Suddenly Stateless conversation series : Refusing citizenship

2 August 2018

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.

Vasundhara Sirnate: Can you walk us through a history of how this policy came into being?

Praveen Donthi: It has roots in the Partition and it goes back a long way. It starts really within the colonial period. Even back then, if you divide the current state of Assam into three geographical areas, Upper Assam, Lower Assam, and Barak Valley. Back then, Lower Assam and Barak Valley were part of the colonial state under the Bengal Presidency. It was called East Bengal then. In the logic of colonial capital and maximization of profits, the colonial state brought in a lot of cheap labor, almost like slaves from Central India like Chota Nagpur, Orissa, Andhra and they settled them in the tea plantations of Assam. That’s when the tea plantations started in Assam.

Alongside, it also brought in Bengali peasants from three adjoining districts of lower Assam. Back then, they were all part of the same geographical entity. So because the topography, the geography, and climate, everything was similar, but the lands were barren and they were of no use. So the British state that brought them in to lower Assam settled them there, and the Bengali peasants, mostly they were Muslims, they then turn lower Assam into a fertile agricultural place. So the migration started back then, under the colonial state. And it continued through historical events and the changing national state and borders. What was this Bengal then, after Partition, it became East Pakistan and in ’71 [1971], this East Pakistan became Bangladesh and because of all these changes that happened to the Indian subcontinent, a lot of people on the borders, they got affected. Nobody really could have any say in what was being decided for them. So there were a couple of districts which should have been part of East Bengal are part of India right now and vice versa, there’s a lot of confusion and they just started in Assam when it was put in group C, as in, it was supposed to go with Pakistan during Partition. But the Assamese leaders like Gopinath Bordoloi and a couple of others, they fought, and then they kept Assam within this Indian union.

So, there had been various waves of immigration, most of them legal; some of course thereabout the borders, you have somewhat of illegal immigration, but we don’t know the magnitude of it. But the insecurity that was caused at that time, it’s still alive. The Assamese Nationalists claim that the Bangladesh immigrants want to come here, settle down, and then some time in the new future want to raise a demand to be made part of Bangladesh, and they called this settler colonialism. There is intellectual backing to this from certain Assamese Nationalists and that sort of gets converted into popular paranoia about immigration. So, there had been various waves of immigration, most of them legal; some of course thereabout the borders, you have somewhat of illegal immigration, but we don’t know the magnitude of it.

But, in any case, this kind of immigration has been happening over a long period. In independent India there are certain tensions that existed for a long time into the fold in the sense. Again I have to go back to history. Upper Assam was originally called the Ahom kingdom, which was not part of the colonial state. Only in 1826 according to the Treaty of Yandaboo, the British came into Assam and made it part of the colonial state. So a lot of lower bureaucracy were brought in from Bengal and they looked after the lower bureaucracy in Assam everywhere. So these had the upper hand in what was being done at the time, and obviously the Assamese middle class felt slighted and they have like this animosity with Bengali Hindus who came as low bureaucracy and controlled the state matters, state affair since then, but imposed independent India, they wanted to keep, what they thought was their legitimate sort of power. First, there were lots of anti-Bengali-Hindu riots, they started as language rights because Bengali was the medium of official correspondence. It could be the state language.

So the Assamese had to fight to make Assamese the state language and then later, language of instruction. During that, there was some pushback from the Bengali Hindu-speaking community. They say, we will have to have two languages, we can’t have one. So there was a lot of animosity. There were riots, large-scale riots. This continued through the ‘60s and ‘70s. And interestingly, the Bengali-origin Muslim, they don’t like to be called Bengali Muslims because they’re not Bengali anymore. They come from Bengal but now they’re Assamese. So Bengali-origin Assamese-speaking Muslims. ‘Til 1971, ‘til the creation of Bangladesh. And the Assamese liked them because they embraced Assamese language in every sense – they called themselves Assamese speakers. So that kept the numbers of Assamese speakers very high. So that is some comfort to the Assamese speakers. But the trouble started after the creation of Bangladesh and then they started looking at immigration as a huge problem. But it was still not very clearly articulated. It used to be one of the many issues. Assam also used to sort of feel discriminated against by the mainland Indian government. So all these things sort of collided and they precipitated in the ‘70s. And in 1979 they started a movement, which was led by a student party called All Assam Students Union.

