and torture of several thousand as I pen these lines.
In 2007, when I arrived at the Northeast India-Bangladesh borderland to conduct ethnographic fieldwork, India was constructing a multilayered border fence along its 2500-mile border with Bangladesh. Indian border commanders boasted that the new wall would end unauthorised Bangladeshi migration – a euphemism for Muslim Bangladeshis, who were assumed to be the cause of Islamic terrorism – and contain political dissidence in Northeast India. The extent and pace of militarisation both spread and quickened in the years that I lived and travelled in these regions, until 2015.
During my fieldwork, migration and settlement stories unfolded in complex and unanticipated ways. Take the case of six-year-old Canteen’s arrival in Meghalaya via Assam. A Bangladeshi boy, Canteen had crossed the border from Kurigram district in Bangladesh, travelling through lower Assam on his own and finally arriving in the town of Tura in Meghalaya. At once, a group of people surrounded him. Canteen claimed that villagers had burnt his home and killed his father, who had a reputation as a bandit.
Construction workers and plumbers from Assam and their Garo indigenous employers took charge of Canteen. No one remembered what Canteen was actually called; his new name was based on his first job as a dishwasher in a roadside food stall. Subsequently, Canteen worked in a biscuit factory in a border village in Meghalaya.
Eight years later, when he broke his leg, Canteen suddenly desired to see his mother. Aided by border-brokers, he crossed the India-Bangladesh border on a bamboo stretcher leaving his extended family completely heartbroken. Much to the dismay of his foster families, he had not even posted them a letter after his return.
In a remote Bangladeshi border village with six enormous subdivisions, I searched for Canteen. I had promised his foster families I would. Here, villagers took me to other adolescents – two with broken hands and one with a twisted ankle. Although Canteen’s whereabouts still remain unknown, I have detailed field notes about how his foster parents – Muslims, Hindus and Christians – came to feed, employ, protect and shelter him from police raids. They procured identity papers for him. At every police checkpoint in Assam and Meghalaya, where daily-wage workers are asked to furnish identity documents, Canteen produced documentary evidence.
The affinities that revolved around making a living in a militarised zone, constantly spanned national and religious boundaries. Villagers – Indian and Bangladeshi, Muslim, low-caste Hindu, and indigenous Christian – negotiated with the state and security forces. Ironically, it was precisely at the very edge of India, which established the territorial limits of citizenship, that questions of interdependence extended far beyond received exchanges among kin and families to include strangers. Yet, it was also here that India’s long history of indifference directed towards refugees triggered tensions.
Against this landscape of loss and betrayal, informal land grants that village headmen in Assam and Meghalaya made available to shelter refugees and exiles co-existed with bitter stories of refugee land-grabs, led to a great extent by the policies of the Indian state that had washed its hands off refugee rehabilitation. This co-existence of meaningful exchanges – no matter how uneven – and state militarisation directed at Indian citizens and Bangladeshi suspects, challenged the received wisdom on relationality and strife in social theory.
In Assam, the implementation of the NRC from 2015-2019, with its seeds in the Assam Movement in 1980s and a Supreme Court directive, provided hope. The register aimed at weeding out ‘illegal migrants’ from Bangladesh who had resettled in Assam without authorisation since 1971. Initially, many felt that a concerted exercise of weeding out unauthorised migrants – irrespective of religion – would finally settle issues of land loss, language and cultural identities as well as protect indigenous rights.
In post-colonial Assam, the resettlement of Hindu refugees has been fraught with issues surrounding land loss, and language. For instance, in March 1950, the enactment of the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act which conferred on the Government of India the power to conduct deportations in Assam, it left a significant clause of exception. The Act did not apply to those who were persecuted or feared for their lives in areas that were placed in East Pakistan. The Act did not spell out a list of religions, unlike the CAA, but broadly meant Hindu Bengalis from East Pakistan could easily arrive in Assam and seek shelter on grounds of religious persecution.
In the 1950s, the Assam state government gave temporary leases of cultivated land to Hindu Bengali refugees with the intention of saving what was officially listed as “abandoned” land and harvests. Although temporary land transfers were made under the condition that land must be relinquished following harvesting, Hindu Bengalis violated this clause.
Unlike the rest of India, where the imagination of the unauthorised Bangladeshi is without exception Muslim, in Assam it is not. The pan Indian Hindu-Muslim divide does not apply here. The NRC however, spiralled insecurities and dispossessions. As my participant observation in Assam’s two Foreigners Tribunals made evident, people lived anxiously through cycles of police surveys, court summons and trials. People faced aggressive state prosecutors. While many were unable to provide identity papers to establish their claims to legitimacy as Indian citizens, in several other instances, the tribunals held that the documents produced were fake.
The human costs of this massive exercise unfolded through harassment, detentions, and distress, also leading to suicides. The BJP’s CAA provides a back door to legitimise the Hindus who were left off the NRC, as the BJP feels that no Hindu can be a foreigner in India.
Narendra Modi’s political signalling will leave dangerous imprints on whatever is left of Indian democracy. The CAA will further disrupt the everyday lives of ordinary people. It will impinge upon questions of livelihood, housing, safety, and community. People will fear to have relationships of trust and affinity across religions – relationships that have historically enabled marginal communities to cope with endemic poverty and political distress.
The implications of the CAA will continue to unfold through the enduring persistence of statelessness across the nation, and not only at India’s militarised border zones. It will reinforce Hindu nationalist discourses on the cultural otherness of Muslims, as well as their supposed connection with terrorism and criminality.
Legislative twists and turns function as clever bureaucratic devices to persistently mark states like Assam as hot spots of rebellion. The BJP’s CAA is now targeting Bengal and Bengali sub-nationalism, in the run-up to the 2021 assembly elections in West Bengal. The BJP’s brutal quelling of dissent across the country make evident its increasingly autocratic credentials; in this case, granting ‘refuge’ functions as a smokescreen to proactively justify undermining the values of secularism enshrined in the Indian constitution.
Malini Sur is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Culture and Society, Western Sydney University.