In the state but not of it: The newly stateless people of Assam

The BJP are disenfranchising a community

Shvetal Vyas Pare

Society and culture, Development | South Asia

24 August 2018

India’s decision to strip over four million people of citizenship in the North-Eastern state of Assam is a form of gerrymandering aimed at alienating the states Muslim population, Shvetal Vyas Pare writes.

At the end of July, four million people in Assam (a North-Eastern state in India) were rendered stateless, following their exclusion from the Assamese National Registry of Citizens (NRC).

To be counted as a bona fide citizen, applicants to the registry had to provide documentation that would show that they, their parents or grandparents, had been documented in the NRC of 1951, in the electoral rolls of 1971, or have any other documents like land tenancy, house ownership records or passports issued up to 24 March 1971.

The process is labyrinthine. Up to 16 different types of documentation are required, and with many exceptions and sub-categories as well. There are also a series of cases pending before the Indian courts, attempting to secure legal mandates, not just against individual cases but also against the process of exclusion as a whole. Not only that, the issue was raised in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, the Rajya Sabha.

This situation is fraught with anxiety for those without papers. There is no real clarity about what future awaits these newly disenfranchised people. At the heart of the matter is the question of who gets to claim Indian identity and who does not. A large percentage of those excluded from the list are Muslims.

Information about exactly how many Muslims are affected by this is not widely available and cannot be confirmed. More worryingly, the General Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party of India, has said that the Hindus left out by the Register ‘need not worry’, a clear indication of who does need to worry.

The argument in favour of the exclusions draws on an increasingly familiar narrative: the figure of the dangerous illegal immigrant, in this case, a Muslim from Bangladesh. These ‘illegal immigrants’ can be held responsible by the government for a multitude of crimes, including those against women and children which are routinely used to whip up emotional antipathy against the ‘outsiders’.

Not only that, the rhetoric frequently associates the figure of the illegal immigrant with the figure of a Muslim to the extent that ‘illegal Muslim immigrants’ become ‘illegal Muslims’.

It is ironic that the rhetoric around immigrants should be so unambiguous, given that a large number of Indian migrants in Western countries, legal or otherwise, are also facing increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric.

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So far, the government has not suggested deportation for Assamese ‘non-citizens’. At this moment, the most important consequence of this categorisation is that these ‘non-citizens’ will not be able to vote. If the state so wills it, a person can belong to the state, be employed and pay taxes, but not have any say in the running of it. This is a form of gerrymandering by the BJP. If parties like the BJP whip up hatred against a specific community as part of their electoral plank, they become unlikely to win their votes. Disenfranchising that community is the next logical step.

The disenfranchisement under the NRC needs to be seen alongside another recent decision on voting. The Indian government has rushed through legislation that allows Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) to vote in Indian elections by proxy. Indians living outside India have in the past provided a lot of support, monetary and otherwise, to the ruling party. It is clear that empowering them while disempowering actual citizens living in India is part of the party’s strategic vision to hold on to electoral victory.

Interestingly, given the large number of illiterate and poor people in the population, it is possible that every state in India would have a certain percentage of the population that would have no clear documents of belonging.

So far, people living in other states are de facto citizens and plausibly some of those affected by the NRC could move to other states of India and not have to worry about proving their citizenship.  Consequently, there is a push to replicate the NRC across other Indian states. Voices in favour of this proposal include the Governor of Assam and those television anchors that function as government mouthpieces.

The government seems to have no concrete plan of dealing with the fallout from these decisions. In a worrying admission, the government has informed the Supreme Court that they may use biometric data to prevent these ‘declared foreigners from escaping to other states with false identities.’

These plans are chilling, especially to a historian. In effect, the plight of those affected would be similar to those of Palestinians under Israel: an occupied population that has no citizenship rights at the very place they’ve lived all their lives and with limited access to resources that would enable alternative possibilities.

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