They were at the forefront of this education and their main demand was for the detection, deletion and deportation of illegal immigrants. Basically it all started with one by-election where it was discovered, allegedly, there were some 45,000 illegal immigrants who had entered themselves on the electoral rolls and suddenly there was this fear that the illegal immigrant they might just become the decisive community, in terms of politics and soon they’re going to be controlling the politics of the state, and the resources and everything else. So that’s when the movement started. It went on till 1985. There were long parlays with the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. So they all agreed on a date. Because India as you know, India played a very important role in creation of Bangladesh in that sense.

India had certain responsibilities. It’s almost the most, I mean, more powerful country and the creation of Bangladesh is seen as a victory for India, right? In that sense. So India has this responsibility of any sort of immigration that is happening after the creation of Bangladesh. So, the Indian Central Government and Assam government couldn’t agree on the cutoff date till which you can allow the migrants to come in and settle in India. But late in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi met with AASU and it was agreed that 1971, 24th March midnight would be the cutoff date. Anybody who’s come into the state before that would become a citizen and anybody coming after that would be considered illegal.

That has happened but the Assamese community leaders and nationalists and others, they said that accord was never implemented because the crucial clause in the accord is to detect, delete and deport the illegal immigrants from the state. They said it didn’t happen and it was in the freezer for a long time till it was brought out again in 2005 uh by the Congress government and the state headed by Tarun Gogoi. They brought it out again, also, the state government and central government sat together, they decided that the NRC of 1951 will be updated. The National Register of Citizens which was compiled in 1951 just few years after Indian independence. It was basically based on the census of that year. The census enumeration was simply converted into…

Into the NRC.

The NRC was not that comprehensive or [an] exhaustive sort of an exercise, because we were a very young nation at that time. We didn’t have infrastructure, we didn’t have the processes in place; it was completed in 20 days, and six districts, maybe lesser than that. A lot of areas were left out of that enumeration. So the 1951 NRC document was initially not considered so important. The National Register of Citizens. Yes, and it was not that comprehensive or [an] exhaustive sort of an exercise, because we were a very young nation at that time. We didn’t have infrastructure, we didn’t have the processes in place; it was completed in 20 days, and six districts, maybe lesser than that. A lot of areas were left out of that enumeration. So the 1951 NRC document was initially not considered so important. In ’67 [1967], in fact, the High Court of Assam said it cannot be admitted as evidence. I mean, it didn’t have any evidentiary value in ’57 the High Court give that assessment. But, with time, somehow, All Assam Students Union wanted to make one document the holy grail for this immigration test. If you are in NRC, then you are a legal citizen, otherwise you are not. So they gave this document the importance that did not exist, really. And it is a flawed document in many ways. But somehow it has attained this importance in the eyes of AASU and the entire state. So it became the basis for the second foundation of NRC in 2014. National Register of Citizens is for all India, but in Assam, the process is different. The rest of India, basically, the state would go from house to house and probably do it just like the electoral rolls. They would just go, enter the names and then, it would be ready. But in Assam, the citizen has to proactively go apply and also prove. The burden of proof is on the citizen to prove that he is part of India and he is from India. The state wouldn’t prove it.

 So Praveen, in your recent writing for Caravan Magazine, you have actually pointed out to what you called the “weaponization of paperwork” for those that have been deemed foreigners. And how there are lots of people that are being detained. And the process of detaining people that have been identified as foreigners. you are actually saying that there is gender bias in that, because a lot of women, for instance, are not able to prove that they are in fact citizens…And they’ve been living here for a long time. So can you tell our audience a little bit about what life is like for persons that have been deemed foreigners?

So we’ve have this immigration problem for a long time in the state and there have been various policies to deal with it, various laws, various orders to deal with it. And the recent most is what you call, the foreigners, I mean, it is again a colonial act but it was brought back in 2005 after a previous act which was in place since 1995 was scrapped. So they wanted a stringent law to be brought in, the same colonial law from 1956,  which the colonial state, used to identify people who were moving across borders. They’re trying to use the same colonial law right now to decide whether somebody is a citizen or not. And it’s a very stringent law. Where, like I said, the burden of proof is on the accused, the citizen. Which is usually… that is the case in very stringent draconian laws. Right? I mean, if there are cases like with terrorism, money laundering, we’re talking about like really serious criminal offences.

But here, you have ordinary people trying to make a living judged by strict, draconian, one-sided, unfair, sort of law. But here, you have ordinary people trying to make a living judged by strict, draconian, one-sided, unfair, sort of law. So now, in this process it is most of the Bengali-origin Muslims, especially who came to India as peasants at one point, they are engaged in agriculture and I’ve seen that for three generations they will remain just about lower than this poverty line. They’ve not made much progress. So most of them are illiterate, most of them are very poor and most of them are daily laborers. So, amongst them the community is very poor and they’re doing very badly. So, the women get married very early, child marriage is very prevalent. So, women get married very early on at eight, nine, ten. And then they’ll move. By that time they don’t go to school, so they don’t have a school leaving certificate, because they’re young, they don’t even have a voter ID, because they’re poor they don’t have much in the name of properties so there are no property records. So basically, when they get married and move to another village, they are, from the bureaucratic point of view, they don’t have anything to prove that they are citizens. Suddenly they become stateless. I’ve seen cases where women who are in their 50’s, married with kids unable to prove their linkage to their father because they have nothing to show that this person is a daughter of, of somebody. Somebody who’s an Indian, who’s declared an Indian citizen, but she cannot prove it because there are no documents. While devising, while discussing this NRC  in 2010, certain modality, certain rules, ground rules were decided. It was done in consultation with a wide range of groups. Even minority groups were also consulted in which they recognize this problem. That it could, that the women, illiterate and poor, might have this problem of not having certificates. So, they devised this certificate called Gaon Panchayat Certificate, every Gaon Panchayat in Assam, they have some, somebody called Gaonburah, Burah is like the village elder.

It’s sort of mental coalition, so they could issue a certificate saying this person is resident of this village and I’ve known her. Then that could be used to show that she’s part of the same family or same village etc. But it so happened that it is considered as a weak document by the state and in 2016, once these modalities were agreed upon and they were being implemented, suddenly in 2016 the High Court of Assam says it is not valid, you cannot use Gaon Panchayat Certificate to prove your citizenship or any linkage. So, then people had to approach the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said, okay, use it, but make sure that it is authentic. Basically, subject to special verification is what they say.

The problem is, on most of these rules, under this National Register of Citizens, on paper, they all seem fine. I mean, there are couple of rules that are answered, but most of them seem like that, very fair to everybody but in the implementation, things happened that even a journalist like me cannot prove because there’s a lot of human error, human prejudice that comes into play in this system. What happens is, every person has to go to one center called NSK, the NRC Sewa Kendras which is the nodal point for a few regions. Everybody will go there, apply and then they will get to know if they are there or not, so those people who are manning those NSKs feel that they’re so-called officers, like, lower bureaucracy of the government. They are the ones who implement these things. So, they will be checking these documents.

Now, a lot of them – it all boils down to the individual judgment. And my piece and a lot of people are also talking about it.  These are all the same people, the bureaucracy, bureaucrat, people of the state there. They have been part of this anti-immigration movement for a long time in the state. Though they are biased and they are prejudiced. And if they see a Bengali-Muslim woman there, they tend to, instead of giving the benefit of the doubt, they would be very stringent and reject their documents and probably declare them as illegal immigrants. So, people suffer, there is a hierarchy of people who suffer in this kind of a system, but Bengali-Muslim women, of course, are the most vulnerable. I mean, women everywhere, but of course if you have a Bengali-Muslim name or a surname or a family, then you are prone to this kind of very strict parameter.

So you’re singled out for rejection in a way.

Yeah, yeah.

NRC Assam (Photo: Twitter/Doordarshan)

My next question for you is based on the things that you’ve been saying. So in the national media, we are now hearing two narratives about the National Register for Citizens. The narrative is describing this as a benign bureaucratic process which is benevolent and is trying to correct something that should have happened maybe 50 to 60 years ago and is basically the popular will of the people of Assam. That they want such a National Register of Citizens. So it is a process that should not be stopped or questioned or halted. On the other hand, the narrative that we are getting from writers like you and many, many others is the fact that while this bureaucratic process is underway, there is also the sense in which the manner of selection  has not been safeguarded against the personal prejudices of the people that are staffing this very big bureaucracy. So, in your mind which of this narratives actually presents the NRC fairly to the audience? Which is a better assessment? Is it in fact as benign as people are making about to be? Or is it being used to selectively target Bengali-Muslims?

It is very clear, during the movement, I’m talking about the Assam Movement, the bureaucracy was completely on the side of the movement leaders, and they were part of the movement. So much so that in 1983 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted to conduct elections in the state, against the will of most of the people, I mean at least the full body that was leading the movement, the bureaucrats refused to conduct the elections. So, Indira Gandhi, she had to bring in bureaucrats, even probationary offers, from outside the state. They were given insurance, they were promised lots things, and they were brought in to conduct the elections. That’s a great example to show the rule of bureaucracy in, in this entire process. So, it’s this bureaucracy you’re talking about which is now implementing this process. If you ask, the only way this NRC process can be fairly implemented is if you get people from outside.

There is no other away. I mean there is too much prejudice at work, you see it everywhere, the media, the politicians, the executive, the judiciary, they’re all in it together, trying to follow, achieve one end. I mean that’s what shocked me as a journalist. Whenever I visit a place there are always at least like one or two voices that will say whatever is happening is wrong. But in Assam, it was so near unanimous that it was shocking. It was a concerted effort and it was reasonable in your face. It’s always subterranean. There is the High Court, and then you have these foreigner tribunals, then you have a very unique thing of police in Assam. And then you have all these people – they’re contributing to one single narrative and to achieve one single goal which is to detect and deport illegal immigrants. And now, we don’t have any clear numbers, right? And there is no way to say who has come before 1971 who has come after 1971.

The gap between Bengali-Muslim community and the rest is huge. In the sense that there is no interaction. In the sense, most of the Bengali-Muslim they live in lower Assam on, on these river islands [chars].

The Chars

Sand bars, basically formed by the mighty river Brahmaputra. And these islands they are underwater for 15 years. It’s called prominent Char. In the Char Island life span could be as less as one year. So basically these people, they’re living on this island, they’re very fertile, so they’re into cultivation, they’re growing vegetables, a lot of vegetables, everywhere in Assam are actually produced by these Bengali peasants. But once the Char Island on which these people are living, when it submerges they’re in floods, and the floods are a huge issue every year. They have to break down whatever house they have, put it on a boat, and then just move out. And when they go out and when they start constructing their houses  – and they’re mostly made of corrugated steel sheets. You can just dismantle them and put them back together in like, 20, 40 minutes. Now you have these people living on Char Islands coming to the mainland and setting up their village on let’s sayvacant land suddenly they seem, from where these immigrants have come?

So there is a perception, there is a popular paranoia already, there’s a popular belief that thousands and thousands of Bengali come every day, which is impossible because you have an international border being guarded by Border Security Force, and then the second line of defense, by border wing of the Assam police, and there are many of these restrictions and the climate has been very hostile for the immigrants since the creation of Bangladesh. So, there are many discouraging factors but somehow popular belief that a lot of immigrants are coming in. So when these people move out of any Char area and go to another village, so the villagers might think these are immigrants. So, this kind of paranoia feeds into things, so they have no idea if they are Bengali speaking Assamese who’ve been living in the streets for a long time, or not. All this is sort of converged together with these misconceptions and they’re working towards one goal, which is why I stated that it’s impossible to have a free and fair NRC.

I’m only talking about Bengali-Muslims because they are the most vulnerable community.


You also mentioned the Nellie massacre of 1983, and there have been many massacres like that.


And the Bengali-Muslim massacres, the last one, the big one happened April 14 where some 30-plus people were killed including a small infant of three months. Right? And nothing happens. Because, like I said, the judiciary, the police, the executive, people at large, media, all of them think it’s alright if it is Bengali immigrants. Bengali-Muslims are automatically considered Bengali immigrants, illegal immigrants.

That’s right, yeah.

So, they suffer a lot. But of course, there are Bengali-Hindus also. Like I said they were the first victims. Of the clashes between… they also suffered due to this, and there are many other small ethnic groups in Assam. Assam has the highest number of ethnic groups in India, and a lot of the poor people they’re also suffering due to this stringent process because they don’t have paperwork and things like that. I was told that the state government sent an intelligence report to the central government. There’s a lot of anxiety among these tribal communities also that they might not be part of the National Register of Citizens. But, the thing is one advantage they have is that the category of original inhabitants in the NRC process that makes it easy for all these tribal populations to go through NRC easily.


Because they don’t have to go through the same stringent process.

I just wanted to point out also that what you’re saying that the Bengali-Muslims are the most vulnerable in this entire process, and initially while there were also attacks on Hindu-Bengali migrants that had come in, the new Citizenship Amendment Bill  which people are suggesting will be passed by next year, it actually gives Hindu-Bengalis an easier paths to citizenship, so again, we are looking at a situation where the Muslim-Bengali are going to be excluded out of yet another part of naturalization as an Indian citizen.


Okay, so there are two questions here. The first is as you point out in your piece and from what I’ve been reading, the process of the Supreme Court is for instance, saying two things. One is that everybody will be given a fair chance to appeal why they have been left out of the National Register of Citizens. However, from what I understand based on your writing, that appeal goes before the Foreigners’ Tribunal, so if you’ve been left out of the NRC, you have to appear in front of a Foreigners’ Tribunal which then basically deems you either as a citizen or a foreigner. And if you’re found as a foreigner, it is well within its rights to actually imprison you?


Right, and how many foreigners are there under detention currently, in the state of Assam?

Approximately 2,000 people.


2,000 plus.

Do we know of any safeguards that are in place to protect the people that supposing after they appeal to Foreigners’ Tribunal are still found that they are not citizens of India? How will these people be treated or protected? Is there any sense of the mechanism because they have built a wonderful mechanism to identify who is Indian and who is not? Now, have they also put a mechanism in place to protect those that the government is saying are no longer seen as Indian citizens?


Who will protect them?

That’s the problem – illegal by international standards. The system of Foreigners’ Tribunal has existed since the ‘60s, according to the Foreigner Tribunals order, it is gone through various series, but right now, before the NRC, these were the bodies that were deciding who is a citizen and who is a foreigner. There were 36 of them, now I think is the number 200. So there are a hundred Foreigners’ Tribunals that are simply looking at cases of suspected foreigners which are reported by the Board of Police and Election Commission, and then they decide. So, once they decide that somebody is a foreigner, immediately, the Board of Police arrest the foreigners – declared foreigners – and then they’re sent to detention camps. Basically, detention camp is just a euphemism for what it is – it’s a jail, it’s a prison, it’s a district jail. So, there are six such detention camps in Assam right now and the central government has just released some funds for a huge detention camp which will be exclusively detention camp. So far, what they’ve been doing is that they’ve been putting these declared foreigners alongside other criminals and other prisoners in these district jails. All of them are overcrowded and they’re not supposed to be treated according to the jail manual actually. That’s for the criminal and people who have committed other kinds of offenses. These are just economic immigrants but they’re treated worse because they don’t have the right to entertainment. It’s what I learned, they don’t have the right to work and even the prisoners have right on work in jail, but these people don’t have that and the living conditions that I’ve heard about from the family members of so-called declared foreigners is mind-boggling. It’s shocking. Absolutely shocking. And these are people living their lives and all of a sudden, a woman in her 50’s is suddenly plucked out of her daily life and then put in to jail next to all these hardened criminals, and suddenly their lives have gone topsy-turvy. I’ve seen two such “declared foreigner” women telling their families why don’t you get me poison? I can’t live here anymore, because they have just enough space to lie down at night because the prisons are overcrowded. There’s nowhere way to go. The Indian government has no signed treaty with Bangladesh to deport them.

And in any case, what they’ve seen is these are people who’ve been living in India for a long time, but because, like you said, they’ve weaponized the paperwork and because these poor women don’t have any documents to… In one case I’ve seen the entire family is Indian – nine siblings, all nine brothers were Indian. Father, mother, everybody was Indian except the sister who is in her 50’s who is declared a foreigner just because she couldn’t show any documents. So, this is the arbitrary, illegal process and they’re put in jails and there is no other solution. Yes they can appeal to High Court, which is like a higher appellate authority but like I said, High Court has been actually even more stringent and they mostly uphold the Foreigners’ Tribunal decisions. And the only resort that is left for these poor people is Supreme Court. And these are daily laborers. For them coming to the Supreme Court, coming to Delhi, hiring a lawyer and filing the cases is just impossible.

Yes, how will they do it?

So, there are certain organizations that pool money, but they end up arguing, like they end up helping a couple of people – one or two here and there. And political parties have their own calculations, they would look at their returns, and they would only help such people, which means very few people end up benefiting because of that. Otherwise, everybody, they’re all languishing in jail. 2,000 is the number of people who are in the jails, in the detention camps.

Praveen, I won’t take up more of your time, but I will ask you one question. There is the grave danger and some are already saying that all of these people are now stateless. If their appeals fail before the Foreigners’ Tribunals, they will be seen as stateless persons. Do you think that in a democracy, which considers itself to be the biggest republic and one of the biggest democracies in the world, how is it possible that something like rendering four million people stateless  is in the process of occurring and that we are not seeing a popular questioning of this process itself? My question is directed at you because personally I’m quite troubled by how something which is so exclusionary has been legitimized by this idea of this technocratic knowledge of the state, the building of a digitized citizen, one who has records and papers and the establishment of a whole bureaucracy around this, right?


But, actually, the outcome of this for many, and not just for hundreds of thousands but for millions is quite violent. So, what I am personally struggling with as someone who’s asking the question, is how is it that people who are in Assam are not actually rising up to point out that this is in fact a severe deprivation of rights of people? In fact one of the persons that I read in the paper said something to the effect that “they will have only the right to live and no other rights”, as if just bequeathing on them the right to live is a very big act of charity. And I find such constructions and narrative very, very troubling so I wonder if you can help me to make sense of what we are seeing in Assam right now.

There is a popular paranoia that has become common sense. That the illegal immigrants are stomping the state, that they will take over everything, that, again, the Assamese argued that they are not communal but they want ALL kinds of people, of all religions, out of their state. But everything is essentially directed at Bengali-Muslims. They point towards their high fertility rates, how they’re multiplying in population, they always make these charts to compare the growth of Hindus in the state and the growth of Muslims and show that they’re slowly, growing in the world and becoming a majority and the original, the indigenous people of the state are going to be a minority. That is the fear. And from what I sense, they’ve all realized that it is impossible to deport them. Out of this 40 say, 10 are recognized as citizens, you still have a number 30, like it could be a small European nation or a small state in India.


So, there had been various waves of immigration, most of them legal; some of course thereabout the borders, you have somewhat of illegal immigration, but we don’t know the magnitude of it. So, there had been various waves of immigration, most of them legal; some of course thereabout the borders, you have somewhat of illegal immigration, but we don’t know the magnitude of it. So, they say we want constitutional safeguards like 100 percent reservation of political constituencies. And you know what? I spoke to the spokesperson, the chief officer of AASU and other Assamese Nationalists and spokespersons. So, they all seem to be converging on one point saying we want to strip them of their voting rights. That’s the number one demand they have. All these illegal immigrants, the so-called illegal immigrants will have no voting rights and they will not be able to own any land, they won’t be getting any state benefits. Basically, they will…one popular sort of solution that’s been doing rounds is that they will be given work permits and they will just have the right to work. And it basically is a modern-day slave society. That’s the kind of idea that I got when I heard things from them. So, this is what they’re aiming for. Obviously, they can’t be sent back, they can’t be put in detention centers, it’s a huge number, so this is what they’re aiming for. Certain kind of political disenfranchisement and they will be secondary citizens in the state. According to me, there are out of 126 assembly seats, only 23 are Muslims. The candidates. And it is impossible. As the communities do better on human development index, the fertility rates will fall and the numbers will stabilize at one point. But of course, they tend to believe that they’re going to take over the state.

So, it’s xenophobia and paranoia that has been fueled by over 50 to 60 years of mobilization around the same issue. So, it has now been normalized as fact. So, no one is actually questioning whether the numbers are right.


Well, Praveen, I would like to thank you on behalf of The Polis  Project for being here with us today and for helping clarify for our listeners this very contentious issue. It’s definitely something that many are concerned about, and very few know a lot about. So, your input has been absolutely valuable and I thank you very much.


The above essay
is a part of